A team focusing on psychological safety is like a band focusing on a good feel. Good feel is the outcome of underlying conditions, like the individual members’ skill on their instruments, their willingness to put aside their egos and listen to each other, and their diligence to practice together to learn the nuances of performing as a group. Just like a band, a team can’t focus solely on the outcome of psychological safety. They’re more likely to create psychological safety—along with other good outcomes—by focusing on the six conditions Hackman and Wageman uncovered in their research.
The health of teams has a direct impact on organizational results as well as on individuals’ happiness in their work. In this episode, Richard and Peter outline the 6 conditions that researchers J Richard Hackman and Ruth Wageman have discovered are critical for a team to be healthy and effective. They also cover what you can do to contribute to those conditions, whether you’re a leader or a junior team member.
The health of a team has a huge influence on the lives of its team members. On effective teams, work is engaging, motivating, and rewarding. The hours we spend together have a positive influence on our energy and our interactions away from work too. On dysfunctional teams, the influence is at least as strong, but in a soul-crushing way: we leave work exhausted, tapped out, less than our best selves with our family, friends, and communities.
Teams are also critical, of course, to the success of every business. They’re the best problem-solving tool humans have ever invented. The adage that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” holds true for teams: a high performing team will consistently outperform the combined individual capabilities of its members.
In this episode, we’re going to share six conditions uncovered by decades of research that are responsible for 80% of the effectiveness of a team. Whether you’re responsible for designing and staffing teams or you’re a junior team member, we’ll share what you can do to increase the likelihood of your team being effective at delivering business results, and just as importantly, being a place that contributes to leading a healthy, happy life outside of work. You can support the show and help spread these ideas by liking, sharing, and commenting on YouTube, or subscribing and rating the show on your podcast app.
Is your team thriving or struggling? The answer to this question lies on a spectrum of team effectiveness. On one end, you’ll find teams that embody the characteristics of Google’s Project Aristotle research, which found that the most effective teams at Google had psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, and impact in their work. On the other end of the spectrum, you’ll find teams plagued by the Five Dysfunctions of a team outlined by Patrick Lencioni: an absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results. If you’re lucky enough to be part of a team that falls on the positive end of the spectrum, you probably want to figure out how to sustain and improve it. If your team happens to fall on the negative end, you probably want to change that, either by fixing the issues or finding a new team to join.
Both of those sources, Project Aristotle and Lencioni’s description of how to overcome the Five Dysfunctions, are solid descriptions of effective teams, but they’re incomplete as a guide to creating a healthy team. Researchers J. Richard Hackman and Ruth Wageman from the Harvard Business School studied teams for decades. Their goal was to distill down the conditions that made it more likely for a team to be successful. They discovered that there are six conditions, three that they call essentials and three that they call enablers, that are most responsible for high performing teams.
A team focusing on psychological safety, as highlighted in the Google research, is kind of like a band focusing on having a good feel—like you give advice to a group of musicians, “You just need to have a good feel;” it’s hard to use. Good feel is the outcome of underlying conditions, like the individual members’ skill on their instruments, their willingness to put aside their egos and listen to each other, and their diligence to practice together to learn the nuances of performing as a group. Just like a band, a team can’t focus solely on the outcome of psychological safety. They’re more likely to create psychological safety—along with other good outcomes—by focusing on the six conditions that Hackman and Wageman uncovered in their research.
The essentials, according to the research, are as follows:
First, a team needs a compelling purpose. This isn’t some woo-woo, feel-good platitude, like “make the world a better place.” The “compelling purpose” of a team describes why this particular team is absolutely required in order to create some outcome. Why can’t the outcome be delivered by an individual, or just a loose collection of people with some skills related to that? A good Compelling Purpose is concrete. There are parts of it that are non-negotiable. “If we don’t get this outcome, the team didn’t do what we created it to do.” There are other parts that are probably negotiable, like the specifics of how they’ll achieve that outcome, how much of that outcome, for whom, and how long it might take.
Once there’s a clear compelling purpose, the second essential is Right People. Which skills are absolutely needed to create that outcome, and who has those skills? Hackman and Wageman make an important point when describing the right people. The skills needed are not just technical capabilities, but include the ability to be a good team member. I remember working with a team that was formed around a recognized genius in their field. That genius had created foundational technology and products that anyone in that industry was well aware of. The team brought me in to help them adopt a more agile, collaborative approach to their work. But it quickly became clear that the genius had no interest in being part of a collaborative team. So we shifted the compelling purpose on that team from “deliver products together,” to enabling that genius to focus all of their time on what they were uniquely capable of doing, with the team doing all of the supporting work required to bring that core technology to market in a more effective way. That team never would have been successful if the genius was compelled to contribute to the team. The team was very successful in taking that person’s output and bringing it to market effectively.
The third essential is called “Real Team.” This condition is one we see many organizations fail at. A real team has a clear boundary of membership. If it’s a real team, you could ask each team member and stakeholder individually “Who is on the team?” and you would get the same exact answer from everyone. No one would say things like “Well, Richard is sort of on the team but he’s also on this other team over here,” and “Peter contributes sometimes when he’s not busy with these other responsibilities.” Real team doesn’t necessarily mean that people are 100% dedicated to that team, though that makes the boundary much clearer. For instance, lots of leadership teams have clear membership while, at the same time, the executives on that team each have additional responsibilities outside of the leadership team’s shared purpose. But no one is uncertain who is on the team, how they uniquely contribute to that team, and what the team’s compelling purpose is. 100% dedication enables the team to reach the compelling purpose faster, but that’s not always the more important or even best idea, since the people with those skills might also be contributing to the organization’s success in other key ways. It’s most important that the trade-off and expectations are clear to everyone.
According to Hackman and Wageman’s research, those three essentials are responsible for about 60% of the success of teams. The next three conditions, the enablers, are difficult or impossible to achieve without the essentials.
The first enabler is what they call Sound Structure. Sound Structure describes what happens within the team boundary. It includes things like role clarity, like the processes and practices the team will use to get the work done, and a working agreement about what kind of behavior is expected and what kind won’t be tolerated on the team. Sound Structure refers to both systems of work and systems of interacting. Most of what Lencioni talks about in the 5 dysfunctions falls into this category, as do things like Psychological Safety and Dependability from the Google research.
The second enabler is Supportive Context. In contrast to Sound Structure, which is what happens within the bubble of the team, Supportive Context is about the team being able to get what they need from outside of that bubble in order to achieve their compelling purpose. Supportive Context includes things like getting clarity, information, funding, training, and permission from outside of the team. It also includes removing impediments in the organization that prevent the team from delivering on their purpose. Supportive Context examines how incentives and rewards contribute to or detract from the team success. The Humanizing Work 3 Jobs of Management model describes several areas of focus that leaders can pay attention to, to provide Supportive Context to their teams. We’ll add a link in the show notes to more on that model so you can check it out.
The final enabler, and the sixth condition of the six, is Team Coaching. Hackman and Wageman say that most teams don’t need a named, full time coaching role if the other five conditions are present. But teams will still get stuck from time to time, and will benefit from some coaching. That coaching might come from different people at different times, depending on the challenge they’re facing. A good example of this comes from the Dutch home healthcare company Buurtzorg, which is a strong example of an organization creating the six conditions for teams consistently. Buurtzorg nurses work on highly autonomous teams to deliver in-home healthcare in a specific neighborhood. They have over 10,000 nurses working in teams of about 12 people, but they only have around 50 coaches employed full time. Buurtzorg CEO Jos De Blok explains this low ratio helps them avoid teams becoming dependent on coaches, while still providing enough capacity from skilled coaches so that when a team gets really stuck, they get help getting unstuck. One example is a team that reached out to a coach when they’d hired someone who turned out not to be a good fit. That individual wasn’t happy working for Buurtzorg, and the team was struggling to figure out what to do. The coach facilitated a discussion with that nurse and the other team members about how to move forward, and ultimately helped them agree to keep her employed while they helped her find a job at a different company that would better meet her needs.
Now let’s talk about what you can do to help create or influence the creation of those conditions. If you are in a leadership role that has responsibility for designing and staffing teams, know that Hackman and Wageman say that the creating of those Three Essentials accounts for 60% of the effectiveness of a team. So, it’s worth spending time and energy there. Take the time to define a clear, challenging, and concrete Compelling Purpose for each team, and clarify the boundaries between the purposes of multiples teams that contribute to a shared outcome. Identify the skills, both technical and relational, that will determine who the Right People are for each team. Then make the hard trade-off decisions related to making it a Real Team, with clear membership boundaries and expectations about dedication to the team versus other responsibilities.
Hackman and Wegeman say 30% of a team’s results come down to how well they’re launched or re-launched. So, this is also worth your energy. Collaboratively iterate on the Compelling Purpose with team members to get better alignment on what is negotiable and what isn’t. Work through the trade-offs of responsibilities for team contribution versus other responsibilities of individual members. Facilitate a conversation with the team to agree on the Sound Structures they will adopt to help them achieve their purpose. Discuss what Supportive Context might be needed and how they can best ask for it.
Finally, great teams are always looking for ways to improve. Most of the time they’ll be able to do that without your help. But other times, you’ll be able to help them get unstuck or even break through a tough challenge. Whether that’s you who does the coaching yourself or you connect them with an effective coach, make sure the team knows that coaching is available and how to decide when to reach out for help.
But recognize that, in Hackman and Wegeman’s research, ongoing coaching accounts for that last 10% of a team’s overall effectiveness. So, coaching becomes important once you have the other factors in place. It’s worth ensuring teams have ongoing coaching, but don’t expect this to do the job of the other conditions.
Suppose you’re not in a role that can create the six conditions. What can you do? To think about that, we like to use a model that we first learned from Diana Larsen and have since modified a bit. Think of the challenges you would face trying to create the conditions. Now, draw three concentric circles. The inner circle represents things we Own. We have the authority to do something about things in this circle. You might be able to own lots of things in the Sound Structure condition, for example, because that happens within the team; and you might be able to provide some solid coaching.
The next circle out represents things we don’t own, but we can Influence. We often have some influence over things like Supportive Context, Compelling Purpose, and Real Team. The nice thing about this model is that rather than throwing our hands up and saying, “That’s not our job,” we can choose to become more effective influencers.
One practice we often suggest for things in the Influence circle is: “If you can’t fix it, make it more visible.” So maybe you could make visible that your team isn’t aligned on a shared purpose or that your team boundaries are unclear and use that to invite the person with the power to fix it to help you out.
Then, the outer circle is called “Respond.” Sometimes we can’t even influence who is on the team, for example. But this category still has choice, because we choose how we respond to the things we don’t own or influence. We can respond by getting cynical, or we can respond by choosing to accept the things we cannot change and make the best of it anyway, or to examine whether something we believe in the Respond circle might actually shift into Influence if we could find the right approach.
We’d love to hear from you. Thinking about your current and past experience with teams, what resonates about the 6 conditions and the health of the teams you’ve worked with? What’s still puzzling or challenging? Let us know in the comments on the YouTube version of the episode or shoot us an email at email@example.com.
And as always, if you find the ideas on the Humanizing Work Show useful, please support the show and help others find it by subscribing and liking on YouTube or leaving a 5-star review on the podcast.