10 Productive Practices Learned About Successful Teams

I can understand that some of you out there loathe working in team environments. For whatever reason, working in teams brings up deep, tense feelings that are almost always negative. But fear not – there are some ways to make team work productive, effective, and even fun!

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As a former athlete, I’ve been on a lot of teams, from tee ball and youth soccer to varsity basketball to NCAA Division III field hockey. My college academic experience was heavily based on project-based teams; at WPI we needed to complete projects in most classes as well as two significant projects to graduate. One was related to our major, and the other focused on creating a cross-disciplinary impact in the world around us. Every day at work, I have the opportunity to work with a few unique teams to take on transformative opportunities.

Over the past decade, I have had the opportunity to observe, participate, and lead teams that functioned with success. I also experienced those filled with stress and strife. When a team functions well, anything can be accomplished. When there is struggle, the finish line feels further away every day. It is important to focus on what matters, and the list of productive practices that follow will help you do that.

In the professional realm, we often have little influence about the teams we are on. We are hired into them, assigned to them, or maybe even volunteer into something existing. We have to make the best of who and what we have to create success with a team. Here are my ten top most productive practices I’ve learned about leading and contributing to successful teams.

  1. Set the tone and be the example – For any member of a team, the requirement to possess and practice maturity is imperative to success. You need to live the virtues and behaviors that you expect from your teammates. As a leader, this is especially important to execute, and even more so if you have members with incentives in their own divisions that contrast with other teammates.When others see your example and expectations, and even more so when you speak AND live these expectations, the bar is set for what everyone needs to bring to the table.
  2. Set team goals that are meaningful to everyone – Teams are generally made up of people with disparate goals and measurements, even if the team’s focus is united. Even though each member has their own performance measurements with their individual manager, it is important to tie all of those together, weaving a set of common goals. You’ll often find that as you define these, all are interested in helping each other be successful. When I’ve taken the time to do group goal setting, it builds a sense of trust and understanding among the whole team. Everyone understands each other and their motives better.
  3. Create an environment of trust and healthy debate – You MUST create a culture of productive questioning. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the psychological theory that defines how human motivations function, “safety” is the second foundational level of what people are striving for, right after concepts like food and shelter. Eventually, they aspire to belonging and accomplishment as early needs levels are met. And so how do you ensure team members feel safe in an environment with trust and healthy debate?
    1. Individually meet with your team members to get to know them better. It might be a five minute discussion every week before or after a meeting, or if might be an initial 30 minute coffee to kick things off.
    2. Allow everyone a chance to speak and share facts and opinions about the situation being discussed. This is a place to balance personal feelings, as something like “I am frustrated by the lack of rule following by vendors” presents not just the feeling, but the cause that can be addressed. Alternately, something like “I hate the new paint color” is not as productive in identifying something that can change or provides meaningful value to people who are impacted.
    3. Acknowledge the points speakers make,and allow discussion to continue as long as needed, or until a consensus is reached or circular discussion ensues. Consider how important it is to not play favorites. Keep the goals of the team first over your personal preferences.
  4. Maintain flexibility – No matter what your expected outcome is, you need to remain nimble to change. The ability to react timely and intelligently to change is a differentiator in any team, organization, or personal endeavor. While processes may exist, figure out what is required (or legal) and where you can adjust if needed. There is also nuance to consider. Nothing is fully black or white – there are an infinite amount of shades of grey to an issue, including many that could be correct or cause catastrophe. Remember that just about every problem or issue, of any complexity or size, has some variation of a solution that will work. Your patience and positive approach will be required as you figure this out.
  5. Give praise and show appreciation – Who doesn’t love knowing they are doing work that makes a difference?! This is an easy morale booster. I believe in lavishing deserved praise publicly, but get to know your team so that you can give the right feedback in a meaningful way to each member. If someone else shares praise for the team’s outcomes or progress, even if directed at you as the leader, it is an imperative that you turn around and share that with the team. This is something you can practice especially as a team leader, but even as a team member. It works to build mutual trust and appreciation. Thank you notes are simple but can go a long way!
  6. Share the “wealth”, including delegating – When you are a team leader, you need to recognize that you can’t do everything yourself. First, there is not enough time to accomplish everything that needs to get done. Secondly, people want to be able to contribute to problem solving. Even if you aren’t the team leader, it is important to recognize that you may have more on your plate than can you can handle. Providing opportunity to others, particularly associates striving to get new and more experiences, can help them grow and develop. Take the time to train to help colleagues succeed in the tasks that you delegate.
  7. Move sensitive discussions offline –  This is a major opportunity to show that you respect the people you work with. You need to learn to sense when someone is getting uncomfortable and when the discussion no longer benefits everyone in the room. The key here is learning to identify when you need to take it offline and when is discussion or debate should continue in the presence of all. This takes time and practice, and certainly a dose of self-awareness and awareness of others.
  8. Appoint a minutes or notes taker – I don’t often get to take advantage of this, but when I am able to share this responsibility with another team member, I feel more engaged, that I am a better listener, and more likely to support the team in finding the right solution to a question. Additionally, it helps the note taker become more engaged and deeply understanding of the action items, because they must report on them. In terms of benefiting the entire team, the sometimes tedious task of taking notes can be helpful references for further decision making or historical record.
  9. Make the decisions and stick to it – But don’t be afraid to admit mistakes. If you do run into mistakes, it is important to consider the opportunity and sunk costs and maybe move on. But the point is to not waffle on items that need a decision. If you are not comfortable making decisions, you might want to consider roles that are outside the leadership path OR develop better decision making skills – your decision! Back-up decisions, or those made with a contingency, may be helpful in the cases where you need to sort through seemingly irreconcilable differences. It isn’t quite a compromise, but a predetermined alternative that if something changes, you have a fall back. I do this often when we need to make a scope change but there are some questions about which products we can use. Based on the information we have and then need to obtain, I set a priority order of if-then decisions. One area this additionally benefits is not slowing things down for the team when we have the information again.
  10. Take care of yourself – Service with, through, and to others can leave you drained. Engaging in self care like proper sleep, eating, and exercise habits can make a difference. Remember that it is not on you to solve every problem. By empowering your team to act in your absence, you can save some sanity. Even with mountains of work it is important to recharge and rest your brain. You’ll feel refreshed and can more easily do all of the above! I try to plan some “down working time” or vacation and let the team know in advance when I won’t be available. When I do this, it helps the team work continue working while I meet my needs, and we still all stay committed to our goals.

These ten themes cover almost all of the most important elements I have seen in running teams that function not just well, but with a level of excellence for all involved. Generally, people will perform to the level expected of them. If you expect your team to overcome obstacles and make a difference, and treat them well in accordance with the ten themes, your team may even exceed your expectations. The freedom and autonomy that success brings encourages others that the hard work is worth it, especially when results can be seen in the short term.

One major theme I purposefully left off this list because it is so important and all aspects of life and business depend on it is communication. In the future, I’ll write a few posts that revolve around this theme and how important it is to success and happiness in every way.

What else have you seen help you be successful on or leading teams? Who has been the best leader you’ve worked with and what made them special?


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