White Paper: What Makes An Effective Team? Learning the Necessary Skills for Successful Collaboration
By Ike Lasater with Julie Stiles
Teams are where business is done. Whether it’s a team within one department, an interdisciplinary or interdepartmental group, or a team that includes outside parties such as contractors or clients, it’s when people work together that success is created.
Yet, not all teams are effective. Some groups seem to gel and work together effortlessly, whereas others strife and struggle seem to be the norm, with work progressing in fits and starts. Why the difference? What makes an effective team, and more importantly, how can your employees learn to create teams that crystallize instead of clash?
In this white paper, we will examine these questions with a brief discussion of what an effective team is and the research on what makes good ones work. We’ll then identify a set of skills that, when adopted, lead to the characteristics of effective teamwork.
What is meant by “effective” teamwork? While definitions may differ, when I talk about it I’m referring to a group of people who work well together to create outstanding outcomes. After all, this is in the realm of business, where results matter. While many approaches focus on how to set objectives and reach them, interpersonal skills are important to ensure that the team collaborates well to achieve their outcomes.
Interpersonal skills are often referred to in business as “soft skills.” Though this term implies a devaluing of these skills, in fact more and more employers and leaders recognize that soft skills are important. As many as three quarters of business leaders think that these skills are even more important than job-specific (so called “hard”) skills. Yet there’s also a skills gap here, as many people and businesses focus their skill-building and professional development offerings on the job-specific skills, not on communication and collaboration.
Most of us began learning our social interaction skills in pre-school—we were (hopefully) taught how to play well in the sandbox. There’s a prevailing assumption that if we learned those skills in pre-school, we will continue to play well with others now. Yet, as any manager knows, often the interpersonal skills that allow a team to be effective are missing.
Fortunately, there’s an increasingly large body of research pointing toward what makes an effective team and the skills that matter most. As one example, Patrick Lencioni has written extensively about teams, both what makes them work and what doesn’t. He identifies five dysfunctions of a team: absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results. He suggests that some of the characteristics of a high performing team include comfort in asking for help and admitting mistakes, and taking risks in offering feedback.
Recent research at Google points in a similar direction, showing that what distinguishes effective teams is how people interact. Having the right set of behavioral norms makes teams better at working together and achieving their goals, because these norms create a sense of psychological safety. People feel like they can take interpersonal risks and speak their mind without fear of embarrassment or rejection. Respect and trust characterize the interactions between team members. What are the norms that researchers identified? First, people share the stage approximately equally, so everyone on the team contributes, raising the collective intelligence. Second, people exhibit social sensitivity—they intuit how others are feeling based on non-verbal cues. In other words, they empathize.
Thus, with an increasing amount of work being done in teams or through collaboration, it pays to pay attention to the skills that make effective collaboration possible.
The Skills That Matter
So what are some of the skills that are essential for teams to work? Here are some of the skills I’ve found that increase team effectiveness.
Connecting with yourself is a fundamental skill that helps you return to presence and choice when experiencing a stress response. Interactions at work often trigger a basic fight-flight-freeze reaction—people interpret some level of danger. Experiencing stress limits our options to respond in a way that enhances collaboration, whereas connecting to ourselves gives us a greater possibility to connect with others. While lots of means of self-connection exist, I use a simple breath-body-needs practice that can be done as a daily exercise and quickly in the heat of the moment.
One of the fundamental skills that helps build psychological safety among people is to listen. Most people may think they listen fairly well already, but I’m talking about listening to the speaker’s satisfaction (not to the listener’s). That means including a few other skills that help the speaker know that they’ve been heard, such as listening for the needs they’re trying to meet, repeating back what the listener heard, and clarifying what the speaker would like from the interaction. It’s listening that includes empathy.
Why is listening in this way so important? Because when people know they’ve been heard to their satisfaction, and then in turn they hear others in the same way, it builds trust between people. With this kind of listening, over time people know they can be vulnerable. They can say the things that might be difficult to say, yet would help the team move forward, with the confidence that there will not be personal repercussions.
Making Clear Requests and Agreements
The ability to make clear requests and agreements (and help others make them too) is another fundamental skill that is unfortunately not taught, as it is essential to teamwork. In teams where these skills are lacking, requests may be vague and open to interpretation. People may leave a meeting without a well-defined understanding of who is doing what and by when. These skills ensure that everyone is on the same page, and support people to be more accountable and pay more attention to results.
Having Difficult Conversations
Any time two or more people work together, conflict is likely to occur. In fact, in team situations, conflict between different perspectives is often necessary to arrive at solutions that will create greater success. Yet these are often missed opportunities, due to the fear of conflict and the inability to have these potentially difficult conversations in a way that creates connection and resolves the conflict with forward movement.
In truth, there are multiple skills at work here. One is the ability to prepare for a conversation through addressing any judgments of the other people, the situation, or ourselves. Another is the ability to have the conversation with a level of presence that allows people to listen to each other even when tensions rise. Finally, there’s a skill to debriefing the conversation so that instead of going into more judgment, people learn from what occurred and are then better able to meet their needs going forward.
Taking these skills together, there’s a clear cycle here that I call the learning cycle. When team members can prepare, have, and debrief their conversation, interactions can take on an upward spiraling effect, with people using the self-reflective process to continuously work toward their own and the team’s needs. As these conversations become the group norm, the elements of psychological safety are generated in this repeated cycle. Respectful conversations where people listen in order to create connection engender trust. People also develop increased social sensitivity as they are more attuned to listening for what’s going on behind someone’s words.
As the team creates, one conversation at a time, their creations are then enhanced as the team works ever better together.
In American culture people are often taught it’s impolite to interrupt. In my view, it’s actually more impolite to let a person continue beyond what I can take in. Since we’re taught not to interrupt, however, we’re also not taught the skill of interrupting in a way that creates connection instead of disconnection.
In a team meeting, knowing how to interrupt is a valuable skill, as it can help keep people on track, get to the point more quickly, and foster cohesiveness. This is not interrupting for interruptions sake or to get your point across—it’s interrupting to increase clarity, make a request, or create something greater for the group as a whole.
Giving and Receiving Feedback
Feedback is crucial to team members’ ability to learn and grow as well as to the team being able to work together successfully. Most of us have experienced attempts to give feedback that backfired—whether on the giving or receiving end. In my view, this is often because people are disconnected, either from themselves or from each other.
Learning the skill of giving feedback while focusing on the quality of connection makes it more likely the feedback will contribute to the receiver. When this skill is present, people can also receive feedback—even that given judgmentally—in a positive and enriching manner. Finally, knowing how to give feedback from connection increases the likelihood that people will take risks in offering it—one of the characteristics of a high performing team.
Expressing appreciation or gratitude is actually a subset of giving feedback, however it’s helpful to separate it out as a separate skill since, in some places, expressing appreciation is such an alien concept. The way it was expressed in my boyhood and the people I worked with was, “Why would I say ‘good job’—they’re supposed to do a good job! I’ll tell them when they aren’t doing good job!” Unfortunately, this is all too often the prevailing attitude in the workplace.
Nonetheless, especially in teamwork, expressing appreciation goes a long way toward creating a culture not only where people work well together, but where outcomes shine. People who feel valued and acknowledged are often desirous of contributing even more. Building into a team the norms of expressing gratitude, acknowledging others for their contribution, and celebrating when things go well engender increased respect and trust. These are exactly the kind of overlooked soft skills that produce excellent teams.
Why Focus on Interpersonal Skills?
One of the difficulties for business leaders is that often it’s only when obvious dysfunction exists that the need for these kinds of communication skills surfaces. In reality, I would argue that these skills are essential to a business thriving and ultimately reaching it’s goals. But, how do we describe and justify the benefits of spending time and money on developing these skills in the workforce?
It’s easier to talk about the benefit of team members learning these skills through what is avoided. When people have the skills I’ve listed above, it reduces the likelihood of misinterpretations, and when those do happen, people have the skills to work them out without hurt feelings. Negative and destructive conflicts are avoided, as is the tendency for “under-the-surface” conflict that isn’t addressed to undermine relationships and the team.
When people are in touch with themselves and what needs they would like met, they are less likely to say things that create disruption, and more likely to say things that create connection. If we aren’t connected to ourselves, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to be connected to others, and without connection, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to effectively collaborate.
The skills help people be more present as well as connected to themselves, which has a myriad of benefits, including being clearer about their goals and priorities. Being part of a team means that professional goals are tied to team goals. One person who has clarity about goals helps the entire team hone in on the teams goals and the appropriate steps to achieve them. In addition, being present with ourselves increases our enjoyment and satisfaction, helps reduce stress, and creates resilience. If we enjoy our lives more, we tend to play in the sandbox well and produce a better product.
Encouraging a self-reflective process within a team enhances all of the aspects that support effective teams and boosts the sense of psychological safety that is so important to teamwork. When your employees are collaborating well, their collective intelligence is greater than the sum of its parts, allowing for the kind of creativity and innovation that characterizes the most successful companies.
 Infographic: Communicating in the Modern Workplace. http://online.queens.edu/online-programs/mba/resources/infographic/communicating-in-the-workplace
 Lencioni, Patrick. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002.
 Duhigg, Charles. What Google Learned From Its Quest To Build The Perfect Team. New York Times, Feb 25, 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html?smid=pl-share
 Cross, Rob, Reb Rebele & Adam Grant. Collaborative Overload. Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb 2016. https://hbr.org/2016/01/collaborative-overload