Three Keys to High Performance Team Culture
Steve Jobs once famously said, “Great things in business are never done by one person, they're done by a team of people.” And he added, “My model for business is The Beatles. They were four guys who kept each other kind of negative tendencies in check. They balanced each other and the total was greater than the sum of the parts.”
On the face of it, a team seems just the sum of its parts: Having great individual performers on a team seems like a commonsense prerequisite for having a successful team. But the reality is different.
In a path-breaking study  at Google, Julia Rozovsky, an Analyst with Google’s People Operations, analyzed data from more than 800 teams, encompassing 250 attributes, to find out what makes a team successful. And her startling conclusion was:
“Who is on the team matters less than how team members interact,
structure their work and view their contributions.”
This begs the question: If interaction among team members shapes a team’s performance more than anything else, what shapes the quality of inter-personal interaction within a team?
Team culture—a new frontier
Organizational culture sets the tone for how employees, in general, behave in a variety of situations ranging from how they think about certain issues, collaborate with one-another, prioritize tasks or take decisions. But within the same organization, why are certain teams more cohesive or pro-active or innovative and are able to deliver superior results as compared to roughly equally advantaged teams?
The answer lies in “team culture,” a set of team-specific behaviors that govern team’s day- to-day functioning. Teams tend to follow “group norms,” behaviors that team members tend to defer to, overriding their own set of preferred behaviors and larger organizational culture.
In one client organization that I came in contact with extensively, the general culture was characterized by a laid-back attitude, but their purchase team was always working with a heightened sense of urgency. Their leader, the Head of Purchase, had somehow managed to save his team from aligning with the larger, easy going culture prevalent in the organization---and had nudged his team towards its own unique culture.
If you’re a leader of a team, what can you do to form a healthy, productive culture in your team?
Shaping team culture
Team culture influences a team’s outcomes in a significant way, and the responsibility to form a desirable team culture lies with the leader. Leaders who do not pay attention to their team’s culture are likely to accept a level of performance that otherwise could have gone up several notches—precisely the difference between good and excellent.
To influence their team’s culture positively, leaders need to pay attention to the following three key aspects of team culture:
At the very core, people want to know if their contribution is making any difference to someone else.
Adam Grant’s research  in a variety of settings shows that the best way to inspire individuals or a team is to “outsource” inspiration to customers. Connecting your team’s work to its impact on customers has a direct impact on the quality and quantity (productivity) of output.
Several years ago, as an airline catering company, when we were faced stagnant inflight ratings on food served on Singapore Airlines (SIA), we tried several initiatives. Nothing worked until we invited SIA’s crew and the Station Manager to directly speak to the staff. Our staff heard directly from the customers how our work directly influenced passengers’ satisfaction, which is the key to SIA’s success. The result of this direct encounter was quantum improvement in our team’s efforts and resulting food ratings.
As mentioned at the beginning, Rozovsky and her colleagues have found in studies at Google that “psychological safety,” far outweighed any other factor in predicting team success. In teams where psychological safety is present, team members can take interpersonal risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed. It allows them to air their views or concerns freely and frankly, thus raising the quality of discussion or decision. On the other hand, teams where psychological safety is low, members tend to hold back, which might not only adversely affect their personal contribution but also the team’s overall success.
The onus of forming a culture of healthy psychological safety rests directly with the team leader, who must encourage people to speak up freely, sometimes by letting own guard down and clearing the way for free flow of ideas, information and help.
Collective intelligence of a team is its ability to perform well across a wide range of tasks.
This is distinct from intelligence of individual team members. Anita Williams at Carnegie Mellon  and other researchers established that collective intelligence predicts team performance rather than individual intelligence, particularly when they move from one task to another, something quite common in most organizations.
What is really interesting is their finding that teams with high collective intelligence share two good behaviors: they give everyone an equal chance to speak and the team members exhibit high social sensitivity.
The first one, also called “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking,” means all team members get a chance to speak up rather than one or a small group speaking all the time, forcing others to become passive. Leaders can easily implement this idea by asking each member to speak out even if he/she is seemingly reluctant. Such teams are more likely to take full advantage of knowledge and skills of all members.
The second one, social sensitivity, means that the team members have a strong sense of how others feel based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other non-verbal clues, paving way for collaborative behavior. As can be inferred, this has nothing to do with technical skills or IQ. Leader can make team members aware of this, demonstrating sensitivity along the way.
As Steve Jobs said, behind great things are not individuals, but teams. And teams that go on to do great things form their own unique culture based on meaningful work, psychological safety and collective intelligence.
 Julia Rozovsky; The five keys to successful Google team; rework.withgoogle.com, Nov. 7, 2015
 Adam Grant; How Customers can Rally Your Troops; Harvard Business Review, June 2011
 Anita Williams Woolley et al; Collective intelligence and Group performance; Current directions in psychological science, 24(6), Dec. 2015