Tuesday 22 October 2019

Alan O'Neill: 'Five behaviours hold the key to high performance'

From the creation of a safe environment to giving work meaning, team-building is all about the right balance

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Alan O'Neill

Alan O'Neill, author of Premium is the New Black, is Managing Director of Kara Change Management, specialists in strategy, culture and people development. Go to www.kara.ie

I Recently accompanied my daughter as she dropped her six-year-old son at school. I couldn't help noticing how much things have changed since my day. It wasn't just the the outdoor play area or the smiling teachers that greeted us. It was the layout of the classrooms where kids sit together in teams that got me thinking. Schools have come a long way since desks were set out in rows, hiding me as I annoyed whoever was in front of me.

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The Holy Grail for students of organisational behaviour is to understand the characteristics that make up a high-performing team. Since the study of modern management theory began, many concepts have come to the fore.

One of the more popular and profound studies is by Dr Meredith Belbin, who in 1969 defined the traits where team members have "a tendency to behave, contribute and inter- relate with others in a particular way".

In order to better understand the characteristics in a modern day tech company, Google set out in 2012 on a similar quest within its own organisation.

With almost 100,000 employees to select from, a dedicated research team and a truck-load of dollars, it embarked on a two-year study of 180 internal teams.

Having initially defined how success is measured, it was curious to establish if there were meaningful patterns that stood out as being more successful than others. Did the members like each other more than less effective teams? Did they socialise together outside of work? Was there a particular mix of qualifications or skills that worked best? Did certain personality traits work best together, such as introverts with extroverts, and so on? In summary, while not saying there is anything wrong with any of these traits, the Google research team could find no meaningful patterns in this approach that made a positive difference in the best-performing teams. In other words, team membership did not imply team success. Instead, it discovered success was determined more by a set of behavioural norms that, when lived daily, ensured team members gave their best and achieved optimum results.

Google's Project Aristotle identified five key characteristics of high-performing teams. The Greek philosopher Aristotle famously said that the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, 2+2 equals 4+. With this as their mantra, here are the behavioural norms that the Google research team highlighted as being most prominent in the more successful teams.

1. Psychological Safety

When a team leader creates a positive dynamic where everyone feels safe to speak up, then debate and decision-making improve.

Regardless of their role, members do not fear being made to feel embarrassed or stupid. This is critical as it promotes participation and prevents group-think. The opposite is where team members hold back questions and ideas, and bad decisions go unchecked. Google also found that in teams with psychologically safe environments, employees were less likely to leave and more likely to embrace diversity.

2. Dependability

Once expectations are set and agreed at team and individual levels, team members can be relied upon to take ownership and get things done on time. Each one knows the implications of their actions and inactions, and takes personal responsibility for delivering.

3. Structure and clarity

High-performing teams have clearly defined smart goals and each member has a specific role to play. This is where the other attributes mentioned earlier such as role and personality type play a part. Each meeting has a clear agenda, and meetings are well-structured and managed.

4. Meaning

The work itself has personal significance to each member. They believe that their own contributions help to achieve a personal purpose, such as career advancement, money or personal growth.

5. Impact

The group believes that their collective work will make a positive impact on the wider organisation and possibly even the greater good.

In summary, beyond the obvious need to select team members that can add value through experience, skills or qualifications, you also need to think about the interpersonal behaviours of members and how they will work together in a team.

The Last Word

Far too often, people are just thrown together for convenience or because their role determines their presence in a team. And often, too, personal agendas and negative politics get in the way of true effectiveness. If you expect a group of people to be a high-performing team just because their role or location determines it, you may be sorely disappointed.

Not every team has a 'project' to work on that has a fixed beginning and end. More often, the team has an ongoing objective that rolls on through the year.

Nor has every organisation the luxury of multiple meeting rooms to convene team meetings, like Google has.

Many organisations are unable to take their people away from the front line or off the shop/factory floor for meetings.

Nevertheless, appropriate and optimised interpersonal behaviours are a tried and tested best practice for effective teams.

Whenever and wherever teams operate, the leader should take time out now and then to reflect on the team dynamic and consider how the traits above can be embraced.

The lessons from the Aristotle research highlight the need to give at least some consideration to team behaviours.

It's really encouraging to see that culture being engrained in our children in the school system. It'll stand to them for the long term.

Alan O’Neill, author of Premium is the New Black, is Managing Director of Kara Change Management, specialists in strategy, culture and people development. Go to www.kara.ie

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