What Makes an Effective Team?

Table of Contents

It’s the million-dollar question. Team building is all about making teams more effective, or so it claims. But what does “effective” actually mean in the context of teams? We often seem to “know it when we see it”. That is, we intuitively sense when our team (or any team that we interact with, for that matter) is effective or not. 

Simply put: Effective teams get the job done.

Needless to say, there is a lot that this simplistic definition leaves out. If a team can get things done but does so in a way that stresses coworkers out and leaves them exhausted, is it working effectively? Another example: a team gets things done on time and seems to work together well, but doesn’t take on new challenges or goals. Is this team effective?

All teams can be effective if they want. But the road to getting there might be different for each team. Assessing a team’s effectiveness is therefore similar to assessing its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (also known as SWOT analysis, a method that is highly recommended for every team).

Once teams have assessed their effectiveness, it can be easier to determine what they need to fill in the gaps and achieve their desired level. That’s where team building can help.

Over the years, Invite Japan has dealt with many different teams with many different levels of effectiveness. Through our escape games and team building events, we have seen first-hand what makes teams effective, as well as some of the pitfalls that often trip them up and make them less effective.

Below is the distillation of this experience. Here I will describe the core elements that make a team effective, as well as some aspects about each one to think about. Hopefully this will give you some ideas about how to improve your team, and allow you to better assess what team building activities your team needs to become its most effective self. 

Openness / Honest Communication 

Central to any functioning and effective team is the ability of its members to properly communicate with each other. Communication allows information and ideas to spread, and brainstorming to be productive and fruitful.

In order for this to happen though, communication has to be open and honest. Team members have to feel that their opinions are being heard and valued, and no one should feel afraid to speak openly. 

This willingness to speak and engage without fear and with honesty requires trust as well as something researchers call “Psychological Safety“. The term refers to creating a workplace and culture where team members feel that they can share opinions without fear of retaliation or marginalization. 

One critical aspect of “Psychological Safety” is that conflict is not absent from teams, rather it is controlled. Sometimes we think of communication as “smooth” and “frictionless”. Real communication on teams might necessitate some conflict and friction. The difference is that effective teams can contain it and use it towards developing new ideas or to promote more trust and openness rather than letting it spill over.

Related to this idea of communication and openness is how technology is used. We often assume that technology can help make communication more effective, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Especially in the age of remote work, teams need to be utilizing the right technology and tools that help them open up their communication lines further. They also need to work actively to replace some of the informal communication linkages that occurred in the office.

As you can see, communication is not so simple. There are many aspects to think about when it comes to open and honest communication in the modern work world. When assessing your team’s ability to communicate, smoothness may be important, but so is dealing with conflict and communication disruptions as well. 

Helping Each Other

Teamwork and cooperation–the foundation for any effective team is essentially about helping each other. It’s the ability of team members to notice and reach out to coworkers who may be having trouble. But it’s also about team members feeling like they can ask for help (see “Communication” above).

Helping each other in many ways requires vulnerability. It can be scary to ask for help out of fear of seeming weak or incapable. Helping others can also be a sign of weakness in workplace cultures that are hypercompetitive, or that value individualism above all else. 

However, with this vulnerability comes trust. Teams where helping each other is the norm are stronger because they are more comfortable working together, and can therefore trust each other when facing new challenges. 

Helping each other is also a recognition that team members have unique roles, personalities, and skills. Combining these together on a team is always more powerful than trying to do everything alone. Plus, new ideas and concepts are formed precisely in the combination of different skills (see “Diversity” below). 

How well or how much team members help each other out can be a useful proxy for measuring other aspects of team effectiveness, such as communication, diversity, and delegation. 

Overall, helping each other is one of the best ways to make teams more effective. Team building activities can help teams get more accustomed to helping each other and crossing that vulnerability challenge in a safe, low-stakes environment. 

Engaging with Diversity

DIversity is an often misunderstood and overused term and has many different meanings. Here we mean all of them. Diversity of race, class, age, nationality, ideas–all of it. Engaging with diversity is essentially engaging with the “new” and the “different”. 

The connection to team effectiveness is clear. With the rise of the internet and globalization, diversity is the norm. Teams have to be able to engage with the global market in order to compete and stay effective. Moreover, societies are changing faster than ever before. Even if a team is highly local, they will still need to adapt to the rapidly changing times.

Teams that engage with diversity will therefore probably be better equipped to handle new challenges as they come. By leaning into the new or the different, teams can challenge preconceived notions and behaviors that they may be taking for granted unknowingly, too. 

If we go back to our original, simplistic definition of “effective”–getting the job done–it’s easy to see that engaging with diversity is crucial. Team members need to work effectively together as a group of diverse individuals, but also need to adapt to diverse situations in a diverse world. 

Teams should do as much as they can to open themselves up to this diversity and bring it inside the team. Diverse hiring, learning about new developments in their fields, listening to diverse opinions, being open to new technologies and social media, experimenting with the ways meetings are conducted, and so on–all of this can contribute to engaging with diversity and becoming more effective as a team.

Teams that put themselves in new challenges or situations are also engaging with diversity. This is actually a good way to get teams to work better together since they will need to combine what they know with what they don’t in order to figure out the situation and succeed. Team building challenges are a good way of doing this.

Dealing with Challenges

Flowing from their engagement with diversity, effective teams welcome new challenges. Challenges allow teams to grow. Individual members get the chance to learn and test new skills, while teams as a whole can raise their expectations and expand horizons.

Effective teams need to consistently challenge themselves in order to avoid getting too comfortable. A team that is too comfortable may be good at what it does, but without new goals to reach, there is the tendency to get stuck in place. This in turn can lead to boredom and dissatisfaction. 

Successfully completing new challenges can also lead to a sense of accomplishment. This wonderful feeling can inspire teams to continue moving forward and growing. Even if teams fail, within that failure teams can assess what went wrong and learn from their mistakes. 

Either way, teams will grow together, and that is the most important thing. Team members tend to bond the most not when there is a lull and everything is easy, but instead when they are working towards a goal and a common purpose that may be difficult.

As a result, team building activities that create compelling challenges for players are useful in helping activate that sense of accomplishment and growth that comes from succeeding at new obstacles. They can also help teams learn about how to better deal with real challenges in the future. 

Common Purpose 

Effective teams have to know who they are and why they exist. A central purpose is more than just a goal or a role, even if these are related. But a common purpose goes beyond this, becoming almost like an ethos–something intangible combining internalized values, culture, and work ethic.

A common purpose, therefore, includes things like vision and customer service. It is related to the projects your team takes and the choices your team makes during the course of completing them. It is not just about how your team views themselves but also how they relate to the rest of the world (See “Getting Help from Outside” below).

It goes without saying that a common purpose on a team emerges from each individual member acting in tandem. Teams that have a purpose know what they are doing and why, as well as where they want to go in the future.

The process of determining common purpose takes work. It takes trust and communication (see “Open/Honest Communication above). It also takes consensus. Team members have to all be aware of what the common purpose is. In other words, they all have to be on the same page. 

New challenges can often help clarify a team’s purpose by forcing teams to fall back on trusting each other and what they have internalized about their team from before. In this way too, challenges can also test to see if that purpose continues to hold firm. 

Structure: Delegation and Decision-Making

In order for teams to be effective, roles and tasks need to be assigned properly. This requires that teams be aware of each member’s skills, personality, and needs. Finding the right person for the job allows teams to work more efficiently and lets team members know that they are valued, thereby creating greater trust.

However, delegation needs to be constantly reassessed. Maybe giving the same person the same tasks can lead to a lack of creativity, or create frustration among other team members. Maybe other team members would benefit from taking on new roles. Or maybe some tasks could be spread more efficiently among the entire team.  

Allowing for some leeway when it comes to delegation can create stronger and more effective teams. People are dynamic and have the capacity for growth and development. Incorporating this insight into your team’s delegation structure might spark some creative or surprising results that can benefit everyone.

Decision-making is related to delegation in terms of defining the structure of teams. Structure is important to making teams effective. A tight, hierarchical structure can provide stability, but it also can choke creativity and improvisation. On the other hand, a looser structure can be more freeing, but can also create confusion.

On a team, decision making is about consensus, even when the ultimate decision is made by one person. If the team supports the structure of decision-making and feels emboldened by it, then teams will be able to be effective at carrying out those decisions. 

With both delegation and decision making, the process needs to be as clear and supported by the whole team as possible. Friction can cause delays and mistrust, and suggests stepping back and reassessment of the team’s communication dynamics is in order (see “Open/Honest Communication above).  

Getting Help from Outside

Lastly, an effective team knows when it needs help from outside. This could be extra knowledge, resources or guidance. Seeking help, as was mentioned earlier, can be scary because it signifies vulnerability. But seeking help can actually make a team stronger.

Getting help from outside is also an acknowledgment that teams do not exist in a vacuum. Teams deal with other teams in the same company. They deal with customers and clients. They interact with competitors. 

Teams are part of networks and global lines of communication and exchange. Effective teams understand this, and actively work to expand their contacts, networks, and information bases. 

In our experience running team building activities, we have come to notice that the teams that succeed are the ones that know when to ask for help from one of our staff members. Sometimes they even know the answer, but confirming with us allows them to proceed more quickly without worrying for too long. 

We also see teams that refuse to ask for help. They stay stuck on the same problem for too long, and end up with no time to finish the rest of the challenges. Sometimes it’s about pride. Sometimes it’s about bad group dynamics (disagreement about whether/when to ask for help). Either way, the whole team suffers in the end. 

Team building itself is a good example of calling for help from the outside. It’s sometimes hard for teams to assess their own effectiveness and or find time to test it outside of the regular work environment. But with the help of team building activities, teams can come to have a better understanding of their team’s abilities, strengths, and areas that they need to work on. 

Conclusion 

As you can see from the above, there are many different aspects to look at when it comes to team effectiveness. It’s not so simple as “get the job done”. 

There’s a lot of information to process. However, it’s important to remember that there is no perfect team. All teams have weak and strong points. Looking at the different dimensions above, you may be able to pick out easily which ones your team is strong at, and which ones are lacking.

Making your team more effective is a process. There’s always room for improvement and growth. That’s where regular team building activities can help– you can keep your team moving in the right direction and see how far you’ve come. You can also keep your team motivated and in the right mindset to improve. 

Ultimately though, what makes a team effective are the people who make it up. Investing time and energy in each other as people–through everything that we have laid out above–will forge deep bonds and relationships built on trust and respect, which are the cornerstones of effective and healthy teams.  

Invite Japan offers a wide array of team building packages to fit your group’s objectives. We have online team building, face-to-face (small group) events, and larger outdoor scavenger hunt programs. 

One of our in-person activities that can help make your team more effective.

References:

Organization Development, ed. Joan V. Gallos: http://jtelen.free.fr/0MARINE%20bouquins/[Edgar_H._Schein,_Joan_V._Gallos]_Organization_Dev(Bookos.org).pdf#page=688

Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash

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