In the rapidly changing global economy, there are few certainties. However, as employers never fail to remind potential hires, one thing is here to stay. Teamwork is critical to the success of organizations, whether they are universities or firms or government agencies. The benefits of productive teams and costs of dysfunctional ones have prompted research into why some teams succeed and others fail.
Most notably, recent research from Google offers new insight into how teams operate. The most effective teams, the research demonstrates, have created “psychological safety”—environments where team members feel safe taking risks. Such environments are marked by two key features: conversational turn-taking and social sensitivity. In conversational turn-taking, each group member is given the opportunity to speak for roughly equal amounts of time. Social sensitivity describes how well members can discern the the feelings of other members of the group.
In working on teams at Georgetown across both the academic and pre-professional realms, I have had experiences spanning the good the bad and the ugly. But it has never been clear to me why such stark differences emerge among teams of similar students. Google’s research on effective teamwork has given me the vocabulary to begin answering this question.
In Hilltop Consultants, project teams become a key unit of the broader community within the organization. Each team has a Project Manager, a Senior Consultant, and three Consultants. After defining the client’s problem, the team deconstructs it and designs a solution, iterating and refining the deliverable until it is ready to be presented to the client. Weekly meetings with the project team become the core point of interaction in Hilltop, and as such the project teams serve as the basis for building relationships and a sense of community within the organization. This sense of community seems to be a key factor contributing to the performance of the teams in their project-related work.
During team meetings, each team member contributes to the conversation. Part of this has to do with how work is delegated. Each team member is generally responsible for summarizing her week’s research and updating the team. This opportunity to take ownership of one’s work also builds individual equity toward the team’s objective, incentivizing contribution during team discussion.
Hilltop teams also are given the option of having one funded team dinner each semester, with the aim of promoting social bonding within teams. Doing something non-work related with the team can be a simple and powerful way to start feeling more comfortable around teammates, promoting psychological safety. For example, I had a project manager who would bake for each meeting. The casual moments of chatting about our week over chocolate chip cookies would often set the tone for the rest of the meeting, with team members contributing during the meeting just as they had moments before.
Importantly, member contributions and social awareness go beyond creating a fun team dynamic. When all members are adding their perspective while refining the ideas of others, clients benefit. Team members are often more comfortable asking questions, accelerating their improvement. There is more research each week and that research is of a higher quality. Deliverables are stronger because they reflect the collective strengths of the entire project team.
Many student-run clubs at Georgetown require teamwork to various extents, and have cultivated models that suit the specific needs of the organization. While many of these models are strong, there is always room for improvement, and Hilltop is no exception. For example, perhaps methods for directly soliciting individual contributions to the group conversation could be institutionalized. This might be as simple as starting the meeting with each person saying what they did that weekend, like we did over food. Social sensitivity is harder to institutionalize. However, it is an area where organization-wide socializing becomes more than just a college activity—it becomes something that can contribute meaningfully to a healthy team dynamic.
I have enjoyed learning from the different problems clients face. However, I have learned just as much from rotating teams as I have from rotating projects. My current and previous project teams have exposed me to different leadership styles. Effective team leaders can craft a team culture that creates psychological safety.
Hilltop has created a healthy culture. Some aspects of it are incidental—I happened to have a project manager who bakes. Others are by design—we are encouraged to grab dinner with our project team and hang out beyond working together. I am excited to see the ways in which this culture continues to grow, both naturally and perhaps by institutionalizing team-building measures, as we work to scale social impact for nonprofits around the world.
Shivum Bharill is a junior in the College studying Political Economy. This is his second semester in Hilltop, and he currently serves as Senior Consultant on his project team. Outside of Hilltop, he enjoys giving tours for Blue & Gray Tour Guide Society, dancing with GU Jawani, and going to brunch too often.
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