All successful financial advisors reach a point at which the only way to achieve continued growth is by leveraging the efforts of the team around them. But many advisors find that attracting and motivating the right support staff and having their team operate smoothly is challenging.

Last year, I received an email from an advisor who is a partner on a nine-person team in London, Ont. The email commented on an article of mine that had made the case that the only way for advisors to succeed is to surround themselves with a larger team than has been the norm historically.

“Terrific article on the inevitable changes coming down the pipeline,” the advisor wrote. “One big challenge for us relates to managing these ‘larger teams.’ As one such team that is growing quickly both in terms of assets under management and number of people, our biggest struggle (by far) is human resources – dealing with people and trying to ensure that we have the right people and the correct number of people.”

That email illustrates the need for you to pay attention to new research on creating a feeling of security as the key factor that sets top-performing teams apart. This is something Google Inc. has built into the way it manages teams.

“The harder I was working,” the advisor’s email continued, “the more I was falling behind.”

Charles Duhigg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times who recently published a book entitled Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. He discussed the background to his book during a talk to students in the MBA program at the University of Toronto, where I’ve taught for many years:

“Like many of us, I have struggled with the sheer volume of emails and the number of things on my to-do list each day. And while I’ve found that the harder I was working, the more I felt like I was falling behind, I did encounter people who are one or two standard deviations more productive than the norm.”

For example, Duhigg told us of emailing Dr. Atul Gawande – a professor at Harvard Medical School, author of three bestselling books and a consultant to the World Health Organization – about setting up a call: “He was not available that week because he was attending a rock concert with his children and then going on a mini vacation with his wife. To which I said to myself: ‘How can he possibly find the time to do that?'”

Duhigg discussed how such encounters led him to study individuals and organizations that seem to have found secrets to maximizing their productivity. Duhigg’s research identified eight traits that drive individuals and organizations to excel. Key among these is creating teams that share a culture of open communication and team members feeling safe.

Duhigg, in the chapter of his book on creating strong teams, discusses work by the People Analytics Group at Google to identify the factors that have created effective teams. Initially, the Google group looked at team composition, but found nothing about the backgrounds of team members that correlated with effectiveness. The focus of the research shifted to the norms that define how groups operate. The question for Google was: “Which of dozens of norms that their teams had adopted correlated with success?”

Psychological safety

The Google people looked at research by Amy Edmondson, a professor who holds the Novartis chair in leadership and management at Harvard Business School, on teamwork in hospitals. Edmondson came across a puzzling finding: the teams who reported the highest level of team cohesion made more mistakes than teams who scored lower on teamwork.

Digging deeper, the answer became clear: it’s not that strong teams made more errors, but that members of strong teams felt more comfortable admitting that they’d made mistakes.

“It wasn’t the strength of the team that determined how many errors were reported,” Duhigg wrote about Edmondson’s key insight. “Edmondson found a handful of good norms that seemed to be consistently associated with higher productivity. On the best teams, for example, leaders encouraged people to speak up; teammates felt that they could expose their vulnerabilities to one another; people said they could suggest ideas without fear of retribution; the culture discouraged people from making harsh judgments.

As Edmondson’s list of good norms grew, she began to notice that all the criteria shared a common attribute: “They were all behaviours that created a sense of togetherness while also encouraging people to take a chance.”

Edmondson calls the feeling “psychological safety” – a shared belief held by members of a team that the group is a safe place in which to take risks. “[It is] a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up” Edmondson wrote in her 1999 paper.

Duhigg, in his book, used the writing staff of Saturday Night Live as an example of a group of highly talented but high-strung and competitive personalities who could meld together into an effective team. The key to creating this sense of unity was the leadership of the show’s creator, Lorne Michaels.

Keys to leading effective teams

Duhigg’s book delves at length into how Michaels’ management style brings out the best in his writers. In particular, Duhigg points to how Michaels created an environment in which everyone felt safe pitching new jokes and ideas, even as they were shooting down each others’ ideas and competing for airtime.

To understand more about what creates psychological safety, Duhigg looked at an experiment conducted in 2008 by psychologists at Carnegie Mellon University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The researchers divided 700 people into 150 teams and gave each group a series of assignments demanding collaboration. When looking at what set apart the teams that performed best, it was not team members’ intelligence or leadership. Rather, it was two specific norms related to creating psychological safety.

The first norm was that, over the course of the team’s time working together, all team members spoke in roughly the same proportion. The second norm was that on tests, members of strong teams showed the ability to sense how teammates felt based on their body language, tone of voice and facial expressions.

Duhigg completes his chapter on strong teams by describing the meeting at which thousands of Google employees heard the head of its People Operations department outline what that group had learned about what makes strong teams tick:

“There’s a myth that we need superstars. But that’s not what our research found. You can take a team of average performers and, if you teach them to interact the right way, they’ll do things no superstar could ever accomplish.”

Duhigg then outlined Google’s five key norms for members of strong teams:

1. They believe their work is important.

2. They feel their work is personally meaningful.

3. They need clear goals and defined roles.

4. They need to know they can depend on one another.

5. Most important, they need safety.

The Google research concluded by outlining the need for team leaders to model the right behaviours. To help leaders do so, Google designed the following checklists for use in creating the right norms for their teams:

– To ensure that everyone at meetings has a chance to contribute, no meeting should end until everyone has spoken at least once. Some Google leaders go one step further by putting a check mark beside team members every time they make a comment.

– To demonstrate that the leader is listening, the leader should summarize what people have said after they have finished talking.

– When people are upset, the leader should encourage them to express their frustrations. And when there are conflicts, they should be resolved through open discussion.

– Finally – and this will be a particular challenge for some advisors – leaders should never interrupt teammates because that will establish a norm in which shutting down team members is acceptable.

Dan Richards is CEO of Clientinsights ( in Toronto. For more of Dan’s columns and informative videos, visit

© 2016 Investment Executive. All rights reserved.