“Effective team” is a phrase used a lot in team building – but what does it actually mean? We investigate what effective teams are and what team building actually helps teams to become.
It’s the million dollar question. Team building is all about making teams more effective, or so many (including us) claim. But what does “effective” actually mean in the context of teams?
It’s one of those words that’s easier to imagine than describe. 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, but it can be tough to put that into words.
Here’s one simple explanation: 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; it always stays in its comfort zone. 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) – the results will be different for each team, and that is the whole point.
Once teams have assessed their effectiveness, it can be easier to determine what they need in order to fill in the gaps and achieve their desired level. That’s where team building can help.
So in the following, we will describe the core elements that make an effective team, as well as the factors that determine how effective teams can potentially be. 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.
The 5 core abilities that make up an effective team
As we’ve seen, when we talk about effective teams, what we’re really talking about is what teams can do. As a result, a good way to think about team effectiveness is to talk about “abilities” or what teams can achieve, in the abstract.
What teams do will obviously be different for each team, and for teams in different industries. But all teams mostly perform effectively in the same way, which means we can generalize the types of abilities that teams should possess.
We have organized these abilities into five major ones, which can also be seen as stages of development.
1. Ability to self-manage as a group
Drill down to the most basic definition of a team, and what you get is a group of people doing things together. Which means that the first thing teams need is the ability to stick together and continue moving as a group.
As anyone who has gone on a group trip knows, however, even this comes with challenges. Groups are hard to maintain, which is why self-management of a team is so critical to what makes effective teams. If a team can’t unify and keep together, then it can’t do anything else.
Making sure relationships are stable, keeping a range of needs and interests focused on the same thing, dealing with conflicts – these are all examples of self-management on teams.
2. Ability to create clear, consistent goals and promises, and to follow through on
Effective teams don’t merely bring people together and keep them that way, though. Effective teams’ power lies in their ability to set common goals, which allow teams to accomplish great things.
The ability to set these goals and follow through is therefore a core ability of effective teams, As well as goals, effective teams need to be able to keep promises and deadlines, and complete the responsibilities that it takes on. This is obviously a major part of “getting the job done”.
It’s also important to remember that goals are critical to team growth, and allow teams to take on new challenges. If teams stagnate in this regard, there is a high chance that the team will break apart.
2. Ability to manage relations with other groups and teams
Teams, however, do not exist in a vacuum. No team, no matter how effective or productive, works completely alone. Teams need to deal with many other groups, team, structures and actors, such as the organization they are a part of, other teams within that organization, customers and clients, outside collaborators, and so on.
Thus, an effective team is capable of not only self-managing its own relations, but also managing its relationships to these various partners as well. This involves a high level of understanding others’ needs and desires, and working to bridge the gaps that can occur between those needs and the abilities of the team.
Without these ties to other groups and organizations, teams can become isolated, which can then lead to an inability to find new paths forward. So having good relations with the outside world beyond the team is just as important as maintaining good relationships between team members.
4. Ability to adapt to changing circumstances
Change is a constant in the world, and so another ability of effective teams is the ability to adapt to shifting situations. When things change, teams need to be able to learn about the situation quickly, educate their team members, and adjust accordingly. This necessitates a certain level of coordination and flexibility which are often hard to achieve.
Adaptation to change is another aspect of growth which, as we stated before, is crucial to team development. Teams that can’t adapt get left behind, and signal to team members that may no longer be able to continue moving forward.
Again, adapting to change means adjusting to reality, which is always in flux. Effective teams acknowledge the world as it is, not how they want it to be, and act accordingly. A good example is the shift that many teams took during the pandemic – finding new ways to work together and new tools to succeed in a more online world.
5. Ability to handle crisis
Adapting to change leads to the last ability of effective teams, which is handling crises. Truly effective teams are those whom you can trust when something goes wrong, more so than when things go right.
Handling crises is also connected to teams’ longer-term resilience – that is, how a team copes with challenging situations and how it overcomes them. If a team can’t handle a crisis well, then its long-term chance of survival and growth is probably dim.
Crises, however, are opportunities as well as challenging situations. They test teams, and they have the ability to make them stronger if the underlying structure and dynamics of the team are strong. So handling a crisis means not just getting through it in one piece, but also about learning what to do the next time around.
What determines team effectiveness?
Now that we’ve looked at what we call the five core abilities of effective teams, we can look at the factors that influence them. In other words, how can a team actually go about gaining these abilities and becoming an effective team.
There are four main areas that determine how effective teams actually are:
1) Team Environment
Team environments are the social and relational frameworks that surround teams as they work, and influence how they go about that work. Not as formal as team structures, team environments get built often unconsciously over time, through interaction, feelings and signals.
But because of its role in communicating, often invisibly, how team members should act, it plays a major part in forming effective teams. It often goes overlooked, as well (maybe because it’s harder to analyze and change directly). Here are some of the ways that team environment impacts effective teams:
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.
Mutual Support and Collaboration
Teamwork and cooperation – the foundation for any effective team–are 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.
2. Team Structure
Team structure is the nuts and bolts of how your tea actually functions. How does it go about tasks and delegating them? Who decides? Who leads, and when?
With team structure, the process needs to be as clear and supported by the whole team as possible. Friction can cause delays and mistrust, and suggests that a stepping back and reassessment of the team’s communication dynamics is needed.
Delegation, workflow and leadership
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.
Workflow is important here too, since sometimes the ways tasks are delegated can create bottlenecks that can affect the whole team and its ability to both complete tasks, as well its ability to hold together. Team members shouldn’t feel overwhelmed by tasks (challenged, yes, but not overwhelmed) or feel like they aren’t being trusted with enough of them.
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.
The same goes for leadership. Leadership is not always congruent with a person’s official role. So allowing more people to take on leadership roles, and making leadership more diffuse, will strengthen your team and make it less top-heavy. It will create more buy-in among team members and create more team unity.
Decision-making is related to delegation in terms of defining the structure of teams. 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 should be about collaboration and 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.
3. Team 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. Team members also have to all be aware of what the common purpose is, and 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.
Along with purpose, motivating principles are also relevant here. These are your team’s values relating to how it goes about achieving its goals. For example, is your team motivated by a strong work ethic? A desire to help others? Fixing society? Striving for new knowledge?
Principles help to deepen your core purpose, and add more contextual layers to it that help gather the team around it in a unified way that pushes them forward. After all, values don’t just shape us, they motivate us as well. Plus, they also help communicate your purpose and mission more clearly to outside groups and collaborators.
4. Team Preparation
Team preparation includes training, learning and gaining new skills – not only for completing the work right now, but also so that your team can better adapt to change and handle crises.
Training and mentorship
The most obvious way to prepare your team is through training and mentorship opportunities. These include formal training sessions, informal learning opportunities, and team building.
Training also can include skills development and education that can help train future managers and leaders, and which shows team members that they are valued and that they have a role in the future of the company.
Finally, mentorship is something we recommend all the time. Mentorship allows new and younger employees to receive a lot of crucial experiential and institutional knowledge from veteran employees. It also helps bridge generational divides on your team, which improves the overall environment on your team. And it instills the value of mutual support which, as we’ve shown, is crucial to effective teams.
Engaging with diversity and new ideas
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”. And this includes new ideas as well.
Teams that engage with diversity and new ideas will therefore probably be better equipped to handle new challenges as they come. By leaning into the new or the different, by instilling a sense of curiosity and humility towards new knowledge on teams, they will be better equipped to learn and grow.
Teams should do as much as they can to open themselves up to diversity and new ideas and bring them inside the team. Diverse hiring, learning about new developments, 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 new ideas, and becoming more effective as a team.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thus, learning to get help from other groups and collaborating with other teams will help your team stay prepared in case of crisis, and provide you with networks of support that can make your team stronger.
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.
Be sure to check out our blog posts that summarize the different team effectiveness models in the literature: Team Effectiveness Models Part 1: 6 Ways to Think About Your Team and Boost Performance and Team Effectiveness Models Part 2: 5 More Models to Inspire Your Team to Succeed