8 Ways to Create a Great Team
Great teams don’t come out of nowhere; they’re created by great leadership and the effort of team members.
Teamwork is something that we encounter constantly. Sometimes you’ll be in a particular team for the duration of a day or even a single lesson at school. Sometimes, your team will be a group of people who you spend time with nearly every day for years. Whatever the situation, knowing how to assemble and lead a good team is a vital skill. Arguably even more important is learning how to turn an existing team that’s maybe a little dysfunctional into a group of people who are proud to work together.
Whether you’re trying to motivate your friends to do some group work, captaining your school rugby squad or putting together a team to organise a charitable concert, here’s how you can use your leadership skills to help them work together efficiently, effectively and happily.
1. Thank your team members often and sincerely
The most important thing you can do if you’re in any kind of leadership role is to say thank you to your team members. It may seem obvious, but it’s something that people neglect for a whole host of reasons. One is the idea that they haven’t done anything for you specifically, so the thanks shouldn’t come from you; for instance, if your hockey team wins a match, you might think that victory is their reward and they shouldn’t need you to thank them as well. Another is that you’re the wrong person to be doing the thanking; for instance, if you’ve been part of a team fundraising to build a playground in a deprived area, the thanks should come from the people who will benefit; it might seem presumptuous for you to say thank you on their behalf. Or there’s the idea that you’re not sufficiently in charge – so even if you’re the director of your theatre group, the thanks for a successful show should come from your drama teacher.
All of these reasons are nonsense. If you’re acting as a leader within the team – whatever that means in the specific circumstances – it’s important to say thank you often, and to say it sincerely. You should say it both to the team as a whole and to individuals as appropriate. It’s obvious that everyone wants to be thanked and appreciated for their effort, and it may be that if you don’t take the time to say thank you, then no one will.
2. Be honest about what you don’t know
The best teams aren’t usually made up of people who have all the same knowledge, skills and experience. Instead, they’re made up of people whose skills complement each other. But this is a relatively unusual experience when you’re still at secondary school, as you and your friends will be following the same curriculum, studying mostly the same things and therefore having roughly similar knowledge and skills. Where you differ might be a source of shame because it suggests one of you has been struggling in a particular class.
You have to get over this awkwardness in order to create a good team, as the best teams acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of different team members. One good way to encourage other people to be comfortable with being open about where they think their own and everyone’s strengths lie is by admitting your own weaknesses. You might think that if you’ve taken on a leadership role, you have to seem like you understand all of what the team is doing, all of the time, but that can actually make things harder for everyone else. An occasional moment where you say, “I have no idea about that but I think Eric does – could you explain to everyone, Eric?” can help a great deal in getting your team to feel comfortable in sharing where they excel and where they struggle.
3. Keep out of people’s private lives
If you’re building a team in a context where you don’t know the team members personally – for instance, if it’s an out-of-school drama group where you only meet up to rehearse – then staying out of people’s personal lives isn’t too difficult. But in school, your team might consist of people you’ve known for years. That means that if there’s a team member who’s obviously struggling, you might well be aware of something in their personal life that’s causing them problems, and cut them some slack accordingly. That’s absolutely the right thing to do.
Where things go wrong is when you take this one step further, and assume that a leadership role means you should also become an unpaid therapist, counsellor or life coach to your team members – whether they like it or not. Of course, if your team members actively come to you for advice, it’s appropriate that you should give it. But beyond that, it’s usually wise not to get too involved in your team members’ private lives; it can be tricky to judge when your interference will be welcomed, and you may well not be able to help anyway. That’s even more the case when the problem involves more than one team member, where your role as leader is to resolve any conflicts that happen within the team setting, and otherwise to stay as neutral as possible.
4. Treat team members like grown-ups
Especially in the context of a group project, where the actions of other team members might affect your final mark, it’s understandable to want to monitor your team closely. For example, you might be considering encouraging everyone to work together, so that you can keep an eye on whether any work is actually getting done. But this approach can have the opposite effect from the one you intended; no one likes to be micro-managed. Your team are likely to chafe if they think that you don’t trust them to get on with what needs to be done.
Instead, think about how you’d approach managing the team if you trusted them to get their work done independently – and then take that approach as much as possible. You might check in from time to time to see how everyone’s getting on and to coordinate tasks, but you wouldn’t breathe down their necks like a parent making sure a recalcitrant child gets their homework done. Feeling monitored or mistrusted seldom inspires anyone to do their best work, and can make even an enjoyable activity feel like a chore. What’s more, you should look on yourself as another team member, working with the team towards a common goal, rather than feeling like you have to drag them kicking and screaming towards a goal that you’ve ordained.
5. Define roles and responsibilities
If you’re all comfortable acknowledging strengths and weaknesses, and treating each other like adults, you should also be in a position to assign roles to team members and trust them to take care of the associated responsibilities. For one thing, this is kind to team members who might be using this activity in university applications or CVs – “I was Costume Manager in my drama group’s production of Grease” sounds better than “I was part of a drama group that put on a production of Grease”. For another, it gives everyone ownership of part of the task, which is motivating, and reassures them that they will get the credit for the parts of the task that were their responsibility. When these roles are not so clearly defined, there’s a danger that the most credit instead goes to the person who made the most noise about what they were doing, not necessarily the person who did the most work.
Most importantly, assigning roles and responsibilities helps ensure that all parts of the task are done and not duplicated; you don’t end up with four people looking after the bake sale because that’s a fun task, and no one taking charge of the budget because everyone assumed someone else would do it. If there are some obviously fun tasks and some obviously not-so-fun tasks, encourage a distribution of roles that means people get to do some of each.
6. Give all types of feedback regularly
Have you ever had really scary feedback? Maybe it’s the email that just says, “we need to talk about this” or the essay that has “see me” at the bottom. Ahead of the conversation, you’re likely to be scared out of your wits about what’s going to be said. Maybe the eventual feedback was actually really positive, or at least not as bad as you thought, but the anticipation is highly stressful. For this reason, you want to avoid only giving people feedback when it’s scary, especially if the feedback is negative. It’s all too easy to find yourself in a situation where you’ve let a problem slide for too long, and now it’s going to seem like a bigger deal than it actually is when you bring it up – possibly so much of a big deal that it might lead to the person quitting the team.
When you’re in a workplace, you get paid to deal with negative feedback. But in a team at school or for a hobby, it’s best to plan feedback so that you don’t stress everyone out. One way to do this is to make low-stakes feedback a normal thing – whether that’s “keep a bit more of an eye on your fieldwork” or “your vocal projection has been amazing for the past few weeks”. That means that if there’s a problem that needs fixing urgently, you can give feedback to team members about it without it seeming like the world has come to an end.
7. Do your part
It’s a team-building cliche that the best generals get right in there on the front line with the troops; that you shouldn’t ask your team members to do anything that you wouldn’t be prepared to do yourself. That’s mostly true – although it doesn’t necessarily follow that you should do all of the things yourself, on the basis of delegating roles and responsibilities based on what you’re all best at. Don’t do something that you’re awful at just to demonstrate that you’re prepared to do it.
But doing your part isn’t just about demonstrating that you’re not going to delegate all the unpleasant jobs and save the best ones for yourself. You should also do your best to set an example that you’d want your team to follow. That can mean showing up on time to practise even when it’s early in the morning and you’d prefer a lie-in. But it can also mean knowing when to call it a night if you’ve been working on a project late into the night, rather than setting an example that’s impossible for your team to match. Being in a leadership role is an extra responsibility in that team members looking to do their best will try to match your actions. Make those actions ones that you’d be happy to have imitated; don’t push yourself to extremes and exhaust your team in the process.
8. Celebrate successes as a team
Remembering to celebrate success is vital, especially if there are some members of the team whose work isn’t celebrated as much – for example, if you’re putting on a concert, the orchestra will get the applause but the person in the back room who handled all the logistics deserves praise just as much. Building a happy team means creating opportunities to celebrate successes with everyone who contributed to them. It also means making sure that everyone’s contribution gets the acknowledgement it deserves, even if that’s only among team members – after all, they’re likely to be the ones whose acknowledgement and approval matters the most.
The way your team celebrates success will depend on the kind of thing you’ve been working on together and the personalities involved; don’t foist a lively party on a team of introverts. Celebrating success can mean parties or meals out for the team. It can mean thank-you cards or congratulatory emails that highlight how much successes were a team effort. But making sure that all of the team knows that their efforts were worthwhile and giving them a chance to show how much they appreciate each other goes a long way, no matter what form it takes.
Images: handshake; shrug; nosey cat ; messy kids; feedback; celebrating; cavalry; riveter; team fists; nervous basketball team