What makes a good team work?
When something works, it’s usually because we work together. But what is that ‘we’? Are good teams something of a happy accident or is there a formula?
Google’s Project Aristotle looked at hundreds of teams. Some that worked, some that didn’t. They boiled successful teams down to 5 main elements:
- Psychological safety
- Structure and clarity
We got into this at our team away day just before Christmas. We all agreed that whatever it is that makes teams work, we seemed to have it.
Taking Chelmsford’s town motto, ‘many minds, one heart’ as our guide, we chatted with our team about this.
Martin, our developer, Magda, our user researcher, Maria, our service designer and Greg, our delivery manager talked about what ‘it’ is and how to keep it.
Are gender-balanced teams better teams?
Magda started us thinking about this when she talked about the importance of gender balance in a team at our away day. We began by asking her to explain.
What I was trying to say was from my previous experience with fewer female roles and women in the team, you feel there is a different dynamic.
Also, of course, we acknowledge that we need to see people who look like us, or feel like us, or have the same views as us in the roles we aspire to. When I see a female in a higher role, or in roles that are usually taken by men, for me that’s refreshing.
I didn’t actually notice that until I started working here. I wasn’t bothered about it that much before because I didn’t notice it. When I came here, it felt a bit different.
So what's the difference between teams that have a gender balance and those that do not?
I think it goes from light touch stuff to darker things. How, when you have male/female a balance in a work environment there are lines that are not crossed. I stopped hearing politically incorrect comments.
You feel this undefined anxiety when you step into a workplace like that, but I notice that I don’t have that here. So that’s one thing.
Can you tell us what sort of politically correct comments?
One example, we were in a meeting where the only females were me and a delivery manager, the rest of the people in the meeting were men.
One person was trying to explain that we need to collaborate with the marketing team and the way to do it. He was trying to say ‘we show them something and they show us something and then each of us can show what we’ve done and we can see where we are’.
That’s what he was trying to say, but the way he said it was, “you know, we just need to lift our skirt a little bit”, and he continued talking. I stopped the meeting. This was someone who was 58, he was senior, he’s been places.
I said, ‘could you think of another metaphor instead of using that metaphor?’ And there was this flickering moment, that no one else apart from me and the delivery manager understood what I was talking about. It took them a few minutes to understand.
Then he apologised and used another metaphor. It’s just a little thing but I notice it doesn’t happen here.
Could this be an age rather than gender issue?
It could be as well.
I think those notions go hand-in-hand. In the past the notion of gender and power have evolved into different things. I agree in principle with Magda. How I would phrase it is I enjoy having that balance between those two poles.
Are there masculine and feminine qualities in teams?
I don’t think I’ve been in many bad teams, but I have worked for bad leaders. I’ve found I can always do well with the people around me. If I find out the people around me have respect and appreciation for me, I’m better with that, than the people above liking me.
When it comes to leaders, they’ve been bad in different ways, whether that’s because of the person or because of their gender I couldn’t tell you because I’ve been in the same situation with different managers.
What I did notice is one company I worked for, the guy at the top created a horrible, toxic atmosphere. He was nasty and got off on belittling other people.
He created that culture of fear and then people would become disengaged. Like me, I quit after six months. I thought, ‘I’d rather have no job than have this job’.
So, there is something else. There’s a difference between talking about women and men and then there’s this feminine energy and masculine energy or attitude towards things.
When we start talking about that, that’s when it starts getting interesting. Both men and women have those masculine and feminine traits.
It's being very open about how I feel and engaging in conversations about how you feel. Asking and inviting you to have that very open conversation.
Sometimes you miss that when there’s an attitude that says, ‘this is what we’re going to do, I know better than you. And we’re not going to talk about how we feel about this, we’re just going to do something.’
I don’t know whether that’s masculine or feminine, but I do see that…
It feels to me that the idea of a good team, is one that can talk in a constructive way and it isn’t trying to accommodate sides, because I sense that the idea of sides is problematic.
I think we’d probably agree on that. We’ve got these two defined roles, which one do you fit in? It doesn’t work that way.
To clarify, I wouldn’t say a man should have feminine qualities, because what’s defining them as feminine to begin with, they’re just qualities. You might more often see them in women. But that’s not to say that that’s a more female quality and vice versa.
For me, being myself, means acknowledging my identity as a woman. That's really integral to the way I operate in the team, more than anything else. Some of the things you've identified as non-gender oriented, I actually channel them through my identity as a woman.
Do you think there’s a cultural element to this?
There’s a massive cultural element. Our perception of what the role of a man is, or what masculine is, is taught to us. They’re not qualities that are innate to us in our existence, they’re taught.
Are they? I know I’m treading on dangerous ground with this one. Could there be such a thing as a masculine and feminine environment?
This is an environment where we’re focussing on the good of the group. Whereas if we were focussing just on ourselves, we’d go into a high earning, high prestige jobs.
We could be earning billions polluting the oceans, but we’re not, we’re here.
So when we talk about an environment we feel comfortable in, then what qualities allow us to comfortable in that environment?
I think it’s based on our personal experiences.
A lot of what we’re talking about you could probably take away the gender, and say, ‘these are just good attributes’, but in your example Magda, gender did play a part because the men had a total blind spot as to why that analogy would be problematic.
I have similar examples around class and other things. I do think that the gender and roles discussion is relevant, but I would like to go beyond that and think about those qualities and not get too much into the argument about if feminine attributes exist or not.
Being empathetic, being ourselves
When we had our away day, the first word she (Vicki James, Head of Service Design) said about the quality they look for when they hire, she said they need to have empathy. I’ve been in lots of interviews, I’ve worked in lots of start-ups, and I’ve never heard that as the thing that someone is looking for.
Often there’ll be pressures for efficiency as a quality, networking, being cheap, being just out of university. They’re all values that allow you to gain more money, bigger, better, whereas empathy isn’t looking at that. It’s what comes as a consequence of having that quality that you can achieve. I think that’s what makes a good team.
So getting a good team is down to the empathy of its members?
I’m more of a people-oriented person, but I’ve also been terrible team member as a result of poor manager.
I don’t think it’s just hiring the right people, you also need to create the right environment for them. Anyone can be the right person, but if you crush them to the point where they don’t want to be there anymore and they’re disengaged, it’s a mess.
Here everyone’s given the chance to be their own person. That’s something I felt I had to give up a bit coming to the council originally. I was in the council for a year before this, in a department where everyone dressed a bit more in…
A school uniform?
Dress codes are bad?
Yeah, in a smarter way. That’s not me, that’s not who I am. Then I came to this team, and, don’t get me wrong, I don’t just roll in whatever I was wearing at home just knocking around the house, but I still feel a lot more comfortable as who I am and I can be myself.
Do you find that makes it easier to be empathetic?
I think so, because there are fewer barriers between me and the other person. I can be open. If you put me in a suit, I feel uncomfortable in that. I know it sounds silly to talk about clothing.
It’s not at all.
I think it should be a choice. I’m not saying people shouldn’t wear suits to work, because I know for some people it helps them switch their mental state between being at work and at home. But for me the ability for me to be who I am, allows me to be better with other people and for other people.
I think considering informal clothes as part of a process, because we’re individuals we get treated as individuals. If part of the process doesn’t work for an individual, then the process doesn’t work. I’ve certainly worked in environments that have forced the issue to say, this is how the team works now, so you need to do these things to get up to speed.
Is Agile a more empathetic approach to working?
I think Agile has lots of different versions. It’s the people, 100%. I’ve certainly worked in more hierarchical versions of Agile, that don’t work.
I remember a conversation I had with a new director of technology where I had been working. I was trying to convince him that working more Agile was what we needed, and he told me, "if we buy some Macs and do some stand up meetings, we’re not going to change the culture". The method won’t change the way a culture is ingrained in an organisation, it goes hand in hand.
For me, what makes the team gel together is half empathy and half competence. I can trust my work colleagues. They are completely able to do their job well. I can delegate and know it’s going to be well done.
That’s something I had in other teams in the past but lacked in others. Feeling that even though we’re working together, I have to do far more because someone isn’t doing what they said they’d do.
I think it’s people over the process. Even if the process gets bent, as long as you get the result, that’s good. By helping the people, you get that done. You could have the best process ever, you can chuck anyone into it but they could be demotivated, not feeling they’re their own person. Focussing on the people, like we do here, and I’ve seen it elsewhere, that really does work.
What makes good leaders?
I would make a distinction between management and leadership. I would say management is organising work and is more top down giving orders. Leadership needs to be something different.
More fluid. Someone who sets out the vision and encourages and engages with people around them.
Do you know the shorthand they used in my project management training? Managers push, leaders pull.
Yes. So, it’s more about engaging people and getting them excited to get to the same vision or goal. Having the fluidity to integrate a discourse with people into that end goal or vision.
Do you think alignment of goals is important?
I think that there needs to be a common motivation. I don’t know whether that’s a common goal, but yeah, a motivation to change something and make it better. Other places I’ve worked, have been far more bureaucratic and set in the old ways of working. So many people were working or doing a task because that’s the way they’ve been working for the last 20 years, and that’s the role they got out of university.
What stopped those organisations changing?
That! People who weren’t passionate about what they were doing, it was just a job.
It’s about embracing change. I don’t think it’s anything to do with age or gender. I’ve got friends of different ages, and it’s as if their evolution has stopped, and they’ve decided that work is miserable.
When you’re in an environment that embraces those common values, it doesn’t try to dictate what you do, it gives you a set of principles that guide us to whatever that goal would be. If you have different ideas, and there’s a forum for you to discuss them and feed off each and at no point do you feel, ‘I can’t say that because you’re senior’.
That sounds like Agile does help that?
I think it does help, yeah.
'Women's stuff', DnD and scruffy clothes
Going back to gender balance, when I came here, I noticed the culture of the way we speak and work with each other.
We’re free to speak about women’s stuff. I know it sounds silly, but when I was in other teams you could hear men talking about sports, they put sports on the TV and talked about stuff that I couldn’t relate to.
I don't know much about sports, but if you want to have a great discussion on Dungeons and Dragons, I’m your man.
So, here, and this hasn’t happened anywhere before, I can freely get a tampon out of my bag and lend it to someone who needs it. I can talk about periods.
I would never, ever do that in my previous roles. There’s just things that you don’t do, you don’t say. We are very shaming of people talking about periods, you have to whisper, ‘do you have a tampon?’
Based on that, it seems you have personal things that you really appreciate. You’re talking about all those examples, which aren’t at all applicable to me...It’s nice to be in an environment where I can talk about D&D, and not be told that I’m wearing scruffy clothes.
Are we any closer to knowing what 'it' is?
What's clear from our discussion is that a good team needs to work together to achieve something but what leads to this is team culture.
This isn't a set of characteristics but an organic and empathetic atmosphere where people feel comfortable being themselves.
This might sound vague, it is. But if in doubt, be kind, and you'll probably find that your team culture will find you.