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What makes a good team?

In this post Tessa Cooper, a product manager, explores her tips and trick for making a good team.

In this post Tessa Cooper, a product manager, explains her tips and tricks for making a good team.

I’ve worked with a whole variety of teams, with different skills and backgrounds, different goals and motivations and very different personalities. Many people believe that if you don’t have the ‘right’ type of personalities within a team, or the ‘right’ level of skill within a team then it’s unlikely to be successful. But this isn’t true – no team ever has the perfect mix of personalities and no team ever has the ‘right’ diversity in skills and abilities. The most important way that you can help a team be successful is to make sure that everyone feels supported and able to achieve their goals.

It sounds very simple. And in all honesty when people have asked me about how you encourage teams to work together effectively I’ve generally retorted with ‘It’s simple. Don’t be horrible to each other and trust people to get on with doing what they want to do’. But the question comes up a lot, so I decided to have a think about some steps I’d encourage all teams to take in order to be successful.

teamwork at futurelearn
Team work in progress at FutureLearn.

Recognise that you don’t all think or feel in the same way

Some people realise that others don’t think the same as them when they are in their teenage years, most people only recognise it when they’ve been working for a good 5 years or so, and the rest tend to never really recognise it at all. Brexit is a good example – people really struggled to fathom that half the population could think the complete opposite to them. This lack of recognition and empathy regarding how others might think or behave is the downfall of many teams.

When I start in a new team I try as much as possible to share what I’m thinking, what I’m feeling and why it is that I feel that way. You can encourage your whole team to explicitly share examples of how they think differently to one another by running a session around ‘What makes a good team?’. Get people to share post-it notes about key qualities of a good team and ask them to explain why. This helps people realise where their outlook explicitly differs from someone else. You can also ask each person to highlight one or two things about their own personal work preferences. You’ll soon discover very simple but important facts – for instance half your team prefer to talk through their ideas out loud, and half of them prefer to have stuff written down first.

Recognising why people prefer these different approaches can help your team adapt to each other’s preferences and help everyone understand why someone might be struggling.

Present a united front

If your team is not explicitly united in its interactions with the rest of the company or people outside of your company, then it’s likely to impact how united you feel within the team. I learnt this the hard way when I first worked with someone who I found extremely challenging. I felt like it was them who was letting the team down and whenever someone outside of the team pointed this out I’d always agree with them. However this highlighted weaknesses in how united the team was, and others took advantage of these weaknesses and started to manipulate the team to get what they wanted.

In these situations, if someone outside of your team points out a team member’s flaws you should avoid agreeing with them, instead find a way to encourage them to share their feedback directly to that team member if they feel it is a problem. Ensuring feedback is shared directly means that the message is not obscured, the team member gets constructive criticism and a culture of backstabbing and ‘office politics’ doesn’t develop.

Presenting a united front is not just about avoiding talking negatively about other team members, it’s also about positively promoting your team to other people in the company when they do something you think is great. People don’t often talk about how good they are at their job so as a team member it’s your responsibility to let their manager or other people in the company know when they’ve done something positive.

Help each other to learn and improve

People often look to those outside of their day to day team (like their line managers or other people who do a similar job to them) for help in terms of professional and personal development. However, it’s the people you work together with day in, day out who are best placed to tell you what you could improve, and to help you achieve your development goals.

In addition to making time to share regular honest feedback within the team (whether that’s through running retrospectives, having regular 1-2-1s with each other or simply sending one piece of constructive feedback each week to someone in the team via Slack or email), you should also make sure your team are aware of what you’d personally like to achieve and ask them to help you achieve it.

Within my current team we’re trialling setting ourselves a learning objective at the start of each sprint, sharing this with the rest of the team, asking for help if we need it and hopefully sharing back what we’ve learnt to the wider team once we’ve achieved it. Another way you might work with your team to help everyone reach their personal development goals, is to offer to coach one another on a specific goal. This will help build up your understanding of what motivates other people on your team.

Never forget that people have lives beyond work

Although some people prefer to keep their work and private life separate, there are still ways within your team to encourage understanding how these two things affect each other. If you are comfortable with sharing what you’ve been up to outside of work, whether it’s things you’ve enjoyed doing at the weekend or stresses that are playing on your mind and distracting you, then you should feel free to. It will give your team some context about you as a person and also reassure them that their team will understand if they ever have a bad day due, even if they don’t feel comfortable sharing the details.

If your team does get a chance to socialise, whether it’s going for a drink after work, having lunch together in the canteen or simply grabbing a tea together half way through the day – try to avoid detailed work chat. Use these as opportunities to understand a little more about the people you work with and what is is that makes them the person that they are.

These are just a few suggestions for making a good team – but there are loads of other things that you can do. Share in the comments what your team does in order to ensure it’s productive and positive.

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