Leadership & Management

Class Takeaways — Managing Successful Groups and Teams

Five lessons in five minutes: Professor Deborah Gruenfeld shows how to build and lead successful teams.

February 17, 2022

| by Kelsey Doyle

How do you build successful, diverse teams? How do you offer structure and control while also inviting participation?

In this video based on her class Managing Groups and Teams, Stanford Graduate School of Business professor of organizational behavior Deborah Gruenfeld shares five key lessons for team leaders.


Full Transcript

My name is Deb Gruenfeld, and I’m a faculty member at Stanford in the Graduate School of Business. One of my favorite classes is called Managing Groups and Teams. And, I’m going to share five key takeaways from that class today.

1. Begin with the end in mind

There’s no one way to design teams for success. You have to start with the end in mind. Often when we talk about building a team we think of people first, “Who do I like to work with, and how can I get as many stars as possible?” But, we believe you can’t know who to work with or how to structure your team until you know what’s needed for the team to succeed. The teams should be designed around a clear, engaging direction, a goal. So, the building of the team is dictated by the specific outcomes we hope to achieve.

2. Consider diversity and hierarchy

When making choices about how to design teams for different purposes there are two key dimensions to choose from. The first is that you have to decide what to do about diversity. That is, you want to maximize diversity to prioritize learning outcomes and sharing different perspectives and inclusion, or do you want to control for the effects of diversity by making sure team members goals are aligned and an agreement can be reached so the team can move forward. The second big question, in addition to what to do about diversity is what to do about hierarchy, whether to make sure participation and influence are even, or to make sure that the voices of experts or key stakeholders are more influential than the voices of people who are more competent, but whose opinions shouldn’t matter as much. Your choices will depend again on what’s necessary for the team to succeed.

3. Go beyond surface-level diversity

It’s not enough to compose teams with people who create the appearance of surface level diversity and assume the rest will take care of itself. But, unless you take steps to ensure that the deeper level diverse perspectives and experience and knowledge that you’re seeking actually surface and receive attention, there’s a good chance that they won’t. So, it’s important to use processes in general that normalize raising alternative points of view, asking questions, and challenging others assumptions. These things don’t tend to happen on their own in teams, especially in diverse groups where levels of psychological safety might be low.

4. Create space for equal participation

Expertise, rarely predicts influence in teams, while things like physical attractiveness and gender predict influence very well. In part, this is because teams fear conflict and are motivated to reach agreement as quickly as possible. It’s important to be aware of these dynamics so that we can all individually take steps to counteract them. It’s good to have ways of drawing out quieter members and gently quieting others to create space for less hierarchical, more equal participation.

5. Balance participation and control

Many people think it’s always better to bring a more participative, collaborative of empowering hands off approach to leading teams. But in reality, managing or leading a team is a delicate balancing act between imposing enough top-down structure and control while inviting enough bottom-up participation. Imposing direction and structure can feel oppressive or paternalistic, but failing to articulate and reinforce a clear vision of success can leave team members feeling lost and unmotivated. The takeaway here is that it’s not a leader’s job to manage teammate’s feelings or be as likable as possible. The job is to manage the team’s performance and outcomes in a way that engages, stretches, and develops the team and guides them forward to success.

I was not a serious student in high school. I mostly was interested in boys and going to parties with my friends. So, I think it has come as actually quite a shock to many of the people who knew me when I was younger that I’m a professor. I have two teenage daughters who might find me practicing some of my leadership and management skills on them and learning as I go. They always remind me how little I actually know about these things.

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