Four Indications That Your Team Is OK

Four Indications That Your Team Is OK

One of the most common questions I get asked by managers I work with is, “Is there a simple way for me to know that my team is OK?” I was asked this question last year by Elizabeth Mitchell, manager of a regional sales team from a large distributing company. Even though I know that busy business people don’t like it, I always respond to this question with another – and Elizabeth’s case was no exception: 

What do you mean by “OK”? 

The problem with the question, if a team is OK, is that at first glance it appears perfectly clear. The manager’s task is to achieve results. To do this, he or she needs an effective team. And when they ask me whether things are OK, what they probably want to know is if there’s a way for them to judge whether the team is effective without having to hire a pricey consultant and without comprehensive inspection (this is what “simple” means).

But if this is the question, the answer is simple. Is the team achieving its goals? If yes – then it’s effective. And vice versa – a lack of results is an indication of ineffectiveness. 

Over the years I discovered, however, that managers aren’t asking this. “Is my team OK?” reflects an internal image of an effective team which the one asking the question is aiming for and against which they measure their success. Complexity arises from the fact that the image one manager who asked me this question has is (often radically!) different from that of another. 

That is, when a team lead of an international software company asks me whether the members of his team are OK, he means to ask whether there are specific values, knowledge, skills and behaviours exhibited in his team which make it effective. But in the large part, these will be very different from the ones which would be required in Elizabeth’s team for her to navigate successfully in her business field. 

Here’s a simple illustration: For most programmers, the ability to focus and to dive in deep, looking for a solution to a problem, is vital to effectiveness – they can sometimes spend days trying to solve something that appears minor but which is vital to the end result. To most salespersons, this isn’t a key skill – what’s important for them is to be able to track tens of transactions and interactions simultaneously and to improvise with little advance notice. 

That’s why the first thing I advise managers who ask this question is to sketch out as clearly as they can their individual image of success. If they don’t clarify for themselves the specific components of their definition of “OK” – the values, knowledge, skills and behaviours necessary for effective work – no consultant in the world would be able to answer their question in any sensible way. And they’ll be haunted by a constant, unsettling sense of anxiety whether they’re doing things right and whether they’re missing something. 

In the meantime, however, because every manager leads a group of human beings, the question of whether the team is OK does have a general, universal aspect to it. Simply because there are specific behaviours which productive human groups always manifest, irrespective of whether they’re comprised of programmers or of salespersons. Here we’re going to share four of the most common ones – and if a manager regularly inspects them, they’ll find a simple way of monitoring if their team is “OK”, at least on this generic level of human communication. 

Number one. Do people in the team listen well?

Observe your team during conversations and meetings. Are the eyes of the listeners on the speaker or elsewhere – staring at a phone/laptop screen, a sheet of paper, out of the window? Do people in the team interrupt one another often and do they wait for the speaker to finish? Do they ask questions in order to better understand what is being said, or to defend their own viewpoint?

If people listen to each other well – if they aim to maintain eye contact with the speaker (if they’re online – with their camera on), if they don’t interrupt except for clarification and ask questions in order to understand better, this is a sign of a healthy working environment. It is also a prerequisite for effectiveness – listening allows everyone in the team to be informed but to also feel respected and valued. It’s impossible to build trust if people don’t listen to each other with attention and respect. 

Number two. How do people react to mistakes?

When someone in the team makes a mistake, do they immediately disclose it to others (at least to those affected) or do they first try to fix/cover it up? When do you as a manger learn about it – generally early on or later? Do you open up about your own mistakes before your team and do you take responsibility for them openly?

The way people react to mistakes is a key sign of a sense of psychological safety. In teams where such safety is at a high level, people tell others about their mistakes early on because they know that their colleagues won’t attack or reject them. A large part of the responsibility for modelling such behaviour lies namely with the team manager, similar to the way this works in a family – we can’t expect our children to apologise if we ourselves don’t apologise when we make mistakes. 

Number three. Do they laugh often during team meetings?

Elizabeth’s response to this criterion was that her team members didn’t go to work to have a good time but to do their job. Laughter, of course, is never a team’s main goal. But it’s a sign – human beings laugh when they’re at ease and when they like being together.  

Of course, we can ask why they need to be at ease and enjoy being at work. The answer may surprise you – numerous studies have shown a direct and strong correlation between teams which laugh together and high levels of productivity and resourcefulness. Researchers claim that if a manager and members of their team don’t laugh well when they’re together, their ability to come up with new ideas and to cooperate falls drastically. 

Number four. Do they share knowledge?

Do people in your team share knowledge that is useful for everyone? Do they tell stories about lessons learnt from clients, problems, events and trainings? Or do they hoard valuable information for themselves?

If you realise that people aren’t being open and sharing, this is a serious sign of a lack of trust in the team and almost certainly guarantees slacking productivity. The reasons for this may be various – Elizabeth shared that members of her team view their colleagues as people they’re competing against and therefore don’t see any sense in sharing knowledge that would help them get ahead. But this often leads to the department team itself performing poorly, despite there being several superstars in it. 

*The manager’s name and details about the sector her team works in have been changed, to maintain confidentiality.