Modern organizations depend on people to work effectively within teams. Arguably, teamwork is even more important now, as businesses navigate diverse challenges, from constant technology change and economic globalization to the rise of remote and hybrid work. However, the fundamentals of high-performing teams haven’t changed much over the years. So what can team psychology teach us about how to achieve better results when working together in groups? Here’s my perspective…
The Basics of Team Psychology
During more than 20 years of consulting, facilitating, and researching teams, I’ve found that the best-performing work groups are those whose members take the time to understand team psychology. Successful teams are not born, they are developed.
For a team to function at its peak, individuals with different viewpoints and ways of operating must be willing to come together and collaborate to achieve a common goal. Several factors underscore this kind of collaboration. Some are easy to observe, while others are less obvious.
Typically, people are assigned to teams in the workplace and expected to start operating as a team from day one. However, what is often overlooked at this stage is enabling the assigned people to evaluate and agree if they need to operate as a team or a workgroup to be effective. In researching what defines a group of people as a team, the widely agreed definition is a collection of people who need to collaborate to achieve a common goal.
The Anatomy of Successful Teams
Successful sports teams, emergency medical teams, and symphony orchestras are examples of people with diverse yet complementary skills who work in tandem toward a shared objective. They win the game, treat the patient, or perform a musical composition. Although these teams come in different forms, they tend to behave in similar ways:
- They define shared purpose and agree on why they need to collaborate. Typically, members must invest time to frame the team’s purpose, and this process strengthens their commitment.
- They believe success and failure matter. This keeps them deeply focused on a unifying objective. How will the audience respond if an orchestra’s concert is off-key? What will happen to a patient if emergency moves aren’t timely and coordinated?
- They maintain an open, ongoing dialogue. This includes regular meetings to review and refine plans and procedures, and identify new and emerging challenges.
- Members feel accountable for individual contributions to the team. (How many times have you heard someone say, “I let my team down”?)
- They collaborate to make decisions together. Team meetings are not just for sharing information or updates. They’re also forums for problem-solving and decision-making.
Examine the collective impact of the team’s work to determine what is effective and what needs to be improved.
Teams vs. Workgroups
Based on the criteria above, some workgroups never fully operate as a team. What’s the difference? Unlike teams, workgroups typically:
- Focus more on individual products and outputs, rather than what members need to accomplish collectively.
- Inherit a purpose that was shaped by a manager, rather than developed through member consensus.
- Operate with more clearly delineated roles and responsibilities, compared with more collaborative teams. Also, members aren’t expected to share resources or responsibilities.
- Exchange information freely in meetings without needing to overcome communication barriers, make collective decisions, or solve problems together.
Keep in mind that workgroups aren’t necessarily a negative thing, as long as their function serves an appropriate purpose. For example, sales departments often rely on a workgroup-style approach. That’s because one salesperson’s performance typically doesn’t directly affect others’ performance. If the sales department’s output is the sum of individual efforts, a workgroup structure can be effective. In fact, competition between sales representatives can even be a healthy thing.
However, when cooperation and collaboration are needed, operating as a workgroup can decrease motivation and engagement. This can lead to sluggish, lackluster responses to new challenges and opportunities. People who are accustomed to thinking first about their own siloed performance and outcomes are less likely to put their immediate self-interest aside. As a result, they may not recognize or act on the need to cooperate and share resources.
This situation arose when I facilitated team development for executives at a government organization. After discussing the pros and cons of teams and workgroups, participants disagreed about which model was best for their needs. This frustrated participants who identified as workgroup members and vice versa.
After exploring and debating scenarios and implications, the group eventually agreed to operate as a team. Members realized that they had behaved as a workgroup in the past. However, it was keeping them from achieving shared goals and it created conflict with other teams in the organization. The team model was a better fit.
Team Psychology In Action: Bringing People Together
How can a workgroup shift to operating as a team? Focus on 5 elements:
1. Establish a Team Mindset
This may be obvious, but members must think of the group as a team, rather than just a collection of people who happen to work together. This mindset is often called “team orientation.” In other words, each member orients individual thoughts and behaviors toward the team rather than themselves. To help groups embrace a team orientation, try these tactics:
- Reward team accomplishments over individual achievements.
- Encourage a free flow of knowledge, expertise, and resources through mentorship and continuous feedback loops.
- Align decisions with the team purpose, rather than individual objectives.
- Share resources. For example, do members share a budget, staff, or other resources in the pursuit of team goals?
- If conflict hinders team progress and outcomes, don’t ignore it. Productively address these issues by regularly reminding members of their shared purpose and goals.
As group members adopt a team orientation, you’ll see a shift in how they interact. Members will express enjoyment from collaboration. They’ll more frequently set aside personal agendas in favor of team objectives and success. You’ll also see increased commitment and a sense of loyalty among team members. For example, people will tend to choose not to take disagreements personally.
2. Develop Trust and Psychological Safety
Team orientation is inseparable from a sense of trust and psychological safety. In other words, team members have faith in each other and believe they can contribute and express thoughts and ideas without fearing punishment or embarrassment. Trust and psychological safety are essential to alleviate interpersonal tension and concerns, so team members feel free to share ideas, issues, and mistakes. This means teamwork is less likely to be derailed by hidden agendas and unspoken motivations.
I saw this play out when helping a product design team address multiple communication challenges. By calling the underlying problem “communication challenges,” they demonstrated a lack of trust in their leader and their colleagues. Through facilitated team sessions and assessments, they developed enough trust to identify errors, express concerns, and discuss what they learned from design failures. As a result, they discovered a more efficient, effective way to address important problems they needed to tackle together.
When trust and psychological safety are lacking, try these techniques:
- Set an example by listening respectfully to what each team member says. Leaders can foster psychological safety through role modeling.
- Approach each situation with impartiality. Ensure equitable opportunities for individuals to contribute. Focus on supporting the best ideas or solutions, rather than whatever the most popular or powerful person prefers.
- Enable continuous open dialogue that welcomes and encourages alternate viewpoints. Give multiple people an opportunity to play a “devil’s advocate” role before the team makes a final decision.
3. Align Processes
Team orientation, trust, and psychological safety are powerful forces in team psychology. But they aren’t enough to drive high performance unless team members’ daily activities are aligned. Conceptually, this is similar to wheel alignment on a car. It may be built with all the best parts, but if the tires aren’t aligned, friction and resistance will decrease its performance. Eventually, this wears down the vehicle.
I saw this kind of disconnect with a team that carefully planned its meeting agendas, so asked members to discuss how their individual and group meeting actions supported team goals and purpose. They found that less than half of their actions aligned with the team’s purpose. These insights helped them quickly move away from unnecessary work. They also redesigned their meeting format to more closely support their reasons for working as a team.
If alignment is lacking, you can improve it with these methods:
- Clarify individual roles and responsibilities, focusing on how they support the team’s objectives
- Considering the talents and strengths of individuals on the team when assigning these roles
- Developing systems of accountability – both individually and as a team
- Continually check all tasks and responsibilities to confirm they directly support your team’s goals and purpose in meaningful and measurable ways
- Setting meaningful milestones at the individual and team levels to measure progress toward objectives.
4. Adapt to New Circumstances
High-performing teams aren’t rigid. They quickly assess a situation’s reality and adjust to it. In today’s highly dynamic business climate, this is especially important. Sometimes it requires only slight iterations. But in some circumstances, radical shifts in direction are necessary.
Consider the adaptations your team made over the past few years. At the peak of the pandemic when many people were working remotely for the first time, some teams made proactive changes, while others waited until the last minute before making adjustments. Proactive teams showed fewer signs of being overwhelmed. They experimented with new methods in the spirit of learning through trial and error.
Not surprisingly, research shows that members of supportive, adaptive teams are more likely to take calculated risks, experience less stress, and are more satisfied with their jobs,
For a more adaptive team, focus on these steps:
- Give people permission and tools to respond rapidly when challenges arise.
- Empower team members to take chances and challenge the status quo.
- Make team development an ongoing priority.
5. Leverage Assessment Insights to Transform Team Performance
All of the changes discussed here require a deep understanding of the individuals who form the team. For teams to work effectively, it is essential to understand communication and work styles, decision-making patterns, and learning preferences.
There is no magic method. However, valid and reliable psychometric assessments can be highly effective. For instance, personality type, as measured by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator model (MBTI) offers helpful insight into key aspects of team success.
As an example, consider the need to increase psychological safety by being open to multiple viewpoints. Staying “open to multiple viewpoints” sounds great on paper. But what if factors based on personality type are creating a situation where some voices receive much more attention than others?
Imagine a team where weekly all-hands meetings were the only way team members could voice concerns. You’d likely hear an imbalance of perspectives from people with a personality preference for Extroversion, because they tend to be more comfortable speaking up in meetings. This contrasts with their introverted counterparts, who are not only less likely to speak up, but also receive fewer opportunities to do so in meetings.
You could remedy this by creating additional channels that encourage people to express their ideas through email or group chat. Or you could establish a policy that allocates a specific amount of speaking time to each participant in a meeting. This prevents the team from overlooking the thoughts and ideas of those who might otherwise not speak up. It also gives people who are uncomfortable speaking in groups time to prepare their comments.
A Final Note on Team Psychology at Work
In summary, high-functioning teams don’t materialize simply because a group of talented individuals happens to work together. Rather, they’re cultivated through purposeful intentions, practices, and policies. These team psychology tips are a starting point for leaders who want to gain better results from group-based work. Improvement won’t happen overnight, but with consistency and persistence, you can expect to build stronger teams that deliver better results.