What makes a team work?

All through our lives, right from the formative education years to the working years, nearly all of us get to become part of several teams – local cricket or football team, school choir, family events, Lion’s Club, societies at college, functional and cross-functional teams at work, et al.

I, too, have been a part of many such teams during phases of my life; sometimes as a team-member and on other occasions, as the team’s leader. However, over a period of last decade or so, I have followed the dynamics of teamwork very closely, in fact with rather higher curiosity.

I tried to follow patterns in behaviour, codify the dynamism of team-skills and attempted to make sense of the conflicting views and outcomes thereafter. Time spent as a student at the law and management schools and several years of working in reputed Indian as well as multi-national organisations thereafter helped me gain some very interesting insights and perspectives on what makes a team ‘work’ together.

While there is no dearth of literature available on this subject, one would agree that achieving near-perfect teamwork is a far cry from reality, especially in the chaotic and ever-challenging corporate arena. The jury is still out on what actually makes a team click together, work together and subsequently achieve a common goal, each and every time.

Interestingly, I also observed that many times, even great results or goal-achievement could not conclusively state that the teams involved did ‘work’ together as a cohesive unit or as a whole!

In my view, there are some under-mentionedvery yet crucial factors that make a team ‘work’:

Willingness and passion

  • Clarity of purpose of the team. What is the goal and what is it worth? Why and how do I fit in? What’s there for me in it? All of the three questions should be answered in order to get individuals together as a team.
  • An individual’s own willingness to be part of a particular team. You don’t need ones who don’t want to be there.
  • Passion quotient of individuals.  Lack of it in even one of the teammates could be a real killer for team. If only a few deliver upon the team’s need of passion, the team may deliver results, but will surely not hold for long as a unit.


  • Only Competent Individuals On Board. It is essential for the team’s leader to define the necessary skills needed and ensure only the competent individuals are hired/selected. Compromising here will have a simmering, yet long-term ill effect, not only on the results and performance, but also on the team’s bonding. Good talent always wants to work with only other good talent.
  • No room for displaying poor ownership or lack of competencies. Slackness, poor learning agility, and lack of participation are a big NO. They not only adversely impact results, but also lower the overall team-engagement and pull it down. Conceding here would only invite discontent from other members.
  • Existence of complementary competencies amongst the teammates. A heterogeneous team is better than a homogeneous one. Each team member should know and believe in the reasons of their own as well as others’ roles, responsibilities and strengths.

 Culture, respect and connect

  • Conflict is not equal to negative behaviour. Often, we mistake genuine conflict as unwarranted and discard it. However, in my view, healthy conflict is the root of all progress. Having said that, due caution should be exercised against turning the conflicting views into negative display of emotions.
  • It is good to disagree with each other, as far as you do not disregard. Debate and fight the idea, not the person.
  • Have willingness to praise good work and thank for contributions. “We are all great pals, where’s the need to thank each other?” This is one big piece that most teams miss. Teams that learn to praise commendable work and thank each other connect far better than a team of ‘otherwise great friends’.
  • Respect towards every individual. Each one has a role to play, and despite the professional differences that may occur, respect for each other’s personal self mustn’t go down.
  • Respect for each other’s talent and contribution. ‘Know it all’ attitudes won’t make a team ‘work’ together.
  • Absence of personal insecurities. This one is a true make-or-break element. It is very hard for a team to ‘work’ together in presence of insecure behaviour, demonstrated or otherwise. Insecurity amongst the teammates inspires spite and poor connections, and while the team may still achieve short-term results, the team won’t ‘work’ together for long.
  • Having fun together! How boring and disconnected a team would be, if there were no fun? Remember ‘Fun’? From amongst the pursuit of goals, seriousness of efforts, data, analytics, homework, et al, fun often takes a beating. Ensure the element of fun stays in all you do, the team would ‘work’ together. Celebrate birthdays, achievements, outings, even farewells; create avenues of having fun together.
  • Connect holistically. This works very well, especially in the context of Indian culture. We love to connect on the personal note, share personal challenges and happiness alike.I am of the view that while the team-leader has a larger role to play here, every team member can chip in with genuine interest in each other’s lives. Think of it, how strong the bond would be when each member of the team knows in his or her hearts that everyone is standing by, in the hour of need.


  • Leader’s absolute interest and willingness to lead the bunch is crucial. Who wants to be led by someone who isn’t willing to lead? A team’s leader must be strong enough to see the bigger picture and wise enough to identify with his or her teammates, play the role of a coach, and guide and build a culture for all to succeed.
  • Team’s unflinching trust in the leader’s authenticity, abilities and competencies. Brilliant individuals won’t agree to be led by a poor or incompetent leader for long.
  • Team’s trust on leader’s fairness towards all. This is a real test of character for any leader. The leader has to establish a fair and impartial performance yardstick for each individual member, and doubly ensure that it is visible, too, to all teammates.
  • Be there when needed! It is imperative for the leader to demonstrate courage by standing up for the mistakes of his/her team. Once established, this works brilliantly in keeping the team’s faith on their leader. This goes a long distance in building a well-knit team.
  • Talk, Communicate, Share. Surely a leader’s most crucial job in making a team ‘work’. Seamless communication, of information, praise, feedback, ideas, goals, even failures, builds a strong internal network within the team. And mind you, by communication I don’t mean one-way sermons from the leader. I am referring to open connect and communication across levels. Failure to achieve this leads to conjectures, surmises, doubts, et al, leading to poor performance and lower team engagement.

Courage and managing failure                    

  • Belief that it is OK to fail at times. Every team that concertedly documents their ‘best-failed’ ideas quickly and builds a method around each failed attempt stands the test of time longer.
  • Absence of a blame-game. “We know why we failed and we will work around it next time,” instead of “I did it right, only if you had not failed …”
  • Demonstrating courage in taking feedback without being defensive. Well, it is easier said than done. However, when a well-meant feedback is taken in right spirit and worked upon, it not only boosts the capabilities of the feedback’s recipient, but it also does wonders to the overall capability of a team to continuously improve as a unit.
  • Displaying courage in giving feedback, in an unbiased, timely and constructive manner. No point in trying to beat around the bush or appease each other when the contribution and/or level of performance is lower that expected. Individual who are courageous enough to speak up their mind, without intending any personal assault, build foundation of a sustainable team-effort.

The takeaway

Having worked with teams for several years now, I believe each one of the above is a key determinant of what makes a team ‘work’.  When well-meaning and competent individuals get together as a unit, have and display faith in each other’s abilities, learn to praise and motivate each other, and when the team stands by the leader and vice-versa and don’t waste time in blame-game and/or only thinking about credit, the team ‘works’ wonderfully together.

As both a team-member and a leader, I understand that teamwork is a journey and not an end. Thus, I have trained myself to carefully watch for all of above factors and keep implementing them as a ‘work-in-progress’, leading to continuous improvement in ensuring better individual and team effort, connection, bonding and attainment of results.

I would say, ‘it works!’

The article, entitled “What makes a team work?” orginally appeared on e27.

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