Why are some teams more motivated, more innovative, and more successful than others?
Why do some groups of talented and seemingly compatible people fall short against lesser teams with less suitable members?
And why are we still so surprised about which team members excel, and which ones fail?
We know that high-performing teams deliver higher value results more consistently. But how do you build that high performing team? We have a tendency to believe that successful teams are created by recruiting top-talent and raising the average of talent on a team. But recent research suggests that talent isn’t as portable as we once thought, and that recruiting star players might be more trouble than it’s worth.
More often than not, great teams don’t become great because they recruit top talent or pay top dollar. Instead, building the best team is about shaping the habits and culture that bring out the best in each team member.
Fortunately, organizational psychologists have been studying what explains the culture of great teams for over a decade now. And while each study, each paper, and even each psychologist has slightly different terminology for their findings, you can find a way to summarize what they found into just three elements.
When you look at the research on high performing teams, you find a team culture with three fundamental elements: Common Understanding, Psychological Safety, and Prosocial Purpose.
So in this article, we’ll define these three terms to explain what they are and how you can get started nurturing them on your team’s culture.
The first element of a great team culture is common understanding. Common understanding is the extent to which team members have a commonly held perspective on the team’s expertise, assigned tasks, context, and preferences. It’s the team’s ability to understand everyone else on the team. This includes “hard” understanding like roles and responsibilities, expectations, and timelines. But it’s also a “soft” understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, work preferences, and communication styles.
Building common understanding can be the difference between whether or not your team merely functions as a group of highly skilled individuals or whether they thrive as an actual team.
One simple way to get started building common understanding on your team is to setup regular “huddles.” Huddles are a chance for each teammate to give a quick status update. It can be in a short meeting, like the daily standup from the world of agile development, or it can be a brief report that everyone sends out on a regular basis. The purpose of the huddle is for each teammate to share what they’ve recently completed, what they’re focused on next, and any roadblocks they’re facing. This lets other teammates know what’s going on and gives a chance for them to volunteer to help. And over time, huddles become a way for teammates to learn each other’s work styles as well. Held regularly, huddles help build common understanding quickly.
The second element of a great team culture is psychological safety. Psychological safety is the extent to which team members feel safe to express themselves and take risks. It’s the difference between whether teammates feel free to disagree with each other, and whether that dissent gets harnessed into task-focused conflict that makes the project stronger. Psychological safety is also the difference between laboring away on a project long after a poor decision is made, and catching that poor decision early and pivoting because someone felt free to speak up.
We know that diverse teams tend to make better decisions than homogenous ones, but psychological safety is what determines whether or not a team can actually tap into their diversity and take advantage of diverse perspectives and opinions.
As a leader, one of the best ways you can build psychological safety on your team is to encourage dissent. And encourage here means “actively seek out and welcome” dissent. Most leaders have a tendency to give space for dissent very briefly, by throwing out a quick “comments, concerns, clarifications?” at the end of a long meeting or discussion—the way a priest says “speak now or forever hold your peace” at a wedding just before no one speaks up. Encouraging dissent means actively seeking it out. It means taking several moments during a discussion to admit your perspective and your bias and welcome the chance for someone else to share theirs. And then thanking them for their contribution and making sure they felt heard and understood. Most team members only speak up if they know their voice is welcome—so leaders need to welcome those voices even before they’re heard.
The final element of a great team culture is prosocial purpose. Prosocial purpose is the extent to which team members feel they’re making a contribution toward work that benefits others. In this way, it’s more than just purpose. It’s more than just knowing they get a paycheck from a company with a fancy mission statement. Prosocial purpose means that each member of the team knows what their unique contribution is and knows who is helped by the work that they do. There’s a growing body of research suggesting that people are most motivated when they can recognize a specific person or group that benefits from their work. That could be customers, stakeholders, or even coworkers whose jobs are made easier by your team doing a good job.
We work best when we know whose lives are made better.
So, as a leader, one of the best ways to build prosocial purpose is to make it clear specifically who that who is. This could be by inviting customers in to interact with your team more often, or by reading a letter or email from a different leader in the organization thanking your team for its effort. And when goals are achieved and milestones celebrated, make sure you take a second to connect those achievements back to how that work makes others’ lives or society better.
Great team cultures are built on common understanding, psychological safety, and prosocial purpose. But these three elements aren’t just standalone pillars. They interact and combine and produce a culture even greater than the sum of its parts. When a team has common understanding and prosocial purpose, then over time it attracts the best people to join it. And when a team has common understanding and psychological safety, those people begin to contribute their best ideas. And when a team is marked by psychological safety and prosocial purpose, those same people put forth their best effort.
In short, when you get common understanding, psychological safety, and prosocial purpose, you get the best team ever.
About the author
David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.