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What If We Were Serious About Teams? Setting Up Teams for Success

"Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much."
– Helen Keller


Richard Hackman, a pioneer in the field of organizational behavior, began studying teams in the 1970s and in his decades of research found that what makes teams effective is not the attributes, personalities, or styles of team members. Rather, there are certain “enabling conditions” that are critical to team success. Recent research confirms – and adds to – Hackman’s findings.

Are teams important in organizations? Let’s look at some numbers:

  • 500% – companies that promoted collaborative working were 5 times as likely to be high performing (source: Institute for Corporate Productivity)
  • 86% – number of those surveyed who reported that lack of collaboration was responsible for workplace failures (source: Salesforce survey of more than 1,200 corporate executives, employees, and educators)
  • 64% – those working collaboratively stuck at their task 64% longer while also reporting higher engagement levels, lower fatigue levels, and a higher success rate (source: Forbes reporting on a Stanford University study)
  • 37% – number of employees who say “working with a great team” is their primary reason for staying with their current job (source: Gusto)

Teams are increasingly global and virtual, and these trends will likely only increase. On the one hand, companies have tapped the power of teams to bring out the best in people, enabling them to achieve more. On the other hand, there is more to ensuring the success of a team than pulling together a group of talented individuals under a team label. What are the “enabling conditions” that companies and team leaders must create and reinforce for teams to be highly effective?

Professors Martine Haas and Mark Mortensen in “The Secrets of Great Teamwork” (HBR, June 2016) confirm that three of Hackman’s conditions – a compelling direction, a strong structure, and a supportive context – remain critical to team success. They add a fourth condition, a shared mindset, to address issues faced by modern teams.

  1. Compelling direction. Great teams require clear direction in the form of goals that are both “challenging” and “consequential” (i.e., offering extrinsic or intrinsic rewards).
  2. Strong structure. Teams need not only the right number and mix of members, but also require structural elements, such as tasks and processes that are designed effectively, as well as norms or a culture that elicits positive team dynamics and values multiple types of diversity (not only age, gender, and race, but also knowledge and perspectives).
  3. Supportive context. Teams require support in the form of a reward system for good performance, an information system that provides needed data, a training system to develop needed skills, and a resources system for securing funding, equipment, technology, etc.
  4. Shared mindset. Because teams are less often homogenous groups located in one location but increasingly are global, diverse, and separated by distance while linked primarily by technology, they need the unifying element of a shared mindset that fosters common identify and common understanding to collaborate effectively and be cohesive.

Alex Pentland, director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory, in “The New Science of Building Teams (HBR, April 2012) found patterns of communication to be the single most important predictor of a team’s success. His research identified three critical dimensions related to communication.

  • Energy. This is defined as the number and nature of exchanges among team members. The most valuable form of communication is face-to-face where everyone on the team talks and listens in roughly equal measure.
  • Engagement. In effective teams, all members engage each other. Where only a few dominant team members are highly engaged and the rest hold back, performance suffers.
  • Exploration. This refers to communication outside the team. The highest performing teams seek more external connections, especially for the creative types of work that require fresh perspectives.

Finally, Google undertook an initiative dubbed “Project Aristotle” (2012) to identify 
the characteristics of effective teams. In looking for factors to predict success, the researchers were initially puzzled because what worked for one team appeared to be the opposite of what worked for another. Eventually they concluded that group norms about how team members treated one another was a common factor in all successful teams. More specifically, the ability to create “psychological safety” was key. Psychological safety refers to skilled communication and empathy (sensing how others feel based on nonverbal cues), and describes establishing a climate of trust and mutual respect where people feel comfortable with interpersonal risk-taking and just “being themselves.” Other factors, such as clear goals and creating a culture of dependability, are also important. But psychological safety, more than any other element, was critical to team success.

So, how do we set up teams to be successful? Selecting competent and committed team members is only the starting point. If we are serious about establishing high performing teams, leaders must focus on the critical enabling factors common to the best teams.

“None of us is as smart as all of us.”
– Ken Blanchard

Dee Oviatt is Senior Training Consultant at ATW Training Solutions. Dee can be reached at or by calling 515.727.0731.

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