5 Research Backed Practices to Build a High Performing Team

March 23, 2016
Todd Hall

One of my clients recently worked on a team for an enterprise-wide project. It didn’t go well. Some people dominated the conversation and others didn’t contribute. There were power struggles and people talked over each other rather than listening to each other. One person on the team was downright rude, which caused my client and a few others to shut down and not bring their important perspectives to the table. These were all very smart, experienced people, but the team dynamics didn’t work and the project ultimately stalled out.

Working in teams is on the rise. A recent study in Harvard Business Review found that the time spent in collaborative activities has increased by 50 percent over the past two decades. At many organizations, employees spend more than 75 percent of their time communicating with colleagues [1]. In light of this, one of the key questions organizations need to answer is this: what makes one team work well together and another—with equally smart people—work at odds with each other? Put differently, what makes a team greater than the sum of its parts?

The Team Building Problem

All too often we put teams together based on subject matter expertise and hope they somehow gel. If individuals on the team all have high analytical intelligence, then the team should be smart, right? Not always. Book smarts don’t necessarily raise the collective IQ of the team. In most organizations, the odds of a team becoming high performing isn’t much better than chance.

The Team Building Possibility

A growing number of research teams have been trying to crack the code for how to build a high performing team. It turns out it has everything to do with emotional connection and safety. The data are pointing us back to our human instinct to connect. The good news is we all want to connect, and you can learn specific practices that promote high performing, connected teams.

Building high performance teams is important for competitive advantage and to promote meaning and wellbeing among your employees. People want to be part of a community that is building something together. If you can create this dynamic in your organization, it will help you create greater value for everyone you serve. Findings from numerous organizations and research labs are beginning to converge.

Cracking the Code on High Performing Teams: Converging Evidence

In 2012, Google embarked on “Project Aristotle” to identify the secret sauce of their high performing teams [1]. After reviewing the academic literature they began examining the makeup of Google groups in terms of backgrounds, socialization habits, personalities, hobbies, and more. They looked at 180 teams across the organization and couldn’t find any clear patterns in terms of the composition of the teams.

They eventually ran across the notion of “group norms”—the generally unwritten rules for how group members behave and relate to one another when gathered together. Some teams are highly structured and organized, while others are more fluid. Some emphasize vigorous debate of ideas, while others place a premium on social harmony within the group. While these norms are dynamic, they change slowly and they govern the behavior of the group as a whole. The Project Aristotle researchers realized that group norms may hold the key to superior team performance, but there was conflicting data as to which norms were most important. Other research labs have been grappling with this same question.

Just before Google embarked on Project Aristotle, a group of researchers at Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and Union College set out to examine whether groups have a “collective intelligence” analogous to “general intelligence” among individuals [2]. Psychologists have long believed that there is a general underlying factor that explains most of the variance of people’s performance on a wide variety of cognitive tasks. The researchers wondered if there is a similar collective IQ for groups, and what characteristics might explain it. Indeed, they found strong evidence for a collective IQ (or the “c factor”). In addition, they found two factors that predicted collective IQ.

First, higher performing groups had a higher “average social sensitivity.” Basically, these teams were more empathic and better at reading others’ emotions based on nonverbal cues. In short, they were more emotionally in sync and socially sensitive. Second, higher performing groups showed a more equal distribution of conversational turn-taking. The higher proportion of people who participated, the higher the collective IQ. The more conversation was dominated by a small number of people, the lower the collective IQ. In high performing teams, then, members are sensitive to each other’s moods and emotions, share on a personal level, and pick up on the nuances of communication—the look that says you have something more to say but you’re not quite sure how to say it. That’s important information, and people in a high performing team will draw that out in their team members.

These team traits of social sensitivity and equal participation are sometimes referred to by organizational psychologists as psychological (or psychosocial) safety. According to Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, psychological safety is “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up” [3]. It reflects a shared sense of trust and mutual respect that comes from emotional connection among team members. In his recounting of Project Aristotle, Charles Duhigg notes that when the Google research team came across the notion of psychological safety, “everything suddenly fell into place” [4]. The data became clear with psychological safety as the lens through which to view it. Some engineers reported that their team leaders were straightforward, creating a “safe space” to take risks. Others reported that their team leaders were anxious and controlling, diminishing psychological safety. At the end of the day, Google’s data suggested that psychological safety, more than any other factor, predicted superior team work [5].

While Google was pouring over data on hundreds of teams in Mountain View, CA, MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, directed by Professor Alex Pentland, set out to identify the characteristics of successful teams. Early on, they noticed a certain energy to teams that “click” and realized that the way team members communicated with each other was an important factor in their success. So, they decided to take a deep dive into the communication patterns of successful teams [6].

Tapping into the new methodology of wireless and sensor technology, they used electronic badges (developed in their lab) to capture natural communication behavior, or “sociometric” data. These badges collect data on team members’ individual communication behavior—tone of voice, body language, how much they talk and to whom, among other things. In one study of a call center, patterns of communication predicted team success as much as all the other factors combined: individual intelligence, personality, skill, and the content of discussions.

After collecting sociometric data in 21 organizations with over 2,500 people, the MIT lab has identified five defining characteristics of successful teams:

  1. Everyone on the team talks and listens about the same amount as others, and their contributions are relatively short and to the point.
  2. Members face each other while engaging in conversations that can be characterized as energetic.
  3. Members connect directly with everyone in the group and not just the team leader.
  4. Members carry on back-channel or side conversations within the team.
  5. Members occasionally explore outside the team and bring information back.

Interestingly, Pentland and his colleagues have found that the most valuable form of communication is face-to-face. The second most valuable form of communication is phone and videoconference, but the effectiveness of these decrease as the number of people participating increases. These general findings have been replicated in numerous studies now [7].

Based on these findings, the MIT lab encouraged one call center manager to revise the break schedule so that everyone on a team took their break at the same time, allowing employees to socialize more with each other. When they did this, average handling time (AHT) decreased by 20% in low performing teams and by 8% overall in the call center. Employee satisfaction also increased.

If you think about the common thread underlying these defining characteristics, it’s emotional connection to other team members and to the group as a whole. These five characteristics provide a more nuanced view of what psychological safety looks like in action. In his book, Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek emphasizes the importance of psychological safety in an organization with the concept of a “circle of safety,” which ultimately comes down to promoting human connection within an organization [8].

“By creating a Circle of Safety around the people in the organization,” Sinek says, “leadership reduces the threats people feel inside the group, which frees them up to focus more time and energy to protect the organization from the constant dangers outside and seize the big opportunities” (p. 22). Sinek believes that great leaders don’t view people as a means to the end of financial prosperity. Rather, they see money as a resource to be managed to help grow their people.

There is more and more compelling evidence that psychological safety is critical for team and organizational effectiveness. A recent study published in the International Journal of Stress Management provides a great example of this. A research team from Australia predicted and confirmed that a “psychosocial safety climate” was associated with more learning opportunities, higher levels of engagement, and better performance [9]. In addition, psychosocial safety predicted performance indirectly through learning opportunities and engagement. When team members feel emotionally safe, they are more motivated to engage in their work and perform at a high level.

Implementing the Insights: 5 Practices to Build a High Performing Team

So, how do you put this research into practice as a leader or influencer? Here are 5 practices to promote psychological safety and build a high performance team.

Foster a connection mindset. Many leaders know that psychological safety is important at some level, but the pressures of profits and hitting goals often crowd out any desire to focus on creating a culture of psychological safety in teams. In Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek notes the typical mindset that comes from this pressure: “this stuff is expensive, hard to measure, and often seems ‘soft’ or ‘fluffy’” (p. 27).

In contrast to this myth, psychological safety is the very foundation for team effectiveness, and as we’ve seen here research is increasingly showing that this “soft stuff” is actually quite hard in predicting performance.

Not only are the data showing this, but we know from our own experience that connection and safety promote a sense of meaning and wellbeing in our work in teams. That is important in its own right.

So the first step is to develop a mindset that emphasizes the importance of psychological safety. If you don’t buy into its importance, you won’t promote it. If you find yourself resistant to the idea, reflect on why. Most likely, it’s not based on rational factors. Emotions drive our attitudes and deep beliefs. As Michael Rousell puts it in his book, Sudden Influence, “emotion is the rule and rationality is the tool” [10]. Think about any experiences that might be causing you to feel resistant toward the importance of connection and psychological safety and process them.

Encourage people to share personal challenges. You don’t have to do this in every meeting, but at some point—maybe toward the beginning of the formation of a new team—it’s helpful for people to share on a personal level. It builds emotional bonds that are the fuel for psychological safety and collaboration. If you’re leading a team, it’s helpful if you go first and model this for the team.

Matt Sakaguchi, a Google manager with a new team under him, reached out to Project Aristotle to help his new team click. After survey results showed some weaknesses he hadn’t picked up on, he gathered his team off site to discuss the results. He asked everyone to share something personal about themselves. He led the way by telling the group: “I think one of the things most people don’t know about me is that I have Stage 4 cancer” [11]. After 10 months of working together, no one had known this. Obviously this was a lot to process. One team member commented, “It was a really hard, really special moment” [11]. After Sakaguchi shared, others followed suit, sharing their own challenges. They later shifted focus to the survey results and were able to talk more openly about tensions within the team.

When you see that others have challenges and vulnerabilities just like you, you make more gracious interpretations of their behavior and you feel less of a need to protect yourself. This increases collaboration, knowledge flow, and innovation.

Encourage participation from everyone. We now know that part of what makes a team smart—greater than the sum of its parts—is that everyone participates. If you’re a team member, your team needs your voice so do your best to speak up when you have something to contribute. If you’re leading a team, actively encourage everyone to participate. Create space for those who are more reluctant to speak up.

Establish group norms for communication at the beginning of a project. If you’re leading a new team, establish the group norms for communication from the get-go. Explicitly communicate that you want this to be an environment where everyone’s voice is valued and where it’s safe to communicate differences of opinion. You might develop specific language to capture some of the group norms. Phrases can be used as short hand for deep values.

For example, several years ago, Pfizer realized they needed to create a culture of “ownership.” To promote this culture they developed the concept and language of “Straight Talk”—an approach to communicating difficult information in a way that safeguards relationships. This has provided a common language that has taken on deep meaning for Pfizer as the experience of Straight Talk has become associated with the language. When a Pfizer colleague now says, “In the spirit of Straight Talk…” their co-worker knows what this means. It quickly conveys the sentiment that I want to share an opinion that might be different than yours, but I respect you and your perspective. When this is done in the team, it diffuses tensions quickly, which is key to sustaining true collaboration.

Jim Whitehurst, Red Hat CEO and author of The Open Organization, notes language they use at Red Hat that promotes a similar idea, “you are not your code” [12]. In an IT environment, this means team members need to proactively work on accepting critiques of their work without taking it as a personal criticism. Of course, the way feedback is communicated makes a difference, but the point here is that we’re all responsible to regulate our emotions so we can hear legitimate critiques of our work. “You are not your code” communicates this deep value in a phrase.

Talk about the meaning of your work. People need to see how their work fits into the larger mission or the organization. And they need to be reminded often of how their contribution matters. So encourage people to share stories about how their work has made a difference in the organization and the lives others. Keep the meaningfulness of the team’s work front and center.

As the research continues, we will continue to learn more about how to build smart teams. But a clearer picture is emerging suggesting that emotional connection and psychological safety are at the center. I hope these practices help you and your team become more than the sum of its parts.

More From Dr. Todd Hall

To Improve Employee Engagement, Focus on Building Bonds of Trust, Not External Incentives

3 Ways to Promote Psychological Safety in Your Team

4 Ways to Establish Security at Work

Todd Hall, Ph.D. is the Chief Scientist at Connection Culture Group. Dr. Hall is a psychologist, author, and consultant focused on helping people live and lead with connection. He is a co-developer of the MCORE motivation assessment, and a contributor for the Human Capital Institute. You can learn more about Dr. Hall’s work, read his blog and get his free E-Course “Lead with Connection” at drtoddhall.com. Follow Dr. Hall on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.


[1] Cited in Charles Duhigg. (2016, Feb 26) “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team.” [Online]. Available:http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html?_r=0

[2]. Woolley, A.W., Chabris, C.F., Pentland, A., Hashmi, N, & Malone, T.W. (2010). Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups. Science, V 330, 686-688.

[3] Cited in Charles Duhigg. (2016, Feb 26) “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team.” [Online]. Available:http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html?_r=0, p. 9.

[4] Cited in Charles Duhigg. (2016, Feb 26) “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team.” [Online]. Available:http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html?_r=0, p. 10.

[5] Cited in Charles Duhigg. (2016, Feb 26) “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team.” [Online]. Available:http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html?_r=0, p. 10.

[6]. Alex Pentland. (2012, April). “The New Science of Building Great Teams” [Online]. Available: https://hbr.org/2012/04/the-new-science-of-building-great-teams

[7]. See studies cited in Woolley, A.W., Aggarwal, I. & Malone, T.W. (2015). Collective intelligence and group performance. Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 24(6) 420–424.

[8]. Sinek, S. (2014). Leaders Eat Last. New York: Penguin.

[9]. Awang Idris, M., Dollard, M.F., & Tuckey, M.R. (2015). Psychosocial safety climate as a management tool for employee engagement and performance: A multilevel analysis. International Journal of Stress Management, 22(2), 183-206.

[10]. Rousell, M. (2007). Sudden influence. Westport, CT: Praeger.

[11]. Cited in Charles Duhigg. (2016, Feb 26) “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team.” [Online]. Available:http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html?_r=0, p. 12.

[12]. Jim Whitehurst. 3 Ways to Encourage Smarter Teamwork. [Online]. Available: https://hbr.org/2015/09/3-ways-to-encourage-smarter-teamwork

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