We have updated our Privacy Policy Please take a moment to review it. By continuing to use this site, you agree to the terms of our updated Privacy Policy.

The 6 characteristics of truly great teams


Leading sport psychology consultant and performance coach Simon Hartley has worked with, and studied, some of the world’s greatest sports teams and elite-level athletes. Here are the 6 characteristics of world-class team he has learned from extraordinary teams – from the Red Arrows, SAS units and leading surgical teams, to the All Blacks, Round the World Yacht Race crews and Twenty20 Cricket World Champions.


1. They’re highly focused

This is the foundation upon which all the other elements of a successful team are built. Very simply, high-performing teams have a strong, clear and shared purpose. Importantly, they have a shared purpose rather than a shared goal. A goal is a statement of what we desire. A purpose is a reason for being. To define your purpose, try to answer this question: What is the reason that you do what you do? Go beyond the ‘what?’ and ‘the how?’. If your team made washers (those small black rubber discs that are used in plumbing), what would your compelling reason be? To make washers so that your company made profit and everyone can pay their bills? Is that compelling? Why should anyone give him or herself to this cause? Often it helps to ask, ‘Why is it important to do it well?’.


2. They share standards and expectations

As well as a shared purpose, the very best teams also have an acute understanding of the standards that they expect from each other. Fundamentally, they know what ‘good enough’ looks like and they understand it in the same way. Twice-Michelin-starred chef Kenny Atkinson once told me that he tastes the food with his chefs so that they have a shared understanding of what constitutes under-seasoned, overseasoned and properly seasoned. He doesn’t rely on each chef’s own opinion as to whether it tastes ‘right’ or ‘nice’. Ask yourself whether your team is crystal-clear about standards. Would you notice if the standard slipped by a fraction of a per cent, and what would you do about it?


3. They appreciate each individual

Often in a team there is a hierarchy of roles that seems to develop. Some roles are seen as more important than others, and the natural extension is that we might start to perceive that some people are more important than others. But great teams know that the machine doesn’t function unless all the cogs turn together – however big or small they might be. I use a very simple principle with organisations to help each member understand how they can best contribute. The first stage is to summarise the job of the organisation in the simplest possible terms. The next stage is to ask the same question of the individuals. What is their personal core contribution? How does it relate to that of their team? I once heard a story about a man who swept the floors in a hanger at NASA. His job was to help ensure that no dust or debris got into the working parts of the spacecraft. When he was asked what he did at NASA he said, ‘I help put rockets in the sky’.


4. They draw strength from their differences

Groups of human beings inevitably have different perspectives and opinions, so every team has an element of diversity. Great leaders and teams manage the diversity to ensure that they draw strength from the differences rather than allowing cracks to appear. For example, those who work and think at a slower pace sometimes do so because they think in more depth. It is common for fast-paced leaders to agree actions and move the discussion on to the next subject while the thinkers are still thinking. But the greatest leaders recognise this and deliberately pause to collect the input from everyone, before making decisions and moving on. This way, the team gains the benefit of the deeper thinking that is done by the thinkers.


5. They’re brutally honest

The best teams ask the really tough questions, and answer them. Brutal honesty means having difficult and uncomfortable conversations. Often it means departing from harmony and embracing conflict. But when the members of a team begin to vocalise ‘The Great Unsaid’, it acts as a driver of innovation and creativity. It is also vital for those who want to constantly get better. Continuous improvement requires us to look in detail at what we’re doing and how we can refine it. Brutally honest teams don’t look for a fight, but they don’t avoid voicing differences of opinion when they are needed either.


6. They’re always learning

World-class teams have an acute awareness that, however good they are right now, they can always improve. Coupled with that is a desire to become the best that they can possibly be. The combination of these ingredients leads them to start asking questions such as, ‘Where can we tighten up?’ and ‘How can we gain an extra couple of per cent?’ Teams such as the Red Arrows ensure that they employ a very tight review cycle. Whereas many teams will review on a monthly, quarterly or annual basis, the Red Arrows review each and every performance on a daily basis. This is what separates world-class teams from the rest. Regardless of whether the performance was good, bad or average, the very best teams will always ask what they can learn from it and how they can use the experience to get better.


Adapted from Stronger Together: How Great Teams Work by Simon Hartley.