What makes a good team?


Mission Impossible castAs an elementary school student in the late 1960s, when I would lie on my back in the grass and daydream, I’m quite sure I never once imagined a future profession in which I would work with information technologies like Apache, Tomcat, MySQL, IIS, SharePoint and other staples that have enabled me to put bread of the table.  What I did picture was something resembling the television show “Mission: Impossible”, which was a favorite of mine at that time.  I loved the emsemble that included Mr. Phelps, the manager of sorts, Barney, the electronics and mechanical genius, Rollin, a magician, make-up artist, and master of disguise, Cinnamon, the smart blonde with acting skills, and Willy, the muscle man.  (Okay, I’ll confess that I wanted to be Willy the most.)

So, while I couldn’t imagine what I’d end up doing, I did very much want to be part of a team in which individual strenghs were recognized and used for the greater cause.  And this is still an ideal.  But is it a valid ideal?  What does research show with respect to the make-up of a strong team?   I wondered about these things and did a little research on the subject.  And what does the research say?

  • Team size — Generally, teams of 10 or fewer tend to function with less conflict, stronger communication, and more cohesion.
  • Demographics —  This is an area of much research, but the two most likely conclusions are that diversity and years of experience are helpful in making a team function at a high level.
  • Personality — People often use the Big Five personality traits (openness,conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) to describe individuals.  In general, high levels of the openness leads to good communication, agreeableness makes for team cohesion, conscientiousness increases overall performance, extraversion increases team viability and performance, and neuroticism, if at a high level, can cause team instability.
  • Climate — This means how well individuals on the team regard the organization or team itself.  In other words, are they happy with the context in which the team operates.  Not surprisingly, those who think they are in the know but powerless to implement their ideas do not perform as well as those who have a high regard for their organization.

These are just a few ways that team composition has been studied to see what works and and what doesn’t. (Please note:  For each of these areas, I’ve tried to link to a representative study or summary.  There are additional studies to support each generalization. Much work has been done!)

I have been on teams where I felt like part of a well-functioning group that could rise to any challenge.  I’ve also been on teams where each meeting or interaction was painful to endure.  Some of the differentiators from my personal experience include:

  • How the team was initiated.  So many times, getting off on the right foot makes a huge difference.  If what is communicated in the beginning is, “Well, we’ve been thrown together to do this task that no one else wants to do.”, that sets the tone for the rest of the work.
  • The quality of the team leader.  This is obvious, but the leader really does determine much.  It is unfortunate if the team doesn’t believe in its leader; all other good intentions may be lost in disrespect for him or her.
  • The bureaucratic overhead.  Teams function best when someone with a gift for details is attending to them.  I like to think of  how a good host will lay out things at a dinner party so conversation and interactions are facilitated transparently, and the guests never think about the logistics.  In the same way, it’s good for someone to stay on top of what might anachronistically be called “the paperwork”, sparing the team of tedium that might get in the way.
  • Cohesion leading to teamwork.  Ultimately, teamwork can overcome deficiencies of all kinds.  When faced with more work than can be done, when you’re out of ideas, when you make a big mistake, it’s the closeness of the team that will keep you together.  As Vince Lombardi said about his teams which won the first two Super Bowls, “Teamwork is what the Green Bay Packers were all about. They didn’t do it for individual glory. They did it because they loved one another.”
To be part of a team striving for excellence, to know you can mess up in pursuit of something better, to know you’re not in it alone, these things outweigh everything else.



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