Successful Teams: The New Blueprint



Screen Shot 2018-07-10 at 11.13.09 AM*This article was authored by Ryan Ross and Michael Sanger, and was originally published in The Teams Issue of Talent Quarterly. Visit their website to purchase the full issue as well as all previous issues.

BUILDING THE PERFECT TEAM ISN’T ABOUT ASSEMBLING AN ALL-STAR SQUAD OF ARCHETYPES. IT’S ABOUT FIND- ING CONTRIBUTORS WHO ARE GENEROUS AND RESPECTFUL, BUT CONFIDENT AND CHARISMATIC, TOO— AND PICKING THE RIGHT LEADER WHO CAN PULL THEM ALL TOGETHER.  

IF CLASSIC CARTOONS like Scooby Doo, Captain Planet, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have taught us anything, it’s that only a team has the capacity and resourcefulness to solve a mystery or save the universe.

As working adults, sometimes it can feel like we’re being asked to handle similarly complex undertakings. But in a world devoid of talking dogs, superheroes, and pizza-eating reptiles, a sense of duty to something greater than one’s self doesn’t come naturally—or, quite frankly, easily. To maximize the advantages of teamwork in the workplace, and to avoid the common pitfalls, the environment must encourage individual members to set aside self-driven interests while pursuing a collective goal.

This is precisely where a leader is supposed to emerge. An effective leader is expected to galvanize a team’s superior performance toward common aims. Although being able to envision the future, inspire trust, and repeatedly make good decisions are keys to a leader’s competence and reputation, none of those qualities demands the communal mind- set that cultivates selflessness and productive kinship.

So if having a capable and reliable trailblazer at the helm is no guarantee of success, let’s consider which characteristics enable a group of individuals to actually band together and move forward as a singular, like-minded unit. In other words, what does it take for a team to not only get something done, but get it done well?

What Are the Key Ingredients to a Good Team?  

Personality, personality, personality. At its basic core, a team is merely a collection of diverse characteristics (i.e., individual members) being asked to work in concert to accomplish an objective.

To do so, each person must restrain certain propensities or desires for the betterment of the team. When looked at collectively, individual pro les can provide pivotal insights into the dexterity of the team. A team’s drive, passion, self-imposed obstacles, and blind spots are the sum of the personalities involved. We know successful teams get this blend of personalities right. Whether or not “getting it right” has a universal formula is another matter entirely.

In a 2017 article in Harvard Business Review, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Ph.D., and Dave Winsborough found that certain roles need to be fulfilled to optimize team functioning. Ideally, you want the following generic types of people operating in a team:

  • Results-oriented team members to keep the plan on track.
    • Relationship-focused team members to socialize ideas and align people.
  • Process and rule followers to ensure team compliance with organizational policy.
  • Innovative thinkers to keep the team ahead of evolving and future needs.
  • Pragmatists to ensure the feasibility of the team’s way forward.

This model presents an easy-to-understand roadmap for staffing, or at least coaching, individual team members to position themselves into a role. Here, everyone has a place and a part to play.

But does this approach merely glorify our cartoon ideals, insisting every gang of heroes needs a range of archetypes present to succeed? What happens when individuals could excel at multiple roles, or when a person simply has no cookie-cutter role to play? Granted, this isn’t the only organizing structure aimed at identifying and arranging archetypical team members according to broad- stroke ideals. But it’s one we’ve favored in the past.

No matter to which role-based model one ascribes, most agree that to extract maximum value, the assessment of team members’ pro- les in relation to a role (as well as any resulting inferences) should be data-based. Furthermore, most team evaluations highly recommend results be examined in consideration of the team’s strategic imperatives, operating environment, and understood goals.

When working with team members on accelerating individual and team performance, the emphasis on each role can depend on the team mission and how that fits into the organizational plan and business landscape.

In TQ: The Elusive Factor Behind Successful Teams, Gordon Curphy astutely points out that when describing the Rocket Model (a team-based approach to development), “teams build TQ [team effectiveness quotient—the capacity for becoming a high-functioning team] when they understand the factors contributing to team performance, get feedback on those factors, and address the gaps.”

How a team approaches their development and tasks varies based on the context (volatile, stagnant, or gradually changing), organization- al constraints (how much is the company driven by regulation versus market needs?), operational characteristics (multinational, government- run, or locally confined), and the line of business in which the team resides.

Furthermore, to the best laid strategies and plans, there are unforeseeable, uncontrollable, and irrational variables that often seem to derail progress. To paraphrase the adage: “Teams plan. Markets and organizations laugh.”

Considering these factors, it’s not unreasonable to assert that a team’s optimal constitution of role representation is somewhat bespoke and fluid. And despite a role not being personified, success is still possible with the right components. If this sounds eerily familiar to the trappings of which characteristics will predict senior leadership success in a particular time and place, you’re not alone in your déjà vu.

Just like with leadership, all the planning, data, and experience in the world might not help a team get to where it needs to be. And similarly with leadership, there must be a common thread differentiating the teams that have all the right ingredients but still fall at from the teams whose members’ interdependent personalities bring big wins for the organization.

Effective Teams Try Smarter 

It’s tempting to buy into the idea that cognitive or creative abilities are the answer to predicting success across the board. After all, if a team is expected to face a series of challenging scenarios, it seems logical to assume that intelligence and innovativeness can be the keys to staying on track. That is to say, despite one’s expected role, a bit of cognitive horsepower and creativity in each team member would do the trick vis-à-vis strategic acumen.

But cognitive studies don’t tend to offer much in terms of linking the “g factor,” as it’s known, to specific behaviors that support targeted goal attainment. Furthermore, intelligent people, just like everyone else, consistently make poor decisions.

And not every team’s ongoing mission compels the need for strategic thought leaders. In fact, for many teams, these traits can serve as a detriment if they’re predominant among members; there are plenty of tactical teams that need to rethink processes and adapt to quickly changing parameters without the distraction of constant brain- storming, what-ifs, and paralysis by analysis.

Nevertheless, cognitive ability and creativity, as well as related newer-age concepts like learning agility and coachability, endure in the talent management zeitgeist.

Regardless of the label used, experts often conclude the secret to high-performing teams is that they try smarter. What they often fail to acknowledge is that the search for a singular, linear construct predictive of a group’s penchant to try smarter together is, at best, quixotic; this is another likely reason why an approach advocating a balanced distribution of roles also periodically gains more traction.

Rather than continue to wax nostalgic on the benefits and drawbacks of a role-based model or examine the limitations of focusing on a group’s collective intellectual capabilities, we propose

an idea that introduces a blend of characteristics. This recipe for team success includes ensuring each team member engages a continuous improvement mindset, maintains other members’ confidence in his or her contribution toward goal achievement (and vice versa), and continuously questions the rules of engagement when approaching an unforeseen challenge.

More specifically, team members should:

  • Be willing to learn, un- learn, and then relearn— constantly.
    • Default to an optimistic attitude grounded by realism and emotional control.
  • Be prone toward action, but also toward continual evaluation of the biases embedded in their determinations.

Having observed high- performing teams in varying situations, we also arrived at the conclusion that some form of moderated humility can be the ultimate accelerator of team performance. Although high-performing teams can spontaneously take shape if the right characteristics are present, these teams can achieve even better results when they show humility and learn from one another’s mistakes.

What Is Team Humility? 

In a 2013 study in Organization Science, Brad Owens and colleagues noted that humility is a characteristic based in behavior that emerges during social interaction and is recognizable in others. Key behavioral characteristics that define humility include trying to view yourself accurately, being able to appreciate the strengths and contributions of others, and being open to new ideas and feedback regarding your performance. Humility shouldn’t be confused with deference or lack of confidence.

Research shows humility in leaders can positively impact an organization by propagating employee empowerment and increasing the likelihood team members will demonstrate organizational citizenship behaviors. More importantly, humility may also have a substantial positive impact on a company’s bottom line. For example, studies have shown that humility is associated with increased follower performance, team performance, and reduced turnover.

Still, humility can’t be the only missing piece to the puzzle of maximizing team performance. Overdone, collective humility can have the opposite effect. If left unfettered, members may inadvertently build a team culture that sends signals to other teams and leaders that they are insecure—or worse, incapable. The same dynamics may eventually affect team members’ levels of self-efficacy and confidence in one another. Thus, a team’s level of humility needs to be counterbalanced by optimism, persistence, and openness to change.

At first glance, the idea of humility and self-assuredness working together might seem counterintuitive. But we think there’s a form of confidence that complements humility, and that this blend is the unifying super- power a leader should instill in team members.

In our view, the success of teams depends on what type of charisma is demonstrated by those who have assumed or are vying for ownership of the team goal (or facets thereof). The psychologist David McClelland found charisma comes in two forms: socialized and personalized. Only one complements humility well.

Personalized charismatic team members are primarily concerned with obedience and immediate goal achievement; they’re not as considerate of the way in which something is accomplished or with other team members’ needs. Socialized charisma, however, is a different story. If the team member leading an initiative brings socialized charisma to the scene, he or she will truly care about other team members as well as the best interests of the group overall. People with socialized charisma are more likely to communicate and listen to others, as well as encourage ethical behavior.

Several studies find that success is more likely to be achieved when project leaders are socially charismatic, as they will look to align their vision with followers’ needs and goals, versus demanding implementation. Furthermore, research shows socially charismatic leaders tend to inspire their fellow team members to be autonomous, empowered, and responsible.

Team dynamics can make or break cooperative goal achievement. An engaging, effective team leader will have a far easier time guiding a team if he or she cultivates members who consistently demonstrate humble self-assuredness. Additionally, teams will be successful if they have the following:

  • Members who have different personality characteristics.
    • A leader (or leaders) who can pull individuals together despite competing agendas to achieve a common mission and goal.
  • A willingness to try smarter by listening, evaluating, and correcting.
    • A combo of humility and socialized charisma to support the constant search for feedback in a way that increases self-efficacy and empowerment.

When teams and leaders focus on leveraging collective strengths and seek advice around shortcomings, they have a far better chance of seizing the right opportunities and maximizing gains. Although adjustments will be necessary, this approach puts teams, and ultimately organizations, in the best position for success.