Why a star team will always outperform a team of stars

 In Leadership

I’ve got to admit, it’s kind of tempting the idea that if you were to assemble a team of the best individuals in your organisation that it will become a high performing team.  Unfortunately, it’s dead wrong!

In the quest to decode the ingredients of successful teams, researchers at Google in an initiative called Project Aristotle looked over the last 50 years of academic research and at the performance of the many teams working at Google and found that there was no correlation between the composition of a team and the likelihood of success. That is, it’s not the members of the team, personality types or skillsets that affect the team performance.

What they did find as the key driver of team performance was with ‘group norms’, also commonly known as the behavioural standards, traditions and unwritten rules governing how groups of people behave when they come together. Some teams celebrated birthdays and focused on relationship building informal conversations at the beginning of every meeting whereas other groups discouraged gossip and would get right down to business. The interesting part was that the norms of some of the effective teams were in sharp contrast to the norms of other equally successful groups. So how is it possible to figure out which norms matter the most?

While much has been researched and written on the concept of intelligence in individuals, an interesting study in 2008 from Carnegie Melton, MIT and Union College delved into measuring intelligence of groups, a collective IQ.  The study used 699 participants that worked in small groups to complete a diverse series of tasks that required different types of cooperation.  What they found was that teams that succeeded in one assignment tended to do well on the other tasks as well, whereas the teams that failed at one assignment would fail the rest also.  The key to the successful teams that enabled collective IQ to emerge was how the teammates treated each other.

As the research continued, they were able to identify two behaviours that the successful teams shared. First was “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking”, that is each member would speak or contribute in roughly the same proportion.  Anita Woolley, the study’s lead author summed it up as, “As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well. But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.”

The second behaviour was related to the social sensitivity of the group members, that is, how skilled they were at understanding how others felt based on their non-verbal cues such as tone of voice and facial expressions. They would know if someone was feeling upset or left out and take action to remedy this. What this creates is interpersonal trust and respect and a sense of ‘psychological safety’ where team members can be themselves and can speak up or  take a risk without fear that they will be embarrassed, rejected or punished for it.

For Project Aristotle, psychological safety was identified as the most critical norm vital to team success. When this was combined with clarity of goals, roles and a culture of dependability, everything would fall into place.

They published their research in 2015 under the title, The five keys to a successful Google team.

It’s an article well worth reading and alludes to some things that every manager needs to consider if they want to build a team fit to tackle the biggest challenge.  Start with “Why”, then focus on “How” and lastly “What”.

The Why is the critical first stage because it creates the context for the what and the how.  Unless you believe that the work that you’re doing is going to make a difference and it’s linked to something that is personally important for the team members participating, you’re never going to get a high level of engagement.

The How is about the culture of the team, creating the trust and respectful relationships between the team members for open, honest and balanced communication to take place as well as the positive expectation that group members can count on each other to complete high quality work on time.  Unfortunately this step is often missed in the rush to get started, resulting in poor results.

The final step, the What is creating the plan and structure for the group including clarity on the goals, roles and responsibilities within the group and the shared plans that everyone works to.

So that’s it, team success in three easy steps.  Right?  Well, like any new skill it takes some work to master and it’s easier when you get some assistance to make it happen.  If you’d like to request a high performance team blueprint to use for your team, drop us a line and we’ll send it over to you.

Request your high performance team blueprint HERE.

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