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12 Key Characteristics of an Excellent Team

The Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) opens his masterpiece Anna Karenina by saying, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Unsurprisingly, the same can be said for teams. Some teams lack trust, while others fail to find shared values. There are many ingredients to a great, functioning team.

The best teams develop norms of behavior for working together to achieve their purpose. With a clear, motivating purpose and positive norms of behavior, people can pull together as a powerful force to achieve extraordinary results.

Fully functioning groups and excellent teams possess 12 key characteristics:

  1. A clear mission. The task or objective of the group is well understood and accepted by all.
  2. Informal atmosphere. The atmosphere is informal, comfortable, and relaxed. It is a working atmosphere in which everyone is involved and interested. There are no signs of boredom.
  3. Lots of discussions. Time is allowed for discussion in which everyone is encouraged to participate, and discussion remains pertinent to the task of the group.
  4. Active listening. Members listen to each other. People show respect for one another by listening when others are talking. Every idea is given a hearing.
  5. Trust and openness. Members feel free to express ideas and feelings, both on the issues and on the group's operation. People are not afraid to suggest new and different ideas, even if they are extreme.
  6. Disagreement is OK. Disagreement is not suppressed or overridden by premature group action. Differences are carefully examined as the group seeks to understand all points of view. Conflict and differences of opinion are accepted as the price of creativity.
  7. Criticism is issue-oriented, never personal. Constructive criticism is given and accepted. Criticism is oriented toward solving problems and accomplishing the mission. Personal criticism is neither expressed nor felt.
  8. Consensus is the norm. Decisions are reached by consensus, in which it is clear that everyone is in general agreement and willing to go along. Formal voting is kept to a minimum.
  9. Effective leadership. Informal leadership shifts from time to time, depending on circumstances. There is little evidence of a struggle for power as the group operates. The issue is not who controls, but how to get the job one.
  10. Clarity of assignments. The group is informed of the action plan. When action is taken, clear assignments are made and accepted. People know what they are expected to do.
  11. Shared values and norms of behavior. There is agreement on core values and norms of behavior that determine the rightness and wrongness of conduct in the group.
  12. Commitment. People are committed to achieving the goals of the group.


T. Harris and J. Sherblom, Small Group and Team Communication, 4th ed. (Boston: Pearson, 2007)

J. Conger and R. Riggio, The Practice of Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007)

S. Martin, Northern Kentucky University, rev. 2010, based on D. McGregor, The Human Side of Enterprise, pp. 232-35; D. Forsyth, Group Dynamics, 6th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2013)

J. Katzenbach and D. Smith, The Wisdom of Teams (New York: Harper Business, 2015).

About the Author

George Manning is a professor emeritus of psychology at Northern Kentucky Univer­sity. He is a consultant to business, industry, and government, serving such clients as the AMA, AT&T, General Electric, IBM, Duke Energy, the United Auto Workers, Young Presidents’ Organization, the U.S. Navy, and the National Institutes of Health. He lectures on economic and social issues, including quality of work-life, workforce values, and business ethics. He maintains an active program of research and writing in organizational psychology. His current studies and interests include the changing meaning of work, leadership ethics, and coping skills for personal and social change.

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