5 Keys to a Successful Team and How to Improve the One You’ve Got

Most managers don’t have the luxury of wiping the slate clean and hiring a brand new staff when something’s not working. They’ve got to cultivate the team members they have into better performing individuals, which leads to a more efficient and productive group. It starts with understanding what a successful team looks like. Once you can picture an end goal, it’s time to take the necessary measures to improve the situation you’re in—one step at a time.


As we look at what it takes to make a successful team, it’s important also to realize that there are important differences between leading a successful co-located team versus a distributed one. The principles are generally the same, but we’ll also highlight some important differences you need to take into account.

1. Building Trust and Respect

Trust and respect go hand in hand, and they’re also the twin building blocks of a team that works well together. In order to have one, you need to have the other. At the end of the day, most of the advice you get about building a successful team comes down to communication and building trust and respect.

One important thing to understand about both trust and respect is that they ultimately can’t just be given, they have to be earned as well. It’s not what you say that matters the most, it’s what you do. You need to show that you deliver on your promises, that what you say will happen actually does happen.

Another big thing that will immediately win you trust and respect is not to be afraid to admit when you don’t know something, or when you’re wrong. Too many people double down when they’re backed into a corner, and that can spell disaster when they’re making a choice that’s obviously wrong or ill-informed. You’ll only get your team’s best ideas if they know you’ll listen to them and look at all your options when you don’t know what to do.

2. Being Transparent in Big and Small Ways

Transparency is a major factor in trust and respect, especially if you’re working with some people remotely. Even if we try to go in with an open and trusting mindset, it can be hard to build that foundation without the understanding that comes from working side-by-side with someone every day. In a remote environment, you should work diligently to make sure everyone connects as humans, whether that’s taking a moment to talk about weekend plans or admitting you’re feeling lousy because of some things going on in your life at the time.

On a more macro level, transparency is about making sure your entire team understands why you made a particular decision. Being open and honest about how and why you make your choices will help them understand what they should be thinking about and be prioritizing.

3. Talking it Out

With remote teams, you need to make sure you’re not just using one mode of communication to do your check-ins. Face-to-face time, even if it’s over the web, makes a huge difference. There can often be tech issues with video conferencing, so make sure you have a reliable broadband connection that can support your needs. Even just jumping on the phone can have a big impact on your relationship—a major part of communication comes down to the tone of voice and body language.

We’ve long known that emails are easy to misinterpret, and this can be exacerbated when one of your team members has messed up, or a miscommunication has occurred. If you’ve ever had to write a difficult email, you know it can be a massive use of your time just figuring out how to word something without sounding combative, accusatory, or self-righteous.

For co-located teams, it comes down to making sure the most important feedback is done in-person. If you have distributed members, you need to think about how easy you are to reach. With all the video conferencing tools available, it can be tempting to imagine you don’t really need a phone number, but having a dedicated work number opens up a vital, informal channel of communication.

4. Providing Increased Flexibility

One key thing you can do to loosen up your environment is to offer increased flexibility with your expectations for when and how your employees show up to work. Some businesses are going to have more options than others, but going the extra mile to make things easier for your team will pay back in spades, because it gives you the opportunity to show that you trust them, instead of just talking about it.

When it comes to your bottom line, adding flexibility with work hours and work-from-home days costs you very little, but is viewed as a major perk by your workers. According to Inc, 1 in 4 workers experiences high levels of conflict between work and family life. At the same time, advances in how we use technologies like cloud storage, web-based applications, and collaboration software have made it easier than ever to be productive while working remotely.

Every company is different, but, in general, the best philosophy comes down to “as long as it gets done.” Your employees are experts at what works best for them, and you’re an expert at what needs to happen to build your business. The key is to find a balance between those two things for every individual, instead of having a one-size-fits-all solution.

5. The Small Perks That Make a Big Impact

A recent study at the University of Warwick found that happiness of workers led to a 12% increase in productivity, while unhappiness or dissatisfied workers were 10% less productive. While you don’t necessarily have to be the Google of employee perks with on-site dry-cleaning and gourmet meals, small perks that show you care, can go a long way.

For example, offering some nicer amenities in the kitchen is a surprisingly low-cost way to really make it feel like you’re going the extra mile. A few single-size French-presses and a water boiler offers employees a luxe coffee house experience but doesn’t break the bank. A TV in the break room can keep employees informed of breaking news or events as they go about their day, and makes them less likely to take an extended internet excursion.

These kinds of perks offer tremendous bang for your buck. When you price it out, doing something like stocking the fridge with soft drinks and seltzer doesn’t actually cost a whole lot, but it feels like an amazing perk. Ultimately what you’re actually doing is helping your employees create positive habits around work by tapping into the powerful psychology of reward loops. Perks are what motivates someone to come in early because they know they can have a cup of coffee and catch up on emails while the office is still quiet.

What You Can do Right Now

Building a team that works well together, wherever they are on the spectrum—from co-located to remote—is about making sure that you all align on certain fundamental values. The foundation is trust and respect, but you need to recognize that it takes time and effort to build them. You can also pay attention to what you’re doing for employees: offering increased flexibility with remote work options, and little amenities like TV is a great way to show you care. Finally, make sure you have plenty of modes of communication, and that you take advantage of them to avoid misunderstandings.

  • Show that you deserve your team’s respect and trust with excellent follow-through.
  • Make the effort to foster a more personal relationship with your employees.
  • Take advantage of various modes of communication—phones, video conferencing, chat, etc.—to cut down on misunderstandings.
  • Use cloud, video, and collaboration technologies to offer more flexibility.
  • Consider small perks that can do a lot for morale.
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