Teams are how work gets done most of the time. In a knowledge work economy, up to 85% of an average employee’s time is spent in collaboration with other people—on one team or on multiple teams. And that makes effective collaboration and good teamwork a top tier skill. Whether you’re currently a leader or looking to become a leader, focusing on developing your teamwork skills—and the level of teamwork on your team—is one of the highest returns on effort you can experience.
In this article, we’ll outline 3 keys to good teamwork and offer a few practical ways to improve on each one.
The first key to good teamwork is clarity. Teammates need a clear set of tasks and objectives, and also to be clear on the tasks others are focused on. They need to be able to depend on the team to deliver on commitments and be clear about how their deliverables fit into the larger whole. In addition, teams need clarity on each others knowledge, skills, abilities, strengths and weaknesses. They need to know who the subject matter expert is for any given task and who is still developing that skill in order to properly assign tasks…and to ask the right person for help from time to time.
There are a number of ways to establish clarity when beginning a project, but teams also need to be deliberate about maintaining clarity as the project rolls out and the fog of work sets in. One effective way to do that is through a “huddle”—a regular, and fast paced meeting where teammates gather and report on what they’ve completed, where their focus is now, and where they might need help. Over time, this routine will help everyone know what’s happening, but also who is excelling at what tasks and how they can help each other.
The second key to good teamwork is empathy. If clarity is about understanding the tasks, empathy is about understanding the people on the team. Teammates need to know about each other’s different work preferences, personalities, and routines. Without empathy, we tend to assume our teammates will think and act like us—and when they don’t it can create conflict and confusion. And the more diverse a team, the more important empathy becomes on the team.
There are a variety of ways to build empathy but one of the most effective is through crafting and revising a team charter—or ways of working, group norms, rules of the road, and a host of other names. The idea behind a team charter is to facilitate a conversation about all the taken-for-granted assumptions about collaboration the team may have—like proper email response time, reasons to call meetings, ways to make decisions, etc. As they discuss, the team arrives at a set of norms they can agree to and then they abide by those norms for a few months before revisiting and revising based on what was learned. Empathy isn’t created by having the document, but rather in the process of having all those discussions.
The third key to good teamwork is safety—as in psychological safety. The level of mutual trust and respect felt on a team has a massive effect on the team’s ability to perform. If teammates feel safe to speak up, share ideas, or admit failures than the quality of their conversations and collaboration improves dramatically. Without psychological safety teams struggle to achieve a growth mindset and to learn and grow—and that puts a ceiling on the performance they’ll experience.
One fast way to start building psychological safety on a team is to signal vulnerability by asking for feedback. This is especially effective for leaders who can send individual emails out to each teammate asking just two simple questions:
- What’s something I do well that I should do more of?
- What’s something you wish I would stop doing?
Because every teammate will have different answers, leaders must synthesize all the answers before they can apply anything learned. But the very action of asking for such honest feedback will signal to the team that their leader wants transparency. Over time that transparency will grow the feeling of psychological safety—especially once the team sees their feedback being applied.
And once psychological safety on the team grows, it will be easier to grow empathy as well. And when safety and empathy are high, teammates give more honest status updates in their huddles and clarity grows as well. As all three of these keys to good teamwork grow, the team’s performance will grow, because the team will become a place where everyone feels like they can do their best work ever.
About the author
David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.