The Truth About Teams—And How to Know What Type of Team You’re on

Adapted from “The Loyalist Team: How Trust, Candor and Authenticity Create Great Organizations” (PublicAffairs, Hachette, Sept. 12, 2017).

The best teams make it look easy. They perform together so well and so consistently that it appears as if they are one single organism instead of a group of disparate personalities with varied backgrounds. It can look, from the outside, as if skilled and talented people came together and blended their skills and talents effortlessly.

If that were the case, however, that no effort was necessary, building a high-performance team would be as simple as pulling smart people together and saying, “Go.” But that’s not the case. Haven’t all of us seen a sports team with the most talented athletes implode long before the playoffs? And maybe we’ve even served on a team of extraordinary individuals who came together and failed, sometimes spectacularly. The missing ingredient—the difference between the high flyers and the failures—is more than luck or good timing. The best teams are built with intention and we can tell you how.

At Trispective, we’ve studied thousands of teams, measured them, coached them, and evaluated them again. All teams, it turns out, break down or succeed in specific, identifiable, and replicable ways. No matter the industry, or the part of the world they work in, teams fall into four distinct types.

The Worst of the Worst

We call the most dysfunctional groups Saboteur Teams. On these teams, at least one person is actively working to sabotage a teammate’s efforts. That’s because they believe winning is a zero-sum game: If you win, I lose. And as long as one person is tossing teammates under the bus, everyone else has to react. People move into self-preservation mode because they don’t know who to trust. They focus on playing defense and keeping their jobs instead of making forward progress.

When we work with a Saboteur Team, we always see a similar set of issues: Team goals aren’t met, company goals go by the wayside, and team members start looking for the exits. Particularly toxic Saboteur Teams also can lead to lawsuits, criminal convictions, and bankruptcies. These teams are no good, so good people opt out. They quit or find new positions with new teams because surviving on a Saboteur Team is intolerable.

The Mediocre Middle

Approximately one-fifth of all the teams we see are Saboteur Teams. Most teams aren’t that bad—and not that good. The majority of teams fall into one of two categories: Benign Saboteur or Situational Loyalist Teams.

On Benign Saboteur Teams, people generally get along. They’re collegial. They might go to lunch together. They may maintain positive, perhaps superficial, relationships with one another. There isn’t bad intention or ill will. Yet, something isn’t working.

Everyone knows there’s a problem even if they can’t articulate it. When we interview people on these teams, they don’t say anyone is actively out to get them. Mostly, they are just siloed and not working together well. People are playing it safe. We see leaders who may not be holding the team to a high enough standard or turning a blind eye to intra-squad conflicts.

Situational Loyalist Teams are more productive. On these teams, there are deep pockets of trust, but it is not uniform across the entire team. Often, on Situational Loyalist Teams, the leader is so central and so well-liked that people worry what would happen if he or she were to leave.

While Situational Loyalists don’t always destroy value, they don’t create it at the rate they otherwise might. Men and women on these teams typically know their team is not running as smoothly as it could. They have candid conversations about the dropped balls and missed opportunities with some of their colleagues. And with others, they offer support but stop short of true candor.

When the landscape changes, as it always does in a complex business environment, these teams are not well equipped to adapt and carry on. They don’t have all the tools or the necessary commitment to each other to perform at the highest level over rough terrain. Certainly, we see teams that can use a crisis to pull together, but more often, challenges push a Situational Loyalist Team in the other direction, toward the unhealthy behaviors of Benign Saboteur or even Saboteur Teams.

Where Saboteurs are characterized by selfish behavior, Benign Saboteurs are avoiders who don’t face the issues. Situational Loyalists go a step further: They’re willing to explore the issues, but instead of candid conversations, they may sugarcoat concerns with some teammates or hold back for fear of rocking the boat.

The Best in Any Business

Men and women on Loyalist Teams are the ones who have explored the issues and chosen to roll up their sleeves and fix the problems, whenever a problem pops up. They call out the “elephant in the room” and they do it with respect. Members of these teams value one another enough to say what needs to be said. They assume that any criticism comes from a place of positive intent—that their teammates want the best for them, the team, and the company, as they do.

When something happens beyond the company’s walls—a new competitor shows up, the market shifts, or the economy takes a hit—a Loyalist Team has the commitment, relationships, and practices to keep moving forward. They’ve built the muscle memory needed to respond quickly. When asked, people who have been on Loyalist teams routinely report that these experiences were the most positive, engaging, and rewarding times of their careers. Of all the teams we see, very few earn the Loyalist designation—only about 15 percent. But the good news is every team can become one.

Wherever your team is on this spectrum, from Saboteur to Loyalist, you have the capacity for higher, sustainable performance, and the ability to become a Loyalist Team. You can learn the traits and characteristics of the highest-performing teams, and you can choose to adopt them as your own. It’s not easy, but if you ask any of the Loyalist Teams we work with, they’ll tell you it’s more than worth the effort.

Adapted from “The Loyalist Team” (PublicAffairs, Hachette, Sept. 12, 2017).

Linda Adams, Abby Curnow-Chavez, Audrey Epstein, and Rebecca Teasdale are partners in The Trispective Group. They are authors of “The Loyalist Team: How Trust, Candor and Authenticity Create Great Organizations.”