How Group Norms Enable High-Performing Teams

A high-performing team working together

You’ve heard about the importance of hiring for diversity to build a resilient culture and a more robust organization. But as much as having lots of smart people from different walks of life on your team can shake up the status quo, diversity by itself won’t lead to a high-performing team. Teams also need to know how to work together so that they can leverage their collective intelligence.

One important aspect that helps pull diverse people into effective teams is group norms, or the traditions, behavioral standards, and unwritten rules that govern how a team works together. They can be implied or openly acknowledged, but establishing a consistent way the team functions helps the individual members focus less on their own preferences and more on what works well for everyone.

Norms can be at any scale, ranging from agreements about how decisions get made to basic principles about how the team communicates on a daily basis. Jim Whitehurst, the president and CEO of Red Hat,writes about how leaders can shape group norms by setting examples. He dialed into a board meeting only a few seconds late to discover that the meeting had already started. The company had a stated value of promptness, and this value was exercised starting at the executive level. As people at all levels also adhered to this practice, it reinforced the principle that everyone’s time is valuable.

While specific norms may vary from team to team, both in the details and how detailed they are, the presence of working agreements creates the framework in which teams can make progress and deliver value.

What are some other group norms that can lead to success? Google studied hundreds of teams in an effort to find out what makes the perfect high-performing team. The research showed two behaviors that were indicators of success:

First, on the good teams, members spoke in roughly the same proportion, a phenomenon the researchers referred to as ‘‘equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.’’ … Second, the good teams all had high ‘‘average social sensitivity’’—a fancy way of saying they were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues.

In other words, paying attention to individual team members’ ideas and giving them time to speak about these ideas resulted in greater success. Instead of stocking the team with individual stars, it’s more important to have empathetic team members who listen to others and can be greater than the sum of their parts.

There is no magic bullet to having a high-performing team, and even given the right set of components, the mix may vary from group to group. The one consistent theme seems to be that creating environments where team members are naturally encouraged to challenge ideas—and feel safe to do so—is essential to teams thriving and delivering value.

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