5 essential steps to effective teamwork

Why empathetic teams enjoy more productive and collaborative efforts across the board

Author: Devon Maloney16th April 2019

In today’s business world, an organization can succeed or fail by its ability to facilitate effective teamwork. After all, one Harvard Business Review study found that collaboration now takes up as much as 80% of workers’ time. And as more and more employees opt to work remotely, the stakes have never been higher to build teams that perform well.

“In this day and age of informational ubiquity and nanosecond change, teamwork remains the one sustainable competitive advantage that has been largely untapped,” writes management consultant Patrick Lencioni in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. “Teamwork is almost always lacking within organizations that fail, and often present within those that succeed.”

We asked executives in creative, tech and HR industries which qualities they deem crucial for establishing effective teamwork. Here’s what they said.

1. Hire team members who are a good “people fit”

“Great teams start with solid sourcing and selection,” says Tom Hacquoil, the co-founder and CEO of Pinpoint. The British startup—which has grown its revenue by at least 9% every week since launching in early 2018—makes HR recruitment software that has helped clients reduce staff turnover by 50% in a 12-month period.

“The quality of a team is determined not just by the quality of the people within it but also their ‘people fit,’ ” Hacquoil says. “They may be independently awesome, but are they the right people to work together?”

He believes organizations should push past boilerplate criteria revolving around the question “Does this person embody our company philosophy?” Instead, he says, “invest time in understanding the makeup of the teams you already have.”

“Build ‘candidate personas’ for each team, and use them to drive your recruitment outreach and hiring decisions,” Hacquoil explains. “Make sure you’re attracting and selecting people that are a good fit for the specific team they’ll be joining, not just the company as a whole.”

2. Cultivate trust and accountability

Carefully curating your teams means you know each person can work well with their teammates. But those teams will only actually practice effective teamwork if relationships are allowed to grow and strengthen organically.

Essentially, team members must know one another well enough to be confident in their teammates’ ability to do good work, while taking ownership of their own part of each project as well. What’s more, that culture should start at the top.

The digital agency Viget, for example, has bred effective teamwork by implementing “GOOD Talks” (Genuine, Original, Open Discussions), a series of optional team-led lunches wherein team members volunteer to speak on a variety of social issues that affect their tech teams as individuals, including sexism, racism and even instant messaging faux pas.

According to Viget’s vice president of operations, Cindy Caldwell, the talks—which are accompanied by activities and discussions—encourage “soft skill” awareness that starts with individual team relationships. This awareness then spreads and eventually has a far broader impact on the organization.

“Several of the GOOD Talks—Women in Tech, Queer Identities—have spawned corresponding Slack channels for continuing conversation and sharing of articles, news and events,” says Caldwell. “They’ve also resulted in updating of our company knowledge base for more in-depth resources, such as transgender-inclusive insurance specifics.”

3. Take the time to dive into team-building exercises

To comprehensively cultivate effective teamwork, executives should be vocal about expecting team leaders to embrace a commitment to trust and accountability on a smaller scale too. In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Lencioni suggests that team leaders try kicking things off with “personal histories exercises,” in which team members answer three questions:

  • Where did you grow up?
  • How many kids were in your family?
  • What was the most difficult or important challenge of your childhood?

Other team-building exercises include the Google-developed “Just Like Me” and “Anxiety Party” approaches. These activities allow team members to open up in a more personal (and structured) context. They also humanize colleagues, which tends to breed more empathetic collaboration and effective teamwork in the long run.

From there, that company-wide investment in trust and transparency needs to be emphasized regularly. Patty McCord, Netflix’s former chief talent officer, attributes the company’s success in part to its cultural emphasis on asking questions rather than making assumptions.

“We taught people to ask, ‘Can you help me understand what leads you to believe that’s true?’ And we made it very clear that the question ought to be asked genuinely,” writes McCord in her book Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility. “If people ask in a true spirit of interest about the problems others are wrestling with, remarkable bridges of understanding can be built.”

The strategy helped the streaming company’s sales and marketing teams work more effectively with its engineering team when there was an early issue with decreasing buffering time.

“It was a beastly problem that only the engineers could really understand,” McCord writes. “We told our sales and marketing people that it was not okay to vent to the engineers. They should [instead] ask, ‘Help me understand why buffering takes so long.’ The answer was extremely eye-opening to the nontechnical staff, who had no idea what a daunting challenge the engineers were up against.”

4. Share the (informational) wealth

In order to sustain effective teamwork—that is, teams that trust each other—teams should have access to all the information they need. “In my experience, performance is directly correlated to transparency,” says Hacquoil. “Every member of the team should, wherever possible, understand the full problem they’re trying to solve. Teams are most effective when the people within them share an unrelenting focus on one shared objective—it’s difficult [to accomplish this] if they can’t see the whole picture.”

Organizations like Pinpoint maintain this transparency and workflow by using document management systems such as Google Drive and HelloSign, project management platforms like Asana or Trello, and intranet knowledge base systems.

Hacquoil says, “Not only does this ensure information is readily available to those that need it, but it also builds a decision history that underpins and rationalizes the ‘why’ behind everything you do for new people who join an established team. They can go back and understand why, what, when, etc. and feel they can actually contribute now they have true context.”

5. Foster a healthy culture that welcomes (constructive) conflict

“It may sound counterintuitive, but the last thing you want is perfect harmony at a company, which means that either people are tuning out or have stopped caring, or your company is no longer innovating,” says Christy Lyons Hopkins, the CEO of HR and acquisition consulting firm 4 Point. “You have to be able to constructively disagree and get through murky waters as a team in order to be truly effective and for your company to keep innovating, improving and growing.”

To nurture healthy conflict at 4 Point, Hopkins will have her team go anonymous on Zoom meetings so they can ask questions or offer feedback on an issue via the chat function stress-free. “At times, this has surfaced opinions that are in conflict with how the senior team feels, which then leads to constructive conflict and learning,” she says. “We recently experienced this while implementing 360 performance reviews, and it led us to manage the project in a different way—in a better way—because of the conflict on the call.”

At Netflix, conflict is baked into the fabric of the company culture itself. The idea is that when your teams are full of talented people and you trust your teammates, practicing informed “radical honesty” (with the expectation that people back up their opinions with facts) is the only way effective teamwork can truly happen. Ultimately, the more you create an atmosphere of psychological safety—one in which employees believe that their ideas and doubts are valued and where they’re comfortable making and admitting mistakes—the more that truly viable, even seminal ideas actually get put on the table.

“I often say to executives, ‘Have an opinion; take a stand; be right most of the time,’ ” writes McCord. “One of the great dangers in business is people who are great at winning an argument due to their powers of persuasion rather than the merits of their case.”

McCord also writes that Netflix encourages people to develop their opinions by probing into facts and by listening with an open mind to fact-based arguments they don’t agree with.

Remember what you have to gain with effective teamwork

One Stanford University study found that participants who were primed to act collaboratively stuck to their task 64% longer than their solitary peers did. That means workplaces that promote collaborative problem-solving and effective teamwork are more likely to be high-performing. So when the going gets tough, don’t forget the promised land that awaits when your team finally solves the collaboration puzzle.

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