It’s easy to think that a team’s success or failure hinges on its leader. A strong leader will bring a team together, while a weak leader’s passivity can cause lasting problems.
Yet the tendency to credit team leaders for a group’s success—and blame them for a group’s failure—is often misguided. Research shows that the key to team performance rests more in the group’s structure and whether it meets certain conditions.
Richard Hackman (1940–2013), a Harvard psychology professor who studied teams, devised five questions to determine if a given group is built for success:
1. Does the group have clear boundaries, interdependence among members and at least some stability of membership over time? A real team isn’t just an assemblage of individuals but a cohesive unit with well-defined limits and a stable corps of participants.
2. Does the team have a compelling direction, a purpose that’s clear, challenging, and consequential—and a focus on the ends rather than the means? A group needs to know where it’s going and why. Everyone understands the goal and the need to advance towards it.
3. Does the team’s structure enable rather than impede? Leaders need to make sure a group’s composition and code of conduct work to its advantage. The way a team operates should reflect an empowering structure that helps participants produce results.
4. Does the team’s social system provide the resources and support that members need to carry out their work? Groups that succeed tend to have supportive elements in place.
5. Do coaches help members get over rough spots and pounce on opportunities? Ideally, teams benefit from coaching when members hungrily seek to apply what they learn.
— Adapted from “What Makes for a Great Team?,” J. Richard Hackman, www.apa.org.