Ingredients and Tactics for a High Performing Team

Ingredients and Tactics for a High Performing Team
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Design work is a team sport. Have you ever been on a team that’s a dream to work with? Great teams are energizing, get great results, and support our growth as designers. Conversely, dysfunctional teams can sap our motivation and often produce sub-par results. Since so much of design work requires working in teams and collaborating with others, it’s natural to wonder why some teams thrive while others nose-dive. So why do some teams work so much better than others, and what can you do about it as a team member or team leader?

Ingredients for a high-performing team

In 2012, Google set out to study what defined high-performing teams. The multi-year research project, code-named “Project Aristotle,” found that the number one determinant of high-performing teams is “psychological safety.” Psychological safety can be characterized as comfort taking a risk in the group, or being vulnerable in front of teammates. Since psychological safety is a complex concept, it’s helpful to break it down a bit further.

Neuroscience has made recent discoveries about the ways in which people interact socially, and identifies that the reason psychological safety affects team performance is that the brain perceives social threats and rewards in the same way as physical ones. The SCARF model from David Rock can be used to further break down the primary social needs that neuroscience has identified as key to performance as follows:

    • Status: people need to feel confident about their relative importance to others, and feel recognition in the group.
    • Certainty: people need to be able to identify what’s ahead with relative confidence.
    • Autonomy: people need to have a sense of control over events, their work, and life.
    • Relatedness: people need to feel safe in the group and that the team has their back.
    • Fairness: people need to feel that they have a fair chance in their interactions and exchanges.

We can think about the SCARF model as key components of psychological safety. It acts as a baseline for what needs to be in place for teams. The Project Aristotle findings were that psychological safety is the foundational trait that high-performing teams exhibit. On top of that, teams that are successful demonstrate dependability, structure, and clarity, and attribute meaning and impact to their work. For many teams, gelling around a shared goal is crucial to motivating and enabling success. In addition, clarity on roles, expected contributions, goals, and reporting structures sets the conditions for a team to win.

Tactics for setting-up the right conditions

Now that we understand the key ingredients of high-performing teams, what are some of the things we can practice to enable these conditions? Creating a sense of psychological safety is easier said than done, and all teams need to move through the forming, storming, norming and performing phases of team development. While these phases cannot be rushed or forced, there are some things you can do as a team member or team leader to enable the conditions that support a high performing team.

1. Building trust

Trust is a foundational element of psychological safety and is connected to people’s needs for status, certainty, relatedness, and fairness. Some ways to practice trust building include:

    • Make a conscious effort to exercise active listening when engaging with your team members and peers. Truly listening to what people are saying and helping them to feel heard will enable the trust-building process. Try playing back what you have heard with phrases like, “What I’m hearing is…” or “Let me play back what I’m understanding.”
    • Use team-forming exercises at the outset of a project to get to know each other’s working and communication styles. User manuals are a great example of an activity to try. Each team member fills one out and everyone shares. The manuals can be saved as a reference throughout the project.
    • Get to know your team members as people, that is fundamental to trust building. This does not mean everyone has to be best friends, however, having empathy for people as human beings with lives outside of work will go a long way for developing trust.

2. Having fun together

Finding time as a team to enjoy things that go beyond the work at hand bolsters relationships and enhances a sense of relatedness and belonging.

Eating together is a time-tested way of building relationships and humanizing others.
    • Spend time together on non-work tasks to possibly benefit work — for example, eating together, or ritualized sharing of things not directly related to project work. This can look like a regular team lunch, or perhaps a weekly sharing of something funny or interesting that a team member learned or came across.
    • Extend little gestures that show you know who your teammates are. These can go a long way — for example, finding out people’s favorite snacks and bringing them as a treat, or leaving notes expressing gratitude for a job well done. These gestures can also be ways to develop inside jokes or shared language and experiences.

3. Considering the SCARF needs in how you work

    • Use project management and visualization tools to create a shared, tangible vision of where you’re going as a team and what’s coming next. This connects people to a sense of certainty and autonomy, as they have a view of where the team is headed and their role in the plan.
    • Use visual thinking to level the playing field — as Dave Gray elegantly elaborates, many of the visual thinking techniques familiar to designers enable these key social needs. Drawing ideas, and making work visible and tangible on post-it notes and walls helps to flatten hierarchy, and makes the team focus on the work, ideas, and shared vision.
    • Be grateful and recognize the work and contributions of your team members. Taking time to thank and celebrate them enhances people’s sense of status within a team.

One team, one dream

Teams are complex, living systems with human needs at the center. What’s most important as an indicator of performance is that people feel good in their teams, and have their psychological and social needs met. Find ways to keep that in mind in your behaviors and approach to work as a team. Focusing on building trust, having fun, and considering the SCARF model will increase your chances of working on a successful team.

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