What Makes Truly Effective Teamwork?

“Donuts: The only non-negotiable element in a successful team meeting.” Joe Heuer

“Teams, Team Work, and Team Building.” I seem to hear those words everywhere I speak. It’s the battle cry of the modern organization.

In reality, most organizations don’t have “teams.” They’ve got groups, shifts, departments, districts, and regions … but that’s a far cry from truly effective teamwork.

All too often, I see personal agendas getting in the way of the cooperative effort that turns a group into a team. I see situation after situation where people think of themselves first and the others second.

It’s like the three team members who were walking to lunch when they found an antique oil lamp. They rubbed it and a genie came out in a puff of smoke. The genie said, “I usually grant only three wishes, so I’ll give each of you just one.”

“Me first! Me first!” said Joanne. “I want to be in the Bahamas, driving a speedboat, without a care in the world.” Poof! She was gone.

In astonishment, Bob said, “Me next! Me next! I want to be in Hawaii, relaxing on the beach with my personal masseuse, an endless supply of Pina Coladas, and the love of my life.” Poof! He was gone.

“OK you’re up,” the genie said to the team leader.

The team leader said, “Great! I want those two back in the office after lunch.”


Obviously each person was thinking of him/herself instead of the overall team. So what is a team? A real team? It’s a group of people who agree on a goal and the steps they’ll take to reach them. And to take it one step further, an “effective” team creates an enjoyable experience for its members, who look forward to team meetings, and feel a real sense of progress and accomplishment.

To get more specific, Glenn Parker lists twelve characteristics of effective teams and their team players in his book, “Team Players and Teamwork.” I’ve modified them a bit to fit with the work I do when I deliver speeches and training sessions on teamwork.

I would suggest that you use these 12 characteristics to see how your team stacks up against them. You really do need all of them.

=> 1. Clear Purpose And Common Goals

Sometimes I’ll interview the members of various teams — effective teams and ineffective teams. The first major difference I see between the two is that effective teams know WHY they are meeting (purpose) — and WHAT they are trying to achieve (goals). And they all agree on the WHY and the WHAT.

Ineffective teams respond to my questions quite differently. They’re not sure of their purpose and goals, or they give me several different, sometimes conflicting answers.

=> 2. Positive, Informal Climate

Effective teams just plain enjoy being together. They communicate easily and with humor to create a relaxed atmosphere. Team members often get together before or after meetings to talk about non-work subjects. They offer help without being asked and are willing to share the limelight of success with other members.

=> 3. Awareness Of And Respect For One Another’s Gifts

Of course some people think this “touchy feely” stuff is unnecessary. The only thing that counts, they think, is getting the job done.

But that flies in the face of research. According to Human Dynamics International, “Both understanding oneself and understanding others are fundamental requirements to relating to people in general and in exercising leadership in particular.” They go on to say that, “Understanding others makes possible the appreciation and appropriate use of THEIR gifts and qualities.”

And for those team members who “just want to get down to business” and “forget all that soft stuff,” Human Dynamics International gives a stern warning. They say, “It is unawareness (of one another’s gifts) that sows the seeds of conflict and disunity in any team.”

=> 4. Listening

The ability of members to listen is the most distinguishing factor of effective teams. They take in what’s said without passing judgment. They acknowledge others’ contributions and demonstrate interest in what other people have to say.

Of course this isn’t easy. In the excitement of a meeting, listening becomes more and more difficult as the interest in the discussion increases. But the members of good teams learn how to listen well, nonetheless.

=> 5. Civilized Disagreement

In healthy teams, the team members feel free to express their opinions and disagree with one another. In fact it’s a mark of team strength.

However, their disagreements are shared without hostility or denigration, nastiness, rudeness, or sarcasm. They expect and accept disagreements because they understand the wisdom of Publilius Syrus wrote in 42 B.C., “You cannot put the same shoe on every foot.”

=> 6. Consensus

Effective teams make decisions by consensus. Each team member gets to say his/her piece. And then with a bit of give and take, all the members either agree on the decision or agree to support it. Please note, consensus does not necessarily mean they have UNANIMITY, but they do have UNITY.

Consensus takes work. It’s a process or a journey. As Henry Baye says, “The most important trip you may take in life is meeting people half way.”

=> 7. Open Communication

This is a biggie. In fact it’s one of the more important characteristics of an effective team. Everyone is encouraged to share what he/she really thinks, feels, knows, and wants … not what is politically correct.

And there’s an easy way to test out this characteristic. If your team members are saying one thing to your face DURING a team meeting and something else behind your back AFTER a team meeting, you do NOT have open communication. It’s a clear sign that there’s a lack of trust and safety … and thereby a lack of openness.

If you want to see how well your team is doing, compare it to these seven characteristics. Effective teams have all seven going for them. I’ll talk about the other five next week.

Rate your team on a scale of 1 to 10 for each of these seven characteristics. 10 is high. If you score an 8 or less on any characteristic, start looking for ways to improve that area.