Want to be a good team leader? Don’t just focus on performance metrics.

Years ago, I moved in with an uncle who was working in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park immediately following college. While I was looking for a first job in my profession I earned money by working as a bartender and server at a casual restaurant in Raleigh. I had a great time, it was fun - especially working the weekday lunch shifts. We were a tight group that had liked each other and often spent time together outside of work. Often the time between a lunch and evening shift was spent together shooting backets or just hanging out.

The interesting thing was that while working lunch was fun, working the evening shift wasn’t. The evening shift didn't run as smoothly. The manager even commented on this, talking about how effective the lunch staff was compared to the dinner staff. This was in spite of that fact that just about all the lunch staff worked dinners too.

Even though there was a lot of overlap in staff between lunch and evening, the dinner team was larger, which meant that there were some different people in the mix. So how is it that two teams, consisting of overlapping members, produce such different outcomes?

What Makes a Team Effective?

Recently there was an article in the New York Times Magazine about building effective teams, which reminded me of that time in Raleigh. The article reviewed Google’s findings from their research project, called Project Aristotle, in this subject. The outcome of the research is instructive. You can hire the smartest people, the highest achievers, with fantastic resumes. But assembling a group of great people doesn’t necessarily make a great team.

At a high level, Project Aristotle demonstrated that groups with the right norms (norms are the rules of behavior for a group, usually unspoken) were more effective than those without. Collectively these norms were referred to as a “psychologically safe” environment, and attributes of this environment included the norms of team member’s equal participation in meetings and their exhibiting decent sensitivity with one another.

Applying to Leadership

Effective teams matter. They are more productive and produce better outcomes. If you are in a leadership role, how can you apply the lessons learned here in your work?

First of all, it is important to realize that this isn’t about being nice. Establishing a culture of nice behavior, meaning one of conflict-avoidance and ignoring differences, is counter-productive.

What is referred to as psychologically safe is more complex than that. It means that team members trust that their work is appreciated and that they can safely participate in the team’s decision-making process. In other words, it is a culture where the natural barriers to group synergy are lowered. This also means there is a higher level of difficulty for team leaders to successfully implement it.

The degree that you can create this culture is dependent upon the willingness of your team members to participate. Your highest chance for success is to model the behavior you want, and then expect it from the team. Here are some short guidelines:

Seek collaboration, not providing direction

Some leaders are misled by the belief that their purpose is to tell people what to do, so they focus on directing people in their tasks. Command and control is useful in crisis situations, which is why armed services and emergency rooms use this structure. Knowledge work, however, is better served through leveraging creativity and ideas.

*In meetings, ask for input, express appreciation for it. Don’t interrupt and set the expectation that interruption is not acceptable. No one gets to dominate the discussion. Allow conversation to go a little off-track. *

The purpose is to set the stage that collaboration is desired and expected.

Get to know your people, and let them know you.

If leaders are going to achieve real collaboration, team members need to trust that if they risk sharing an idea that it will be treated with respect. Thanking someone for their contribution is nice, but establishing trust goes deeper than that. The Times article included a story of a team leader sharing news to his team about a cancer diagnosis to begin a round of personal sharing.

An additional positive result is that you can find out about what interests team members have, and get an idea of what will challenge them and interest them.

*Check in with your team members. Find out what is going on in their lives. Find out what they like about their work, what they would like to learn. *

The purpose is to build trust, and to discover what will keep them engaged.

Take advantage of team members skills and interests

Engaged staff are higher performing staff. An important way to keep staff engaged is to align work assignments with staff interest to the degree it is possible. Team members will appreciate our effort if it sees you taking this into account. It’s even better if a team participates in distribution of assignments.

Publically talk about assigning project items by skill and interest, and encourage team members to discuss how they would like to grow.

The purpose is to keep members engaged, to implement what you discovered previously.

Marching Orders for the Team Leader

We live in a time where work can be reduced to what is measurable. Metrics are vital, of course. But emphasis on them can cause team leaders to assume that their only useful choices are to try and directly impact them.

Yet the research shows that the soft skills of building teamwork and collaboration are highly correlated, even deterministic, with effective teams. Even more interesting, there is research that shows that highly productive or intelligent individuals don’t automatically lead to effective teams, and effective teams don’t need to be composed of superstars. Comparatively average staff can compose an effective team, provided they have a minimum level or skills and work well together.

As a team leader, you play a vital role in establishing the framework where an effective team becomes possible. Paying attention to the culture of your team, and developing the skills to encourage it, will serve you well. There is no doubt that adding caretaking of the culture to your understood set of responsibilities will make your work as a leader that much more challenging. But being challenged is probably a reason you decided to become a leader.

Reflecting back on that time in the restaurant in Raleigh, I do recall that our lunch group was pretty tight. We wanted each other to do well. We recognized when help was needed by one of us, and would pick each other up without being asked. Of course, we were a relatively smart group – mostly freshly minted college graduates. This also implies a capacity to delay gratification and complete tasks. The evening folks, for the most part, had similar individual qualities. The outcome was different though.