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Building Successful Teams: Collaboration, Dependability, and a Sense of Purpose
November 8, 2021

A group, huddled in a circle, works on a team project.
Courtesy of Wharton Interactive.

Successful teams do not all look alike, but many share a common core: a feeling of safety within the team, a learning orientation, and a commitment to valuing team member contributions. A recent study conducted by Google reveals that what matters is not so much who is on a team but how the team works together and collaborates – whether or not team members feel safe enough to take risks, ask others for help, and feel that their talents are appreciated.

Nearly all work is social – we need others to succeed – and collaboration is key to success. When you work on a team, consider the following:

Goals, norms, and decision-making. As teams form, discussing and creating a set of norms (how do we treat each other?), goals (what are our large and smaller goals?), and decision-making mechanisms (how do we make decisions?) can help improve team performance. Early decisions about how you interact, your goals, and your norms carry a lot of weight and can set the stage for later interactions. Teams may decide to create a team charter. Team charters are agreements you make with your teams about how you will operate. Team charters can help teams discuss and collectively capture your team’s goals, norms, and decision-making processes by:

  • Having a discussion, airing your ideas, and carving out some common ground.
  • Developing mutual expectations.
  • Getting to know each other and identifying the expertise on your team.
  • Creating a social contract that can serve as the basis for team interactions.

Writing down these goals, norms, and decision-making criteria can serve as a basis for discussion throughout the life cycle of the team.

Engaging teams. While a solid foundation, such as a team charter, is important, equally important is the opportunity to revise the team’s earlier assumptions. You should monitor those early decisions and periodically nudge your team into revisiting your charter. You’ll find that during times of crisis or change, your team may feel compelled to do so, but at other times when everything seems to be humming along, your team may find that task unappealing. This is the principle of inertia – teams who have fallen into a routine aren’t eager to break out of that routine. It’s important to remember that your earlier agreement was only a starting point and should be developed; any process, norm, or goal that isn’t helping the team may be hurting the team.

Creating a feeling of safety within teams. Organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” Successful teams do not necessarily share the same norms and goals, but they do all have one thing in common: a climate of psychological safety. Teams that are effective are teams on which:

  • It’s ok to be wrong because you learn from mistakes.
  • It’s ok to admit what you don’t know because you trust your team.
  • It’s ok to share concerns or problems; you know that you will be valued for doing so. 

Underlying any team’s ability to engage, learn, and improve is psychological safety. Fostering this kind of climate is always a work in progress, but that work is well worth the effort.

To learn more about psychological safety see:
Edmondson, A. C. (2018). The fearless organization: Creating psychological safety in the workplace for learning, innovation, and growth. John Wiley & Sons.
Google’s Re:Work: https://rework.withgoogle.com/subjects/teams/

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