Is the whole greater than the sum of its parts?

Charlotte Axon explores what makes teams effective

What makes teams effective?

What makes teams effective?

For most of us, being part of a team is a key part of our working lives. According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, today’s youngest workers will hold an average of 12 - 15 jobs in their lifetime.

I’ve been lucky enough to explore team development through my occupational psychology research[1]. And I’d like to share some key findings – what makes teams highly effective, and how these factors can be used in your everyday work.

What do we know about teams?

Teams are not necessarily linked via organisational charts, but exist where members have highly interdependent relationships. Team members make decisions and solve problems together, and rely on each other for success. Often they spend a large amount of time working together, which makes it even more important to understand how the composition of individuals equates to outcomes.

Leadership matters

My research addressed the impact of a team development intervention over 12 months, and found that leadership was key to increasing team effectiveness.

The manager of the team made a conscious change to their leadership approach, which focused less on individual targets and more on individual development. The manager expected that as each individual worked closer to ‘their full potential’ the overall team effectiveness (i.e. sales) would increase – and it did.

Following the intervention, the team reported higher levels of:

  • Clarity over meeting outcomes;
  • Understanding of how their individual role contributes towards team goals;
  • Commitment towards helping achieving team goals

You can read about the findings in the main report.

So is team effectiveness enhanced when we focus on individuals?

A recent study by Google aimed to “discover the secrets of effective teams”. Replicating a method used to determine what makes a great manager, the researchers used a combination of qualitative assessments (i.e. peer ratings) and quantitative measures (sales performance) to define ‘effectiveness’.

These findings suggest that team effectiveness was less about individual team members, but more about how they worked together. You may be intrigued to learn of the factors which were found to be related (and unrelated) to team effectiveness.

The five most influential factors were (in order):

  1. Psychological safety (i.e. members are confident taking risks around each other, with no negative judgements for admitting mistakes)
  2. Dependability (i.e. members complete high quality work on time)
  3. Structure and clarity (i.e. members have a clear understanding of expectations, how to fulfil these, and how individual performance impacts team effectiveness)
  4. Meaning (i.e. members find the work to be personally meaningful)
  5. Impact (i.e. members see that their work can make a difference and contributes to the organisation’s goals)

Perhaps surprisingly, factors not found to be related to team effectiveness included individual personality, co-location of teammates, individual performance, workload size, or team size.

So what does this tell us?

Although this research looked specifically at Google employees, the findings tell us something crucial about teams. And it’s not rocket science. Feeling supported, ‘safe’ and confident amongst your peers matters.

Have you ever joined a new team, or jumped into a new role, only to find that you are suddenly unsure or uneasy about bringing up new ideas? Have you ever been in a situation where you know your colleagues have great insight and ways of working to bring to the table, but they don’t ever mention them? These sorts of scenarios reflect reduced psychological safety in a team, and can stem from situations such as individuals having their views dismissed in public forums by more senior colleagues.

Interestingly, the Google research also concluded that individuals scoring higher on psychological safety were less likely to leave, were more open to the power of diverse opinion and brought in higher revenue. Demonstrating a strong business case for fostering psychological safety in an organisation.

So what can we learn from this?

Psychological safety

Establish whether team members feel comfortable suggesting ideas in front of others, and in making mistakes without fear of judgement. Fostering psychological safety requires that managers share information with team members about their own preferences and working styles, and actively encourage them to do the same. Make it clear that you want to hear their opinions.

It is also worth considering the three organisational behavioural scientist Amy Edmondson proposes (see her TEDx talk):

1.      Frame the work as a problem with learning, not execution;

2.      Acknowledge your own fallibility;

3.      Encourage curiosity and ask lots of questions


Establish whether team members feel that their work provides a sense of personal and professional fulfilment, and whether it considers their individual development needs and areas of interest, rather than solely skills and ability. Provide positive feedback on an area they are excelling at, and offer to help in areas they struggle with. You can also act as a role model by publically expressing your gratitude when someone helps you out. Have a look at this KPMG study: “Motivating Employees Through a Deeper Sense of Purpose”.


Establish whether team members feel that their work contributes to making positive change, and how current processes may be impacting on individual wellbeing. Create a shared vision that clearly demonstrates how each member’s work contributes to the wider team and organisational goals. It is important to regularly reflect on your work and how it impacts stakeholders.

Prosocial motivation (the motivation to benefit others)

Capitalise on the fact that organisations see higher performance, more organisational citizenship behaviours and reduced turnover where individuals are motivated to promote the benefits of others. Through their focus on others, these individuals can be guided to build strong interpersonal relationships and reduce dysfunctional conflicts in order to generate effective team outcomes.

Some final thoughts

Although team membership and goals often change, research and practice shows us that there are some simple steps that we can take to increase the likelihood of better team performance.  In particular organisations can; 

  • establish clear expectations around how diversity of views are welcomed and considered;
  • encourage team behaviour which focuses on helping others;
  • ensure that team members gain a sense of personal satisfaction from their work; and
  • highlight how their actions impact on a broader scale.

If you want your teams to collaborate and perform to their maximum potential, a great starting point would be to consider whether this lists applies to the teams in your organisation. And if not, explore the reasons why. 

Charlotte Axon, October 2017

About Charlotte and how to find out more

Charlotte has a Masters in Occupational Psychology and works at the University of Sheffield. She is currently trialling an innovative approach to talent attraction. To explore more about Charlotte's research, you can read her original paper here

[1] Jordan, T., & Axon, C. (2013). Nine ways to improve team effectiveness – A case study report. British Psychological Society. Book of Proceedings for DOP Annual Conference, Chester, UK.