How to Select Team Members that contribute to a Healthy Team Culture
“Software is eating the world,” they say and it’s certainly true. But I’d argue that teams are eating the world as well. (Maybe it’s not a coincidence that basically all modern software is created by teams.) Gone are the days when it was all about individual contribution and achievement. Nowadays, many organizations have realized that while the individual employee is important, hardly any significant contribution comes from individuals alone, but from high-performing teams. It’s the team that’s unlocking and amplifying the potential of its members to the point where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Therefore focus is shifting towards what makes a team high-performing. I’d like to offer a model that helps us think deliberately about various key aspects when forming a team as well as hiring new members to join an existing team. I propose we boil the model down to the following formula which applies to each of the members of a team:
Hard Skills + Personality Characteristics = Team Cultural Contribution
While this looks like a mathematical formula, the intent is not to plug in numbers and get actual numerical results. Instead, it’s meant as a mental model to guide the thought process.
Let’s look at the components…
This is what you would expect: A person’s hard, often technical, skills and work experience. This is what most companies tend to hire for. It’s the stuff that goes on someone’s resume.
For cross-functional teams, like Agile teams, the idea is that all skills required to achieve team goals should be represented on the team — in the right ratio. When skills are missing, we hire people with the requisite skill set to fill the gap.
In most cases, it will be beneficial to have a broad set of skills as well as experience levels on the team. An Agile team consisting of only junior developers, but no designers, testers, etc., will likely not be successful. Other types of skills are necessary; additionally, mixing more junior with more senior people, potentially with experience in different technologies and industries/domains, would also be advantageous.
This part of the equation is somewhat obvious and yet organizations get themselves in trouble because it is the only thing they are considering when it comes to selecting or hiring members for a team. That’s where the second part of the formula comes in:
Here we are looking at the various personality characteristics of a team member. Examples: Are they an extrovert or introvert, quiet or bubbly, energetic or reserved, spontaneous or deliberate, logical or emotional? What’s their level of EQ? What cultural background do they have? How do they respond in certain situations? How do they relate to others? (Answers to these types of questions are admittedly not represented on the resume and harder to assess during interviews.)
Why are personality characteristics important? Because they shape how team members collaborate and work towards the team’s goals and how effectively they are able to do so. Also, if a team is too homogeneous, i.e., all the members are very similar and possess the same traits, it will likely prevent them from reaching high levels of performance.
A team of psychological scientists summarized empirical arguments for more diverse teams in Perspectives on Psychological Science: “Homogeneous groups run the risk of narrow mindedness and groupthink (i.e., premature consensus) through misplaced comfort and overconfidence. Diverse groups, in contrast, are often more innovative and make better decisions, in both cooperative and competitive contexts.”
So diversity and balance matter. (An interesting related read is James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds.)
Team Cultural Contribution
The combination of hard skills and personality characteristics determine each member’s team cultural contribution. Think of it as net impact. Given a certain existing team composition, what impact does a new member’s combination of skills and personality characteristics have on the team? Does she add to the team culture and its diversity through her skills and characteristics? Is the impact neutral? Or could the combination negatively affect the team, for example, by tipping the scales too much towards homogeneity in a specific area?
Since the impact of a new team member is never absolute, but always relative to the existing team members, the same person could have a positive impact on one team, but a negative impact on another. It’s not so much a reflection on the individual, but on the how she influences an existing team system.
Team culture is — at the end of the day — the collective dynamics of a team as it works together towards its goals. Assuming teams spend the majority of their time working together closely, each team will develop its own unique culture. No two teams will be exactly alike.
Any changes to the composition will not only result in the team moving through the Tuckman phases of development again (forming, storming, norming, and performing), but also result in a new team culture and changed internal dynamics.
Teams don’t exist in a vacuum. They are contained and live within the cultural context of the organization that surrounds them. Since team cultures are unique and a function of their respective members, it’s possible that some teams develop cultures that are significantly different from the company culture. Teams certainly influence the overall organizational culture; however, since companies often consist of dozens or even hundreds of teams, the reverse effect is significantly stronger, i.e., the company culture has a material impact on the teams’ cultures. While some teams may be able to resist an adverse company culture and be reasonably healthy, a toxic company culture will ultimately poison many of the teams.
Next time you consider adding a new member to an existing team, make it a point to ask deliberate questions:
- Does the new person have the skills that complement or amplify the existing members’ skills?
- Does she possess the skills the team needs in the next 3, 6, or even 12 months?
- How does this person’s experience balance out the experiences already present on the team?
- What personality traits are currently underrepresented or missing on the team?
- What personality characteristics does the potential new member appear to possess? (Reference checks might help provide more definitive answers.)
- How might these characteristics impact the existing team dynamics?
- Does she add to the diversity of the team, have no significant impact from that perspective, or shift the balance in a potentially unhealthy direction (e.g., towards homogeneity)?
- Given the person’s skills and personality characteristics, what is the expected overall net impact on the team culture, i.e., their team cultural contribution?
When forming a brand new team from scratch, this model can also be useful because it explicitly guides us through not only thinking about hard but also soft skills and personalities and emphasizes selecting members whose skills and characteristics complement and balance each other.
Creating high-performing teams is not easy and, to some extent, more art than science. It takes effort, thoughtfulness, experimentation, and a little bit of luck. But anyone who’s been part of a great team will attest to the fact once the team truly “gels” and moves towards high performance, it’s exhilarating and truly magical. What it can achieve at that level is truly amazing. It might even eat the world.