Dependability matters in team performance – no surprise there. We often think of people’s dependability, though, as an inherent trait…so the important question is this: can we foster dependability in our team members? If so, how?

We’ve all been there – stuck in a team with members who seem to be living on another planet. They show up late to every meeting, never follow through with their promises, are never prepared, and they never seem to be able to find any of the documents they need. They text their way through every meeting, and information seems to go in one ear and out another. They justify their lack of punctuality and organization by referencing the 2013 study that found that those who have messy desks tend to be more creative and produce more fresh insights. Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Thomas Edison all had messy desks, they’ll tell you, so you better not be judging them.

Dependability seems to be something that we often take for granted in teams – until we don’t have it. So it should be no surprise that Google’s Project Aristotle identified dependability as the second key characteristic of high performing teams. Their top teams have members that set and achieve goals regularly and efficiently, follow through on their promises consistently, and produce work that’s always thorough. These teams are significantly more effective and efficient – it’s not hard to imagine why. If you can’t depend on other members of your team, you can’t trust them…and as I’ve explored in the past few posts, you can’t have an effective team without trust.

A big piece of have teams that are dependable is having members that are conscientious. Conscientiousness is one of the big five personality traits that describes the extent to which people are able to stay organized, responsible, and focused on their goals. There’s a good amount of research that has identified this personality trait as being fundamental to success throughout the lifespan. For example, a study conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health found that conscientious men earned higher salaries.

The issue with looking at conscientiousness as a personality trait is that it comes with an assumption that it’s not completely malleable. While conscientiousness may not be something that we can immediately manipulate in our team members, dependability seems to be more of a characteristic that we can actually foster in our teams.

To develop dependability in teams, Google recommends that we clarify roles and responsibilities for team members, and to “develop concrete project plans to provide transparency into every individual’s work”. This didn’t seem too helpful, though, so I decided to ask the team building experts here at Summit, who have had decades of experience in the field, to tell me how they thought we can develop dependability in teams.

“I think it’s all about positive reinforcement,” said program director Claudia Valle. When we show people the power of being conscientious and dependable, especially when we’re in leadership position, we’re modeling the behaviour we hope to see in our team. Plus, when we add in rewards for team members who are embodying dependability, we begin to create a culture that motivates team members to align their own behaviors with this ideal.

Mary Barry, who has been building top teams for more than 15 years, talks about the importance clear expectations. One of the key components of team building programs is creating a “group agreement”, where members of the team openly discuss the ideals, values, and expectations that all members can adhere to. This is a powerful process that allows us to clearly identify group norms, and reinforce dependability as a trait that all members know they’re expected to embody.

Laurie Warkentin, Summit Team Building’s newest program director, identifies ownership and belonging as being a key influence in team members’ dependability. When team members feel like they, and their efforts, genuinely matter in the group, they’re more inclined to put forth more effort, follow through on their promises, and take ownership of their work.

So fostering dependability in teams seems to be more complex than simply clarifying roles and developing concrete plans, as Google suggests. We need to model dependable behaviour, establish clear expectations, and ensure that team members know that their choices and efforts matter.