The 7 habits of highly effective teams

September 22, 2021

At Saberr we believe that the greatest achievements of modern humanity are the product of teamwork, rather than individual brilliance. So we’re on a mission to help employees build and support highly effective teams.

If you believe the same as we do, then you might agree that collectively we still don't do enough.

  • Learning budgets still focus on leadership development programmes as though leadership is something that can be developed in isolation of the team.
  • There’s little training and support for managers that are managing multiple teams at the same time in the modern organisation.
  • Technology supports individual activities because they are easier to track. Even though work happens in teams.  

Supporting teams makes a difference. In a meta analysis (Macy & Izumi, 1993) of talent interventions over 30 years - team development had one of greatest impact on financial performance. There’s a clear ROI to support teams.

So how can we do better?

One of the classics of leadership literature is the book "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" by Stephen Covey. Timeless principles that develop character in leaders. We asked ourselves: what are the habits and routines that highly effective teams must develop?

It’s true that the context of a team is an important consideration - but there are habits, routines, and rituals that are important for nearly all teams regardless of context. We've reviewed 100 years of research and spoken to many of the leading team coaches. What we’ve found out is that if you develop the following routines and you do them well, you will be well on your way to creating a high-performing team.

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teams

  1. Hold regular, high quality, one-to-ones
  2. Run an effective team meeting cadence with good meeting discipline
  3. Be clear on your purpose and embed it in how you work
  4. Have well defined goals and action plans
  5. Agree expected behaviours and give regular feedback
  6. Reflect regularly on what is and isn’t working as a team
  7. Reset and refresh using a team health check at regular intervals

Mindset: Develop your emotional intelligence and connect personally

1. Hold regular, high quality, one-to-one

One-to-one updates in a team are like using tomatoes in Italian cooking. The one-to-one meeting is the basic building block of teamwork.
Sandy Pentland at MIT researches team dynamics by understanding data patterns. In his research, he found that team communication patterns are important indicators of team performance. One key communication pattern is "engagement". This reflects the distribution of energy among team members or the degree to which they share information with each other.


"In a simple three-person team, engagement is a function of the average amount of energy between A and B, A and C, and B and C. If all members of a team have relatively equal and reasonably high energy with all other members, engagement is extremely strong. Teams that have clusters of members who engage in high-energy communication between themselves at the exclusion of others who do not participate don’t perform as well." In other words, the most effective teams had strong and equally distributed dialogue between team members. So developing regular one-to-ones with everyone on the team is a key routine of highly effective teams.


Engagement is important because it promotes sharing of information. This means better dissemination of new information but it also allows new ideas to be improved by rapid testing amongst peers. Every time an idea is shared, it’s tested and improved or tested and rejected. This isn’t a formal process, it’s what we do naturally in conversation and is the basic principle of collaboration.


Developing meaningful engagement across the team will be particularly important in a hybrid model of working. There is a range of conversations that will be necessary. From quick operation check-ins to deeper conversations about career and growth.
The easiest way to improve engagement in your team is to set up regular productive one to one conversations within your team. It's important to be able to hold a range of discussions naturally and that the quality of the conversation is high. Being a good listener is central to having good meetings.


If you need help on what to talk about in your next meeting, try our 10 essential one-to-one meetings (with agenda items).

2. Run a cadence of effective team meetings with meeting discipline

Beyond one to one’s the cycle of team meetings can make or break a team. We hear so many complaints of meeting madness. This might be badly thought out meeting cycles. Or perhaps just really bad meeting etiquette.

Workplace Interruptions cause $588 billion dollars a year in wasted productivity. Estimates for how much time we spend in meetings range from 20-30 percent at the lower end, up to 70-80 percent of time. The more senior you are, the more that time costs and you spend in meetings.

General satisfaction with meetings is low. According to a survey by HBR across diverse industries, only 17% reported that their meetings are generally productive uses of group time.

Developing a cadence of regular team meetings is crucial. Meetings are often best viewed not in isolation, but as a system. Improving a system of meetings (sometimes called meeting flow or meeting cadence), is an important routine for teams to master,  but it is hard. There are examples of good practice to use. But each team will have a different rhythm of how their meetings run.

As the world has become more VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) most organizations and teams are running meetings in shorter and highly focussed cycles. Teams often work on longer term quarterly cycles against organization goals. They then break work into iterations or cycles of 1-2 weeks. These are time boxed periods of work. They start by planning and then review activities every one to two weeks. These are sometimes called “sprints”. Sub teams break into project groups to meet needs that arise.

Much of this meeting cadence is borrowed from agile ways of working. Meetings or "ceremonies" are an important part of agile development. But these effective meeting routines are now being adopted across the whole organisation.

Developing an effective team meeting routine comprises many things. A clear understanding of the meetings in the flow. An indication of how these meetings work together, including the meeting sequence, cadence, and other timing considerations. Following guidelines for running each of the meetings in the model (eg not starting meetings without an agenda).

Try our Meeting Optimization Exercise to reduce the time and increase the impact of your team meetings.

3. Be clear on your purpose and embed it in how you work

It's pretty obvious that we need to connect with the purpose of our work to get the most out of it. As Dan Cable wrote in HBR "No one wants to be a nine-to-five robot. People want to feel inspired, find meaning, and see the impact their work has on others. And when they do, they’re more engaged, innovative, and productive. That isn’t a secret or a revelation. It’s common sense."

If we do connect with our work it has an impact, according to a study by Adam Grant the Wharton professor and psychologist. For example, the head of a college fundraising effort to help fund scholarships for underprivileged kids invited a current scholarship recipient to share their personal story. After volunteers had listened to a scholarship recipient, they were inspired and they raised almost 400% more money than average.

But how do we find purpose together? The first stage is about getting clear on what we are trying to achieve. It's really easy to assume that we all know our purpose as a team. But in our experience, if you ask six different team members what the purpose of the team is - you often get six different answers. This requires conversations to get aligned with a clear articulation of the purpose.

Developing a purposeful team is not a one-off discussion. The purpose needs to come to life in your day to day activities. There is no simple answer as to how to make that happen. This might be encouraging employees to go out in the field and experience the clients’ problems first hand. Connecting with the people that you serve can be an enlightening experience. It also might be referencing your purpose in key discussions or meetings.

Developing purpose isn't a leader delivering speeches about lofty societal goals. Working towards a shared purpose is personal and needs to involve regular connection with the people the team serves. We suggest co-creating a ritual together that connects the team to its purpose and the people it serves on a day to day basis.

Try our Purpose exercise to make it easy to get everyone aligned and motivated behind a compelling purpose statement.

4. Define goals and action plans

A clear purpose is great but even better is when you translate your overarching purpose into clear goals and actions. It’s well evidenced by the CIPD that "goal setting is one of the most powerful and evidence-based interventions for enhancing performance".

There's something about the act of defining specific ways to measure success that galvanizes the team. Whether you develop SMART objectives, a Balanced Scorecard or OKRs will depend on the organization and context.

And goals need to be set for the team - not just individuals. Many companies that are abandoning individual goal setting for team goal setting (including Spotify and Twitter). If outcomes are delivered by a team - then that is where you should focus the goal setting.

Defining goals must not be a "set and forget" approach. A very large part of the success of setting goals involves checking in regularly on progress and whether the goal is still appropriate, including a full review at the end of the period. It's also essential to develop clear action plans to achieve the goals.

5. Agree expected behaviours and give regular feedback

All teams develop “team norms”. These are “how we do things round here”.  It’s helpful if teams are more conscious in identifying these desired behaviours. Establishing a clear set of expected behaviours enables  the team to give feedback against standards of behaviours that have been agreed together.

Feedback isn’t just a ritual of the modern workplace. It’s the means by which organisms, across a variety of life-forms and time periods, have adapted to survive. To Tom Stafford, a cognitive scientist at the University of Sheffield, feedback is the essence of intelligence. “Thanks to feedback we can become more than simple programs with simple reflexes, and develop more complex responses to the environment,” he writes. “Feedback allows animals like us to follow a purpose.”

The ability to give and receive feedback is a great skill. It's also one that even senior leaders have not mastered. There are different approaches to how feedback is carried out. From the direct "radical" kind of feedback to a more nuanced approach. This will depend on cultural and organizational norms. But whether softer or harder styles are adopted it’s essential to confront what Jim Collins called the "brutal facts".

One of the aims of developing a feedback culture should be encouraging people to ask for feedback (pull approach) rather than imposing a scary review upon hesitant employees (push approach). When people ask for feedback, they feel greater autonomy and certainty because they are in the driver’s seat — they can steer the conversation where it’ll be most useful. Givers, in turn, feel more certainty because they have clearer guidelines for the kind of feedback they should give.

A feedback culture is therefore about mindset as much as process. A mindset where there is psychological safety in the team and so team members feel free to say what they think. And a growth mindset where team members want to, and believe they can, grow and develop.

There are many areas we might want feedback. We might want to know how we are progressing with a development goal. But we should also encourage teams to give active feedback about whether everyone is living up to the standards that they have set themselves.  To that end we encourage making these behavioural standards really clear to get started.

6. Reflect regularly on what is and isn’t working as a team (The Retrospective)

Feedback isn't just person to person. There's a different type of feedback which is equally important. Collective reflection and learning. Organisations as diverse as the Navy Seals, Pixar and the NHS declare this space for team reflection as one of the most important habits a team can develop.

Organisations that work according to agile principles take time for "retrospectives". A retrospective (from Latin retrospectare, "look back"), generally, is a look back at events that took place, or works that were produced, in the past.

The term is also used in agile development, where a retrospective is a meeting held by a project team at the end of each iteration of a project cycle to discuss what was successful about the project or time period covered by that retrospective, what could be improved, and how to incorporate the successes and improvements in future iterations or projects. Retrospectives can be done in many different ways and play a very important role in iterative and incremental development by cementing learning.

This discipline is so important we wanted to focus on it as a standalone routine. If you wanted to adopt one simple practice we’d suggest you book some time every few weeks to reflect together. You’ll find that the first session takes some time. But as you “normalise” this routine, you’ll find many benefits. You’ll catch problems earlier and become more comfortable sharing fears and aspirations for how you work together.

7. Reset and refresh using a team health check

From time to time we need to step back and reset. This is particularly true in some situations:

  • Teams that have been together for a long time and are becoming a bit stagnant
  • Teams that are going through a major change of direction
  • Teams that have new members or significant changes in team composition
  • Teams that have unhealthy conflict but may not be able to pinpoint the reason

It’s important to recognise these moments and take a longer dedicated period of time (e.g. 1 to 2  days as opposed to 1-2 hours) to evaluate what's working and what needs to be reevaluated.

This used to be the preserve of the office off-site. But we shouldn’t wait for these to be scheduled. We should have the confidence to highlight the need for a team reset. In any case, developing a team is not done by walking across tightropes. It's best done by working through real challenges together. As the team faces and addresses challenges openly it builds trust and strength.

Taking an extended time out to discuss team issues can be really helpful. Budget a full day, or even two, for these meetings. This is a time for review. It can be helpful to gather data via a survey or other team health check  to raise issues that wouldn’t normally be discussed. Potential topics covered could be: How is the morale of the team? What up-and-coming companies are challengers? What do the customers think of the product?


Mastering the 7 habits of highly effective teams

Mastering anything means stepping outside of your comfort zone and being willing to try something new. Teams that grow and develop are open to experiment. They have a growth mindset and are willing to try out new ways of working and behaving together.

Underpinning all of these habits and routines is an interest to connect with your teammates on a personal level. This doesn't mean that you have to be best friends. Or that you have to over-share and initiate embarrassing conversations. But teams that are curious, are willing to show a little vulnerability and develop emotional intelligence create relationships that underpin performance.

Appropriate personal disclosure about things that matter can really help develop team bonds. For example, if you said "I feel lacking in energy because of this situation at home", it might help a colleague understand why you are more retiring in the team meetings than normal. Or sharing "I'm a little fearful of this engagement because of a previous experience" might enable a teammate to support you better. Taking a genuine interest in your team mates strengths and weaknesses, motives, and ambitions will ensure all the conversations above have more meaning and have depth.

There’s no magic bullet to greater performance. But it’s also  not rocket science. These are well researched habits and routines. If you develop these routines it will make your team stronger and more likely to succeed. In the same way that losing weight or getting fit have pretty clear pathways. It’s the execution that’s really hard.

It requires bravery to initiate new types of conversations and it requires discipline to follow them through. Our purpose at Saberr is to lower the barriers so that teams can develop these habits and routines easily and to master these conversations.

In the Saberr platform we’ve made accessible a large range of self service meeting templates, exercises and techniques that help individuals and teams develop.  Meeting templates enable teams to adopt great practices from similar meetings that have been run before. Exercises to take teams through a stap by step approach to confront a common team challenge (like making roles clearer). A technique is a simple concept that an individual or team can apply "in the moment". This will develop teamwork skills or help them manage a moment that matters. The aim is to keep these concepts simple.  Once you've grasped the technique you just need the bravery to experiment and use the technique at the right moment. Techniques if used regularly can become habits.

We also recommend coaching - if desired - to support mastery of some routines.  Having a coach present can help you understand how to “create the space” for the right kind of conversation. Initiating a conversation with your team about purpose for example can feel a little daunting the first time. But once you have done it once it becomes much easier and it is a skill that you can use whenever you manage a team.

Embracing a culture of “learning by doing” means gathering feedback and then trying out new approaches to improve the ways we work together.  We learn through small experiments and make marginal gains. This sounds easy but isn't. It’s much easier to stay in our comfort zone and continue to do things the way we have done before.

If you’d like to find out more, contact us here.



A Note On Our Coaching Offer

Teams need to learn to develop these routines and habits on the job together. The aim is that they can do this on their own and without support.

However, we recognise that for many managers and teams this is a significant skill to develop. We are able to offer both leader and team coaching to support in the mastery of these routines and habits.

Our coaching partners are fully accredited to leverage the templates, exercises and techniques available in the platform. They create the space for these skills to be mastered with a view to stepping aside and enabling teams to self coach. In this way we get the true benefit of both human coaching and digital enablement.

We find human coaching is especially useful for teams that are new to certain activities and need support. Tools are then available to immediately practice the routines - with the team.  Meaning ideas can be translated into action and embedded.

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