Defining traits of productive teams

The gap between the theory and the reality of team productivity is varying in breadth from one organization to the next. Teams of equal structure, similar levels of expertise and experience, the same guiding principles, and even access to resources may not necessarily perform at the same level or achieve similar results. Over the following lines, we will identify a number of shared characteristics commonly found among high-performing teams and provide actionable pointers on how to promote the development of the traits in question.

What makes teams perform better?

The area of team collaboration is not an exact science. The success of a collaborative relationship is dependent on a variety of factors – organizational, interpersonal, and individual. And while organizations tend to focus on the practical aspects of their operations – providing the necessary resources for their teams to function, the less tangible area of team identity and team dynamics is often neglected. 

Before the final decades of the 20th century, the lack of focus on team productivity and the factors that impact it has not only been reflected in the practices of organizations, but also in organizational theory. However, from the early 1980s onwards, a significant interest in this area can be seen in the works of some of the most influential authors on the subjects of organizational management, teamwork, and group dynamics, such as Belbin (1981), Carnevale, Gainer & Meltzer (1990), or Katzenbach & Smith (1993). These authors, as well as many others, have offered their interpretations of the factors that impact team productivity and suggestions on how to improve the effectiveness of professional relationships. 

Leaning on the extensive body of work of many scholars focused on team productivity, authors Isaksen and Laurel have identified 10 characteristics of productive teams that their predecessors have all deemed relevant to the success of collaborative partnerships. We will take a closer look at each of these 10 characteristics and see what steps organizations can take to develop and embrace these team characteristics. 

Clear shared goals

One of the key factors for a successful collaborative relationship is the establishment of and the collective alignment around clearly defined and communicated team goals. In simpler terms, it is essential that everyone pulls in the same direction with the full understanding of how everyone’s individual efforts contribute to the achievement of the shared goal(s). Isaksen and Laurel interpret a “clear and elevating goal” as “having understanding, mutual agreement and identification with respect to the primary task a group faces”, adding that active teamwork towards a common goal takes place when members of a group share a common vision of the desired future state. 

How to set clear and effective goals

In order to set clear team goals and introduce a guiding vision that team members can follow, organizations must first have a strong understanding of what they wish to achieve. Once that understanding is in place, it is all about dividing the journey towards the declared objectives into actionable steps and stages. There are many different approaches to goal setting and there’s no objective way to choose one that works better than others. However, we would be remiss not to mention the commonly utilized practice of SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound), both for its popularity and a fairly structured set of actions teams can perform in order to set their goals on a healthy foundation.

Result-driven structure

A “result-driven structure” is a concept that’s difficult to quantify. While the general consensus on its meaning involves achieving objectives with minimal hassle and highlights the focus on results instead of the process, approaches to the creation of such a structure may vary significantly. 

Popularized by Peter Drucker, one of the most influential management thinkers, in his 1954 book “The Practice of Management”, the concept is marked by a strong sense of shared priorities among team members, a singular mission, and an utmost focus on delivery. As the application of the concept is greatly dependant on the specific nature of a team’s work, a result-driven structure is not a one-size-fits-all approach, but more an adherence to a set of principles and practices geared towards achieving maximum results with minimal effort. 

How to create a result-driven structure

Creating a professional structure focused on results is a multi-faceted process, with Isaksen and Laurel identifying the following factors as crucial to this goal: 

  • Open communication
  • Clear coordination of tasks
  • Clear roles and responsibilities
  • Monitoring performance
  • Providing feedback
  • Fact-based judgment
  • Efficiency
  • Strong impartial management

In short, attaining a result-driven structure is all about optimizing processes, efforts, and resources in order to find the shortest path towards achieving desired results. 

Competent team members

While this characteristic may seem obvious, poor personnel choices are one of the most common stumbling blocks for effective collaboration. For a collaborative partnership to be successful, participants must possess relevant professional skills and abilities, but also a strong desire to contribute, the ability to collaborate effectively, as well as a conscientious and responsible approach to work. 

How to identify good collaborators

In order to identify and attract professionals that function well in a collaborative environment, organizations need to expand their focus beyond the necessary professional skills. Collaboration is a collective effort that requires participants to engage with one another, which calls for a whole set of skills that go beyond one’s knowledge of their professional realm. 

Unified commitment

This characteristic can be rephrased as “placing the team before the individual”. Unified commitment is the shared dedication to the common purpose and vision of the team, reflected in mutual support, commitment to the performance of individual tasks, and what Isaksen and Laurel describe as a “productive degree of self-sacrifice” in reaching organizational goals. 

How to build commitment on a team

Team-level commitment is rooted in a number of factors. It all starts with the collective acceptance of the team vision and goals, extends from a clear definition of roles and responsibilities, and grows further from a number of affirmative practices, from support and encouragement to praise and recognition, as well as providing the right degree of professional challenge and allowing room for error. The individual commitment of team members is reciprocal to their sense of value and appreciation as collaborators.

Collaborative environment

A productive collaborative relationship does not grow in a vacuum. Effective collaboration requires a supportive climate that promotes and enables collaboration. One factor that Isaksen and Laurel recognize as crucial to the development of a collaborative climate is mutual trust – the faith in the ability of others to contribute to the success of their professional relationship and the achievement of collective goals. 

How to foster a collaborative environment

Again, there is no universally accepted set of practices designed to build a more collaborative environment, but a set of guiding principles that organizations can utilize in a variety of ways. Some of the key principles for the fostering of a collaborative climate are: 

  • Executive support: organizational investment in promoting and reinforcing teamwork and collaborative practices
  • Setting an example: active engagement in collaborative activities from senior employees and executives
  • Mentoring: formal and informal activities geared towards the transfer of knowledge and experience from the senior members of the organizations to others in order to create a cooperative culture
  • Building a community: focusing on collective activities that reinforce the interpersonal relationships among team members and create a sense of belonging to a community of professionals 

Standards of excellence

One common trait of identified high-performing teams is their adherence to established clear standards of excellence. Establishing these standards is rooted in the explicit collective understanding and acceptance of the norms of their work, as well as individual commitment, motivation, and a constant dedication to improvement. 

How to set standards of excellence

Excellence is a relative term that is ultimately defined by every organization. The first step in this process is setting clear expectations from all individuals, and transforming them into norms through mutual accountability, supported by quantifiable and objective assessments of the quality of individual work, as well as the work of the whole. 

Support and recognition

Productive team members are motivated, and their motivation is largely dependent on their sense of value to the team. This value is demonstrated through rewards and recognition – both for the individual and the team as a whole. Providing recognition for individual contributions to a team can be a strong impulse for maintaining a high level of motivation and energy of team members. On a team level, recognition of the value of a team to the whole of an organization and organizational support and approval are also strong motivators. 

How to recognize your team

Practical manifestations of providing recognition are largely dependent on the specific culture harbored by an organization. Rather than focusing on examples of employee recognition, it is more important to adhere to the fundamental principles that will ensure that the recognition is effective. Two of the most important things to keep in mind are objectiveness in identifying and highlighting the most relevant contributions and consistency in adhering to the same standards for the recognition of achievements. 

Appropriate use of the team

Effective collaboration is a powerful weapon in an organizational arsenal. However, it is not always the best way to achieve maximum productivity. Sometimes we can achieve better and faster results through independent work, and harnessing a team effort in such situations can be less effective, and even detrimental to team productivity. Collaborative teams can only be productive in situations that require a collaborative effort and overusing a team or using it for inappropriate scenarios will not deliver the best results.

When to utilize a team effort

Choosing when to collaborate is a delicate art that requires a bit of experience and trial-and-error. Involving all team members in the process of choosing the best path forward and finding the right approach for any given situation is a solid practice that will ensure consensus, while the after-the-fact assessment of the effectiveness of the chosen approach will inform future decisions. 

Participation in decision-making

Inclusion of all team members in the decision-making process on all issues relevant to the course of the project encourages teamwork and builds collective acceptance and shared accountability. Productive teams involve everyone when identifying challenges and opportunities, generating ideas, and problem-solving. Additionally, taking part in making decisions increases one’s ownership of the shared work, and thus their motivation for contributing to the shared goals. 

How to encourage employee involvement in decision-making

The most effective manner of collective decision-making, particularly on small teams, is direct communication. However, not all participants are equally inclined to provide their perspectives. They should be directly encouraged to get involved and impact the course of their shared work, but organizations can also opt for a more anonymous approach, such as suggestion boxes and questionnaires. 

Team spirit

A common thread among productive teams is the high degree of interpersonal relationships among their members. A personal connection among collaborators increases their motivation and their investment in the success of their joint effort. This connection is primarily built to engaging in work with one another, but also through “extracurricular” group activities, from socializing outside of working hours to various team-building activities. 

How to foster team spirit 

The development of team spirit starts with the selection process and focusing on the right fit of personalities that can work well together. Once that combination is achieved, the team spirit is further developed through encouraging collective activities and including everyone in those activities, be it having lunch together or enjoying a dring after a long day of work. 

Conclusion

The development of productive collaborative teams is an organizational holy grail. There is no easy way to make teams as productive as possible. Increasing team-level productivity requires a comprehensive effort that encompasses both professional and interpersonal areas and adheres to a number of principles that come together to form a healthy collaborative climate necessary for the maximum performance of teams and their members. 

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