What makes or breaks a team’s performance? Not what you think.
Leadership Coach, Front of Room Leader and Systemic Change Guide

Organisations use a plethora of team performance tools, all of which promise to help them crack the code of building the perfect team. The tools usually focus on skills and abilities on the one hand, and personality types and preferences on the other.

In my Design Thinking journey, I’ve been trained in how to put together promising innovation teams. The key: Diversity. It enables a team to explode with creativity and to shape breakthrough products and services in a short time. Mix programmers, designers, researchers, people savvy ethnographers, and go! Also at d.school, I have painfully experienced how a too homogenous innovation team failed to function.

When doing the Belbin Team assessment with my team at work, I realised with wonder just how much people differ with regards to the tasks they are drawn to and to what pushes their buttons, Belbin categorises typical behaviour patterns and the roles that people naturally assume in any team they join.

The MBTI intends to give a clear picture of people’s personalities along their preferences: for thinking or feeling, sensing or intuiting, perceiving or judging, and where they are on the introversion/ extraversion continuum.

Those are just two of the most widely used, and controversial, tools for team building and healing. Let’s get back to the question of what makes a high performing team.

It is well known that google has put in quite some effort into trying to crack the code for building productive teams. For years, google’ s dedicated research team studied in-house teams – without getting anywhere. They were not able to back up either of the above tests’ assumptions, nor could they find any other consistent pattern of team composure that explained one team’s success and another team’s failure.

First, no pattern of a good or bad mix of skills and abilities emerged from the data.

Some groups seemed perfectly well balanced, but failed as a team. Other groups were not well balanced at all, but as a team they were strong.

Second, there was no pattern of liking or disliking one another.

Some high performing teams socialised outside of the office, and some ineffective teams did too. Other high performing teams did not socialise outside of the office, nor did some of the ineffective teams.

The researchers moved on in their hunting for a consistent pattern: they looked at educational backgrounds, at the mix of introverts and extroverts, and at many other possible factors, just to conclude that no clear pattern emerged.

Finally, they started to look for something that they had hitherto been unaware of, and had therefore never looked for. And then it turned out that one pattern united all well functioning teams and all failing teams.

What high functioning teams share is that all team members speak in team meetings.

It did not at all matter if they all spoke on topic, or if they freely drifted off and back on topic during meetings. It was irrelevant if they spoke one after another, or if they frequently interrupted each other. All that DID matter was this unspoken group norm:

Everyone takes up an equal amount of air time.

The second shared trait of the outperforming teams was that team members were able to interpret others’ emotional state from their tone of voice and body language.
I have experienced as many meetings as anyone, and one thing that I find rare is that everyone takes up approximately the same time. More likely, some people speak very little, while others talk as if their life depended on it.

Rather than finding one or the other behaviour a problem to fix, ask yourself as a leader:

What can you do to create a working environment that encourages everyone to contribute to your team discussions in a balanced manner where some listen more, and others talk more?

To achieve that, how can you actively ensure the psychological safety in your team? What does that have to do with anything?

Psychological safety needs to be in place for everyone to speak.

When people feel that it’s both safe to say something, and to just listen to others, they can freely contribute and add their creativity and wisdom to the best of any team. To create such an environment takes more than encouraging everyone to speak or to listen more.

Successful leaders build everyone’s capacity for adult development, including their own.

Inspired by Dara Blumenthal’s thought-provoking blog.

For leadership coaching and developement, get in touch

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