Why do some teams swim while others just sink?

Why do some teams swim while others just sink?

There have been hundreds of books written on optimal team-building, and with good reason: Most modern work, both white- and blue-collar, is very team-driven. As offices become more open and group work become more popular, unraveling the key to a successful team is more crucial than ever before. But despite everyone agreeing teams are necessary, not all of them have good team dynamics. Is there some secret ingredient successful teams need or is it a matter of dumb luck? 

There are literally hundreds of theories on team-building but what are some of the more common traits of teams that thrive or fail? And how can you use that to your advantage when you make your next hire?

What are team dynamics?

In a nutshell, team dynamics are often described as the unconscious or psychological forces that impact a team’s performance or outcome. No two teams will ever have the exact same dynamic, for example, because it will change to reflect the personality, beliefs, and behaviors of the participants involved. The success of a team group is then tied to how well people work together and how those unconscious forces end up influencing the decisions of the group.  Our interest in how groups interact is certainly not a new concept. As far back as 1940 there were references to “group dynamics” under the study of social psychologist Kurt Lewin. He believed that the just by nature of being in a group, the individual behaviors of the team members would shift. Lewin later went on to research the impacts of democratic, autocratic, and laissez-faire leadership styles on groups, determining that democratic leadership in a small group setting was optimal for best performance. Nearly 80 years later, our understanding of human behavior and psychology as rapidly advanced but in the business world, we’re still asking the same questions Lewin was. How do you create a strong team and what influences their ability to succeed?

Read more: Improve team dynamics with 3 questions

What makes a productive team?

Is there a secret sauce to high performing teams? While every team is different, there are some prevailing traits of good teams. Right out of the gate, you want personality types that are going to work well together or at least workers who know and understand that different people work and communicate in different ways. That opens the floor to a more trusting team environment that allows for more open communication and decision making. Having a shared sense of purpose is also correlated with success. You want a group of people banding together to work towards a common goal they believe in. And before teams head off alone, make sure all roles and responsibilities (such as naming a team leader) are articulated and clear so everyone knows what they need to provide to the group. With the best teams, you often see a blending of communications styles and problem-solving strategies that makes room for the team to succeed as a collective rather than for individual contributions to be recognized. The common idiom “there’s no I in team” still stands as some of the best advice you can get when it comes to positive team dynamics.  

What derails teams?

Just like there are traits for high achieving teams, there are commonalities among teams with poor group dynamics. Often when it comes to poor performance, the story is more about what’s lacking from a team rather than what’s present. A lack of direction, accountability, leadership, or trust will all derail a team, even if individually the group members are good performers. Poor team dynamics can devolve further into conflict if members aren’t able to communicate effectively. When there is a lack of safety and respect within a team, the flow of information is impacted which in turn alters the direction of a team. A lack of distinct roles or weak leadership can also lead to members working on overlapping projects or failing to push a project forward. It’s hard to make collective decisions, after all, when there’s no collective. 

Pro-tip: Great leadership can be learned and here’s how

What role does culture play when talking about teams?

When talking about interpersonal dynamics in the workplace, two key areas always emerge:

  • Team Dynamics or how different individuals come together to be a team.

  • Culture or the underlying concepts, ideas, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that help those individuals become a team in that specific organization.

While team dynamics are specific to smaller groups, corporate culture is shared across all departments and roles. There have been arguments for years about whether you should “hire for culture” or “hire for fit/role.” This is a very nuanced argument with many points on both sides — too many for a blog post. In general, though, people want to work with competent co-workers, so that they don’t feel like they’re carrying others on projects. Competency and hiring for role fit is important and can, in turn, provide a positive boost to overall team dynamics because everyone is then pulling their own weight. That said, if an employee is super-competent but completely does not fit the culture, the culture may start to erode which is also a significant problem. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has called these people “brilliant jerks.” (By the way, Hastings says not to hire them. The cost to teamwork and overall culture is too high.)

So what can you do to build to improve team performance? 

Long story short, there’s no magic wand that will solve all your team woes and ensure everyone works effectively together. That said, there are steps you can take to get closer to that dream. For starters, take a look at the company culture of a company and try to quantify how it’s impacting interpersonal relationships and, by extension, teams. A culture of distrust, for example, will breed competitive and secretive teams. A culture of transparency will give teams more breathing room and space to innovate. If your culture is set up to support the team dynamics you’re trying to foster, then move on and look at the teams themselves. Looking at both your high and low performing teams can help shed light on how people are interacting with each other and where they get stuck. Maybe boosting performance is a matter of rearranging team members. Third, if you can’t rearrange teams, it’s time to look at personality. Every team has its own dynamics but they all stem from the people involved. Understanding each other and a team mate’s strengths, weaknesses, and communication style can go a long ways towards smoothing conflict and paving the way for growth. Assessments and self-development activities can help with this step and provide the information needed to facilitate further team building. At the end of the day, the best ways to approach improving teams is to foster an environment where people can learn about and understand their colleagues better. The more people know about their group members, the better chance teams have at achieving success.


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