A Recipe for Building a Team from Scratch

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Here are the ingredients for building a cohesive team of individuals.
Employee Engagement

Every business understands the value of high-performing employees. But with so much attention paid to optimizing the performance of employees individually, it can be easy to overlook the vital importance of great teamwork. And in today's fast-paced economy, where businesses are becoming increasingly cross-functional and innovative thinking is highly valued, collaboration is critical.

Indeed, research shows that groups often innovate faster, spot mistakes earlier, and are better at solving problems than individual workers. Studies also show that people who feel they are part of a team report higher job satisfaction. But throwing people together and expecting them to automatically work as a team isn't realistic, say experts. Just as there are variations of a recipe, certain ingredients are still required. Successful teams also include certain essential factors-even though the recipe can be tweaked.

Define the Team's Purpose
A common misconception is assuming that hiring highly skilled and talented people is enough to form a cohesive team, notes Karen Vander Linde, a partner at consulting firm Merryck & Co. "You may have hired very talented people who are experts in their field, but it takes a lot more to get a group of individuals to work as a team," Vander Linde says. "What we find is very often you have people working with a siloed mentality and you won't get the highest level of innovation and execution because everyone is doing their own thing."

While it's important for teammates to have the freedom to work independently on their assigned tasks, the group needs a clear understanding of what they should collaborate on when they do get together. For example, instead of reporting on what each member accomplished during team meetings, teams would be better served discussing pressing issues and making decisions as a group.

"The team needs to define what to focus on as a group and what not to focus on," Vander Linde says. "Project updates can be accomplished over email the day before so that you can save your meetings for disciplined collaboration and reap the full benefits of the group's combined talents."

Diversity Matters
Another mistake is forming a team of clones. Creating a team of people who share the same perspective, culture, style of thinking, and skills may appear beneficial on the surface, but could ultimately undermine the team's ability to arrive at the best answer.

Research has shown thatdiversity improves a team's performance by providing a richer pool of experience, knowledge, and perspectives that the team can benefit from. Many companies are therefore broadening their recruiting approaches to create a more diverse workforce. However, even though the benefits of diversity are clear, companies must make a conscious effort not to fall back into complacency, observes SameerDholakia, CEO of SendGrid.

SendGrid is an email delivery service with clients that include Uber, Pinterest, and AirBnB. The company prides itself on its diverse hiring practices and publicly released its inclusion figures. And as part of an initiative to further improve its recruiting efforts for engineers, the company's head of engineering encouraged employees to brainstorm ideas in a voluntary group. "The people who first joined the team were almost all from engineering, which is not a surprise since they care about this issue, but we're not going to get the best results if the answers are only coming from part of the organization," Dholakia explains. "And so we intentionally brought in people from other areas like finance and marketing to get a richer set of ideas."

Social Intelligence Trumps Cool Efficiency

At the same time, there isn't a "magic combination" of personality types or skills that make a perfect team, Vander Linde observes. "And contrary to popular thought, whether or not the people on the team have worked together before doesn't have an impact on the new team's success."

Google came to a similar conclusion when the company embarked on a study code-named Project Aristotle to analyze hundreds of Google's teams to figure out why some thrived while others struggled. After studying the behavior of 180 teams, there was no indication "that a mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds made any difference," Abeer Dubey, a manager in Google's People Analytics division, told the New York Times.

Instead, what mattered was whether members of the team were sensitive to each other's moods and if they shared personal stories and emotions. For example, when comparing a group of highly driven team mates who work together without socializing with a group who at times got sidetracked by chatter, the second group was actually more collectively intelligent. The reason is the first group's members were more likely to continue to act as individuals without fully collaborating.

Google's finding was also supported by a recent study conducted by researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon, and Union College. The researchers found that the social perceptiveness-or social intelligence-of group members is a significant predictor of group intelligence, both for face-to-face groups and online groups.

The new research was built upon a prior study by several of the same researchers which identified three factors that contributed to collective intelligence. The first factor is the average social perceptiveness of group members, such as the ability to understand facial expressions. The second is whether people participate equally in a group conversation. When one or two people dominate the conversations, the group on average was less intelligent.

The third factor is whether or not women are in the group. "This was mostly explained statistically by the social perceptiveness factor, as it was known before that women on average score higher on this measure of social perceptiveness than men," explains MIT SloanProf. Thomas Malone in a statement. "So one interpretation is that a smart group requires more people with a high level of social intelligence, and it may not matter whether they are men or women."

In the more recent study, Malone and his colleagues extended their research to online groups. The purpose of the study was to find out if the same degree of collective intelligence was possible via both face-to-face and online groups. In the online groups, the participants could only communicate through text chat.

The researchers were surprised to find that having people in groups with a high level of social intelligence appeared to be just as helpful whether the group met in person or via text. A possible explanation is that "people who are good at reading emotion in the eyes also seem to be good at reading emotion in texts and imagining what is going on in others' minds even though they only see typing," Malone adds.

Whether that is true or not, the research suggests that interpersonal skills could be even more important in a digital-first world. Indeed, communication is one of the biggest challenges to successful teamwork, especially when people increasingly work remotely, says Charmaine Hammond, a leadership consultant and speaker.

"Face-to-face communication is important so that people can quickly read the other person's expression," Hammond says. "It's unquestionable that online communication like email and texting is valuable but it can often lead to wrong assumptions and so you need both."

Although there's no guarantee that even after following all of these tips, a team will meet its goals, the bottom line is that communication and interpersonal relationships are vital qualities of any group.

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EXPERT OPINION