The 3 things that great teams have in common

Oct 5, 2020 /

This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from people in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.

The invention of the organization — getting different humans together to collaborate on a project — is probably the greatest invention in the history of mankind. Through organizations, we’ve been able to build and create more value than any individual would likely have ever been able to imagine alone. And organizations are built on teams.

So it’s worth asking: What do great teams have in common? What do the teams that create consistent amounts of value all share? What do teams that overperform expectations have that underperforming teams lack?

When we look at the research, we can see three things that great teams have in common:

  • Intellectual diversity
  • Psychological safety
  • A purpose worth fighting for

Below, I’ll dive into each of these three elements. No matter what type of team you’re on — in-person or remote or mixed — these factors are equally important. Whether you collaborate in a boardroom or a Zoom room, a Skype call or a plain old conference call, you need these three to be a great team.

Element #1: Intellectual diversity

The first thing that great teams have in common is intellectual diversity. Within the corporate world, the term “diversity” is primarily used to refer to racial or gender diversity.

However, intellectual diversity goes a lot wider than that and includes all aspects of a person’s or group’s opinions, experiences and perspectives. People who come from different backgrounds or who have different life experiences tend to have different perspectives; when a group of dissimilar people work together, they tend to be better able to solve problems than people who think alike or have the same experiences.

Ultimately, the job of a team is to solve problems. If everybody comes from the same background or is educated in the same system or comes from the same racial experience or gender experience, then the ideas that they generate tend to be, well, the same. But when all of those elements are varied within the members of a team, the range of possible ideas that they generate will be much wider and finding the right idea that fixes the problem becomes much more likely.

A 2011 study showed simply and clearly how gender diversity can create more intellectual diversity and hence more value. The researchers looked at many different teams, and they found when a team contained more women, it made better decisions. That applies to almost any other measure of diversity just as long as it goes on to provide an underlying intellectual diversity.

Intellectual diversity is a core piece of the formula behind great teams — but it’s not the only one.

Element #2: Psychological safety

The next piece is psychological safety. Even though most organizations recognize they need to pursue intellectual diversity, many teams struggle with the fact that despite their intellectual diversity, not all members feel free to share their ideas. They don’t feel like they can fully contribute.

This is where psychological safety comes in. Psychological safety is the measure of how free people on a team feel to share their ideas, their experiences and their whole selves with each other. This not only affects the ideas being contributed and discussed but also how willing people feel to take risks and admit to any mistakes. Psychological safety makes team members more willing to submit crazy ideas that can lead the team in a new and different direction — which could lead to genius.

A foundational study of psychological safety was led by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson. Edmondson examined the leadership of charge nurses on different floors of a hospital, and she quickly noticed something interesting. The charge nurses who were judged by their teams as being better leaders often had higher rates of documented errors than charge nurses who were judged to be worse leaders.

As she investigated further, she discovered the explanation: The better leaders created psychological safety, so their nurses felt free to admit to mistakes and receive corrections. What’s more, everybody benefited from the learning that came from the revealed mistakes. By contrast, poor leaders didn’t create enough psychological safety so their nurses felt like they had to hide their errors. Besides the obvious ethical implications, this also left people on those teams deprived of learning from them.

It’s only when we have psychological safety — when we feel that we can wholeheartedly contribute without being ignored or criticized — that we can take risks and admit mistakes. Psychological safety is what actually allows a team to benefit from its intellectual diversity.

Intellectual diversity and psychological safety go hand in hand to make good teams great. But there’s one more factor.

Element #3: A purpose worth fighting for

The third and final element that great teams have in common is a purpose worth fighting for. We’ve known for 20+ years about the importance of shared vision, shared mission and shared purpose in driving team performance.

Often, however, an organization’s mission statements or statements of purpose can be too vague for specific teams to internalize and apply to their day-to-day work. Because they’re vague, they don’t introduce one of the key aspects for getting a group to bond and work towards — a superordinate goal.

It’s not enough to have a goal that people are working for; great teams have a goal they’re fighting for. In studies of what causes individuals to join armed revolutions, insurgencies and terrorist organizations, the research group Artis International found that when the stakes are raised and a purpose is elevated from a future people are working for to a future they’re fighting for, two critical things happen.

The first is core values get elevated to sacred values. When something is worth fighting for, it’s more than important — it’s sacred. People’s daily work is transformed from work that needs to be done and into work needed to defend those values or to spread them further.

The second is that team members gain a stronger sense of group identity. The fight itself defines the fighters, bonding them to each other. As a result, they end up working as much for each other as they are working for the mission.

Purpose, mission and vision are all hugely important. But when you look at great teams — the teams that consistently create value or the ones that change the world — they’d usually say their purpose is worth fighting for.

To sum it up, great teams contain three key elements: Intellectual diversity, psychological safety and a purpose that’s worth fighting for. Of course, rarely do these three fall into place on their own. These aspects require leadership, either in the form of an individual or a group of people who are together leading a team. Teams need leaders who recognize when more intellectual diversity is needed, who build up psychological safety within a group, and who take an organizational mission and turn it into a cause worth fighting for.

This article originally appeared on and it’s been adapted with the author’s permission.

Watch his TEDxUniversityofNevada Talk here: