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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

9 Steps to Building (and Leading) a Successful Team

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When it comes to putting together an all-star team, many managers tend to focus only on their lineup. But building a successful team goes far beyond simply hiring a roster of high performers.

Success, experts say, is as much about the how as the who. The most effective teams share certain characteristics and ways of operating—including strong communication; a supportive, collaborative culture; and clearly defined roles and goals.

Whether you’re managing a new team or trying to motivate your crew to get them over the finish line, here are nine essential steps to building and leading a great team.

1. Clearly Communicate Goals and Processes

Set goals at the team level and the individual level—and discuss them continuously. “There needs to be communication and interactions between the leader and the team to make sure everyone is on board,” says Jasmine Hu, associate professor of management at Fisher College of Business, The Ohio State University. “Everyone needs to understand what the goals are, how each person’s set goals fit into overall goals, and what each member of the team can do to accomplish overall goals.” This structure helps the team succeed.

2. ...But Be Willing to Evolve

On a well-functioning team, goals and processes are flexible as circumstances evolve, Hu notes. “They should be changing all the time,” she says. “It’s important for everyone to have the right and the room to make adjustments along the way.”

3. Stay Connected

Building relationships builds trust and understanding. “You form a relationship with your team through day-to-day interactions, through tasks, and socially,” Hu says. “You get to know them as a person, so you understand their needs.”

4. Allow Freedom to Fail

People need to feel that they can speak up, disagree, and make mistakes. This is known as “psychological safety,” and research by Google found that it’s the most important common characteristic among high-performing teams. It’s vital for any team, but especially creative ones that are developing something new.

To cultivate psychological safety, leaders need to examine their own attitude toward failure and how they project it, Hu says. Emphasize in verbal communication and actions that mistakes are not only tolerated, but rather seen as a necessary step towards improvement.

5. Acknowledge Your Own Mistakes

Part of cultivating a culture of psychological safety is having leadership that openly talks about their missteps. It’s powerful to see leaders not only mess up, but also acknowledge their failures, Hu says. “The team feels more comfortable with humanized leaders and feels brave enough to speak up,” she says.

6. Know (and Show) the Value of the Team’s Work

Feeling like what you do every day has an impact—to the company or to the world—is a powerful motivator. Researchers call this “prosocial motivation,” and it can be cultivated. Hu points to a Volvo program as an example. The company invited customers who had survived an accident thanks to their car’s design to meet the engineers who had done the work. It was a compelling interaction for the engineers, who otherwise didn’t get to see the effect of their daily tasks on people’s lives.

7. Be Dependable

Team members need to be able to rely on each other to deliver, so the team can move faster and further. “You need team members to help each other out,” says Hu. Leadership can, once again, show the way; Hu says team members will gradually learn and emulate the leader’s behavior. Even bringing on one or two dependable teammates will, over time, change the culture of a team, Hu says.

8. Celebrate Wins

Celebrate successes within the team, and give shoutouts outside the team, too. If you’re the humble type, you may not be comfortable announcing your team’s achievements; reframing the idea may help, Hu says. Think of promoting the team’s accomplishments not as bragging, but helping them get the resources they need for continued success.

9. Adapt to Your Team

Expectations of a leader, in particular, can trip up a team, Hu’s research has shown. If your team is expecting an authoritative type and you’re a born collaborator, the team might not feel you’re effective. You’ll need to modify your behavior to fit your team’s needs. A more humble leader may need to promote their group’s work. A more extroverted leader may need to focus on listening.

infographic illustrating tips for building and leading a team, full text above
Infographic design by Milkwhale