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Team Dynamics: The Difference Between a Team of All-Stars and an All-Star Team

Updated: Jun 27

Imagine you're in the last phase of a highly competitive interview process for your “dream job.” Only the "rockstars" make it to this point. Your final test is to attend the meetings of two different teams and determine which is more likely to succeed.

Team A is a high-performing group of people all with exceptional accomplishments and a long list of successes.  It's clear who is in charge, there is a clear agenda and the meeting begins and ends on time.  They focus on facts and efficiency with no sidebars or detours.

Team B is a combination of highly successful people and people with relatively few accomplishments. Their meetings are more like conversations. They use an agenda as a starting point, but often get sidetracked as members share freely. The level at which people participate in the discussion is not defined by their status or position in the company and meetings often extend past the scheduled end time as people linger to kibitz about personal interests or weekend plans.

Would it surprise you to learn that Team B is much more likely to succeed?

What do the most successful organizations have in common? The answer to that question used to be “the best and brightest people.” We’ve evolved to understand that individual smarts aren't enough. The best leaders focus on team dynamics more than individual skills.

Team dynamics are the forces that influence how a team behaves and performs. In addition to individual skills and intellect, the right balance of personalities, psychological safety, and emotional intelligence all influence how the players actually play together. Scott Keller and Mary Meaney, authors of Leading Organizations, maintain these forces can be the “difference between a team of all-stars and an all-star team.”

Rolling Stone magazine hailed the Irish band as one of "rock & roll's greatest success stories" for their artistry as well as their marathon endurance. Jimmy Iovine, one of the most high-profile producers and moguls in the US music industry, once described U2 as a four-legged table. “If one of the legs gets dented, the whole thing doesn’t fall down; the other three can support it.”

The average employee spends more than 75% of his/her time on team-based tasks. Finding the secret sauce of collaborative success has become a pretty big deal. Studies show that people working on healthy teams hold themselves to higher levels of accountability and are more motivated and innovative than people who work alone.

For those concerned with employee engagement or profitability, here's more good news. Employees who feel they are contributing members of a team are more engaged and more resilient after failures than their isolated, independent coworkers.

Research also indicates that team dynamics are more impactful to organizational success than the sum of the individual players. In other words, how the team interacts can actually zap the value of the individual members.  If organizations want to outsmart the competition, they need to understand and influence how people work together.

A mediocre team will produce mediocre results from a great idea. A great team will produce great results from a mediocre idea.

Project Aristotle

Google has studied the concept of team dynamics for years spending millions of dollars measuring everything from how frequently coworkers eat lunch together to which personality traits foster collaboration and effective communication.  In 2012, they tasked a team of psychologists, sociologists, engineers, and statisticians with Project Aristotle – an initiative designed to find out why some teams were productivity and ingenuity giants while others struggled with the most basic tasks.  They wanted to find out if collective intelligence develops from different types of collaboration that is distinct from the intelligence of any individual member.

With a sample size of 700 subjects randomly divided into small groups, the researchers assigned a series of tasks that required various types of collaboration to complete.  Some groups were incredibly innovative and successful on the tasks while others demonstrated low levels of cooperation and struggled to find viable solutions. The most interesting finding, however, was that despite the fact that the tasks were very different, teams generally succeeded or failed across the board.  Success, therefore, had little to do with the task and everything to do with the team.

Two key findings emerged:

  1. On the successful teams, everyone spoke about the same amount – something the researchers called an “equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking.” Conversely, on the poor performing teams, one or two people dominated the conversation while others contributed very little. The result was a decrease in engagement and collective intellectual capacity.

  2. The successful teams demonstrated higher social sensitivity than their counterparts. Social sensitivity, or the ability to read the emotions of others, is a key component of social intelligence. Social intelligence is, in turn, linked to performance on team-based problem solving.


In the end, the researchers discovered that when the team dynamics were inclusive, accepting, and sensitive to individual members, the groups were more successful.  They identified this as psychological safety which is directly correlated to how well people learn and recover from mistakes as well as their overall level of engagement. When psychological safety is a cultural norm - when people feel like they are part of the team that welcomes and values their contributions  - the chemistry of the brain enables greater creativity, innovation, and problem-solving.

Teams that Laugh Together Learn Together

Two interesting byproducts of psychological safety are trust and laughter. We share laughter when we trust and that laughter creates more trust.  Both laughter and trust generate neurotransmitters in your brain that stimulate healthy brain function including cognition. A growing body of educational research suggests that, when used effectively, humor combined with a sense of trust can improve learning and performance by reducing anxiety, boosting participation and increasing motivation and engagement.

Other studies show that people who laugh at work are more likely to describe their organizations as positive,  innovative, and "a place they enjoy" and less hierarchical and stressful.  Moreover, a team is much more likely to be successful when members are comfortable enough to laugh with one another.

A sense of humor is part of the art of leadership, of getting along with people, of getting things done .” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

The highs of achievement are higher when we experience them with others. The lows of failure are lower when we experience them alone. It feels good to be a contributing member of a team (thank you, oxytocin!), and something as simple as laughing together can give the team an edge.  Who knew?!

After all of the time and money that Google spent on this groundbreaking research, it turns out that achieving team success may be a simple as applying a few of the things that we learned in grade school. 

Take turns, be nice, include others, work together, be empathetic, and laugh…don’t forget to laugh.

Psychological Safety in a Virtual World by Melissa Hughes

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