How to Build Great Teams

A Q&A with Don Yaeger

By Dori Meinert Nov 30, 2016
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Why are some teams more effective than others? Why do some remain competitive over time while others don't?

The most successful teams are connected to a greater purpose, says Don Yaeger, author of Great Teams: 16 Things High-Performing Organizations Do Differently (Thomas Nelson, 2016).

"When we think that what we do matters, and we can put a face on who it matters to, I think you'll find that you can create a sustainable success that is uncommon in the workplace," says Yaeger, a former Sports Illustrated editor who interviewed more than 100 great team builders in the sports and business world to identify their common qualities. He's the author of more than two dozen books, including nine New York Times best-sellers. He's also a motivational speaker, executive coach and team culture expert.

Yaeger answered our questions about issues raised in his book:

What can employers do to generate positive change?

Have an open discussion about culture. The culture of any organization happens by design or by default. The great teams don't let it happen by accident. So if you're trying to create a turnaround in your organization, boldly declare "Here's what we stand for" and then go out and celebrate those who act on the things that you stand for. If you say that you value customers above all, and one of your employees goes out and helps a customer change a tire in the parking lot, celebrate that employee. Don't get on them because they missed a deadline while changing the tire.

How do great teams manage dysfunction?

Most leaders today, when word gets to them that there's that friction between two employees, they plug their ears, they close their eyes, and they pray that it goes away. Friction in the workplace costs hundreds of millions of dollars in lost productivity [and] sick days. The great teams understand that dysfunction is real, and they don't run from it. They aggressively approach it. They shorten the life cycle of that dysfunction, and that's worth millions.

What role does communication play in establishing a great team?

In sports, how many times do we see coaches grab players by their jerseys and scream at them? The truth is that occurs at the workplace, too. The great teams realize that you have to approach every error with an assumption that it was not made intentionally. Does it advance the organization to yell at them and say, "What were you thinking?" That conversation is different in great teams because they begin with a different point of view. It generates a more positive response from the player/employee. Now instead of stewing in your cubicle, you're saying, "Somebody please give me a chance to prove that that was just a mistake."

How do great teams approach recruiting?

Great teams don't recruit on talent. They recruit on fit. I'm watching it happen more and more in the athletic world as well. You try not to get enamored by someone's talent because the truth is that sometimes their talent is extraordinary because of the environment they're in. You need to know, do they fit your team? But a lot of people don't know what really fits in their organization. That's a whole other series of questions you need to be asking. Why are some people likely to be successful here? What should we be looking for? It changes the way you look at a resume.

Dori Meinert is senior writer/editor for HR Magazine.

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