The science behind team effectiveness survey factors

Deloitte recently noted in their 2017 human capital trends report that companies are racing to replace structural hierarchies with networks of teams empowered to take action. This is because of the belief that designing work around teams will enable companies to stay ahead of the curve. As more organizations take the leap, we at Culture Amp wondered how companies can best support and develop their teams.

That’s why we created the Culture Amp Team Effectiveness survey - to provide teams with actionable insights for development. We've combined theory, academic and industry research to create the team effectiveness survey experience. What follows is a discussion of our research, and why we chose to include some factors but not others. 

Team Effectiveness Research

Our research into Team Effectiveness started with a simple question - “How would we describe an effective team and what are the factors that support this?” Firstly, our definition of an effective team in today’s workplace is one that's performing well and contributing to the overall success of the company, while simultaneously providing its members with an environment where they can do their best work, develop, and feel a sense of belonging and pride.

Secondly, we searched for the most important factors that enable effective teamwork. We studied contemporary academic literature and explored leading team models for insights on the characteristics and behaviors of high-performing teams.

Through this we identified elements of team effectiveness that we all know and have come to expect - collaboration, clear communication, shared purpose, and operational efficiency. Outside of these traditional elements, we uncovered three distinct groups of behaviors that deserve more airtime in today’s world of team-oriented workplaces: psychological safety, dependability and interpersonal sensitivity.

Three factors you can’t ignore

Why are psychological safety, dependability and interpersonal sensitivity so important for team effectiveness? To understand their importance, we must first define what we mean by a team. A team is composed of highly interdependent members plan their work, solve problems, make decisions and review progress together in line with a shared goal or project.

The word ‘interdependent’ changes what we think of when referring to a team and the behaviors required. This entails genuine reliance on others to get the job done, rather than simply the passing on of pieces of work to the next person, like a baton in a relay. This would be more accurately described as a group, which simply requires good coordination, processes and clear lines of communication. On the other hand, working in a genuine team requires much more complex interpersonal behaviors. This is where the trio of factors comes in.

1. Psychological safety

Organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson of Harvard first introduced the construct of team psychological safety and defined it as, “A shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

In a nutshell, team psychological safety is when team members feel safe taking interpersonal risks. This construct was first introduced by organizational behavioral scientist Amy Edmondson in 1999 who positively correlated its relationship to learning behavior in teams. An important aspect is that team psychological safety is a shared belief amongst all members.

So how do you know if a team is strong on this construct? A core element is trust. Some behaviors you might see include team members speaking up and sharing their ideas (no matter how unpolished), team members admitting mistakes without fear of retribution and openly talking about tough issues and misunderstandings.

 2. Dependability 

Dependability is exactly what it says - can team members rely on each other to do high quality work? Dependability is also about helping each other out when asked and offering to help without prompting. And, of course, dependability is marked by team members following through with commitments and doing what they say they will do. Dependability builds trust in a team which in turn creates greater psychological safety. In fact, all three of these factors overlap and enable the development of each other within the team.  

 3. Interpersonal sensitivity 

Interpersonal sensitivity is centered on demonstrating understanding and empathy. When this is present, team members feel that their teammates genuinely care about each other’s well-being and communication flows easily (even during times of conflict or disagreements). A subtle, yet very important, behavior is that team members take equal opportunities to speak during conversations. This behavior, known as conversational turn-taking relies on team members paying close attention to what others are saying, inviting one another in to participate and not moving off topic unless it’s cued as appropriate.

How do these factors align with existing models? 

While they may not have the same labels, psychological safety, interpersonal sensitivity and dependability appear in many well-known team models, including Richard Beckhard’s GRPI (interpersonal relationships), Lencioni's Five Dysfunctions of a Team (absence of trust and fear of conflict), and Google's Project Aristotle (psychological safety and dependability).

These factors have shown to be some of the strongest predictors of team effectiveness. In fact, Google’s Project Aristotle identified psychological safety as the number one predictor of effective team performance. At Culture Amp, we use a diagnostic survey to help teams to provide inward feedback to understand where they sit in relation to these factors.

 Questions we use that you can explore in your own team are:

  • “When I contribute ideas and thoughts, I believe my opinion is valued” - Psychological safety
  • “Team members encourage each other to share their unpolished thoughts and ideas” - Psychological safety
  • “When my teammates say they’ll do something, they follow through with it” - Dependability
  • “We resolve most conflicts or disagreements effectively” - Interpersonal sensitivity

Have teams reflect on these questions to get an idea of how they’re going. If you’re looking to build a company that is equipped to thrive in the challenges of the future, investing in building team capability through team-focused feedback is an important first step.


Chloe Hamman, Insights Strategist at Culture Amp, has a master's degree in Industrial Organizational Psychology. She also has a background in psychometrics, with experience leading culture transformation and engagement programs. She loves hula hoops and other extreme sports. You can connect with Chloe on twitter

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