The truth about teams

Understanding the dynamic nature of teams is essential for leaders to thrive in a fast-changing environment.

Humans are deeply tribal. The need to belong is one of our fundamental needs after food and shelter. Being part of a group or a team has been part of our history – our evolution even – since we were sitting around campfires. Yet it is still an area of human behaviour that seems wrapped in mystery, as we continually search for new insights and techniques to answer that vital question of what makes a team effective.

Having worked with and in teams and groups – and researched the subject – for many years, I have seen that the key ingredients of effective team dynamics go well beyond the obvious, such as having a common purpose or running effective meetings. There are some important foundational points about teams that are particularly important for team leaders – indeed, for anyone working with and in teams. These points are not necessarily interrelated; however, they are common issues for most teams. And if we understand how teams really work, we can begin to think more clearly about what great performance in teams really means, and how we can best pursue it.

Understanding team dynamics

1 Understand how systems work

A team does not operate in a vacuum.Instead, it is part of a larger system, and therefore interconnected. Most of the issues that exist in one area of the organization exist elsewhere as well. So if, for example, there is a lack of psychological safety within one team, that phenomenon is likely to be present within the whole department, and within the whole organization, including at headquarters. Teams are open systems that are adaptive and constantly process information in relation to their environment and context. Any efforts to shape team behaviour have to take account of their context within a wider system.

2 Not all teams want to change

When it comes to influencing teams, leaders often have an underlying assumption that everyone wants to change, at an individual or team level. That is far from accurate. Often, teams do not want to disturb the status quo. They maintain existing behaviours because they are serving them in some way. That can seem dysfunctional to an outsider; however, on the inside, it might be that the team or organization simply chooses to work in this way. Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky (2009) have called this the “illusion of the broken system.” The tendency is particularly common among people in authority and employees who have been in their post for a long time. In those cases, people are not resisting the change per se, but the potential loss of power, authority or identity. Such situations can be difficult for individuals to change on their own. An executive who attempts to rock the boat on their own is taking on a system that is larger and more powerful than them. Either the system will eventually push them out of the organization or the team, or they will be absorbed into the existing way of working.

3 Teams need time for reflection

When a basketball or football match is taking place, everything is happening quickly. Players must make decisions on the fly, foresee their opponents’ moves, and look at the whole game, including themselves and their teammates. Each team’s coach or manager is usually on the sidelines, observing and shouting out the odd comment. When the game is over and the teams review the game on replay, that is when reflection takes place. They can identify possible mistakes and learn from them for the next game.

In the fast-changing corporate environment however, teams seem to be doing less and less of this valuable reflection work. High-performance teams make this part of their daily routine and their way of working. They don’t have to be long, extensive sessions; they can be short, to-the-point reflections on what happened, what the team has learned and what can be done differently in the future. Such sessions should be held as close to the event as possible. In her 2012 study of teams, Amy Edmondson found that the teams that succeeded were the ones that constantly reflected on their observations and thoughts as a way of figuring out how to work more effectively. In my own experience, I have found that this process should be owned by all team members, not just the team leader or the HR professional. This is because team members all have equal responsibility for its effective functioning.

4 Self-regulation matters

According to Daniel Goleman, self-regulation “liberates us from living like hostages to our impulses”. It is a competency of emotional intelligence (EQ) that involves being in command of our impulses and moods, and having the ability to respond (after some critical analysis) rather than react. At a team level, it takes the form of team members’ ability to observe their own emotional processes, identify dysfunctional patterns and work on those to become more effective without an external support.

5 Change takes time and is a holistic process

For any change to be effective and long-lasting, executives have to be swayed both cognitively and emotionally; they have to involve both their head and heart to change behaviour. Very often, organizations’ interventions start at the middle level, with managers or leaders who report to the top team, without first exploring the top team’s own need for change. Yet the middle level usually replicates the behavioural patterns and pathologies of the top team. Likewise, organizations often target just one or two individuals with coaching interventions when they’re actually facing a team issue. Careful examination is required to really understand what is happening and what the appropriate intervention might be.

6 Psychological safety is crucial

I cannot stress it enough: a climate of psychological safety is important because it encourages people to speak up, enables clarity of thought, supports productive conflict, mitigates failure, promotes innovation, removes obstacles to the pursuit of performance goals, and increases accountability. Psychological safety is larger than (but includes) trust. Bart de Jong, Kurt Dirks and Nicole Gillespie (2016) conducted a large-scale study that involved cumulative evidence from 112 independent studies and included a large sample of 7,763 teams. They found that trust matters the most when team members are dependent on each other, in both short-term and ongoing teams. Trust is especially valuable for bringing a team together when under pressure to deliver results fast.

7 ‘Problematic’ team members may not be the problem

When I get called to work with a team, I am often told: “Even though the team is effective overall, there are a couple of people who don’t seem to be aligned with the rest.” Some members are perceived as problematic, not fitting in, or simply challenging. This view itself is problematic, however. From a systemic point of view, no individual exists in a vacuum. Therefore, I don’t espouse the term ‘problematic’; rather, I view each person’s behaviour as data. They are trying to say something and their way of doing this is their chosen behaviour. Each behaviour is the result of the rest of the team members’ behaviours – both conscious and unconscious. Yet organizations often place more weight on an individual’s personality and less on the interpersonal aspects of the context they are working in, such as how the other members of the team are behaving.

Are high-performance teams an illusion?

For anyone engaged in studying teams or seeking to build effective teams, there is a big question that must eventually be confronted. Do high-performance teams actually exist?

Researchers and thinkers differ on this topic. Typically, high-performance teams can be described as those that produce outstanding results on an ongoing basis. There are as many definitions as there are authors, but they are typically seen as having characteristics such as a sense of purpose, shared values and beliefs, open communication, a culture of speaking up, trust and mutual respect, shared leadership, effective working procedures, the ability to build on differences, flexibility and adaptability, continuous learning, and self-regulation. I have come across well-functioning teams that satisfy those criteria to a certain degree, or that have had isolated moments when they truly excelled. But I am not sure that teams can be high-performing all of the time.

Indeed, an inherent problem with the concept of high performance is that it is premised on the notion of delivery on a continual basis. That unhelpfully implies a dichotomy between high-performance and non-high-performance teams, as Collins and Parker (2018) point out. The reality is more nuanced.

I also don’t believe that being a high-performance team is a fixed destination, simply because of how our work keeps changing and evolving. The average time that top executives spend in position has decreased over recent years. Korn Ferry research suggests that the average tenure of a chief executive dropped from eight years in 2016 to 6.9 years in 2021, and the same trend can be seen in other senior roles. I often encounter organizations where leaders stay for two years and then move on to the next assignment.

This trend – and other forms of ongoing change in organizational life – simply does not allow teams the breathing space needed to accept the new reality, digest it, and go through all the necessary processes to become high-performing.

So, all teams will evolve over time. However, the ones that thrive, and don’t just survive, are those that tick off most of the high-performance team criteria.

Perhaps the key to high-performing teams is the willingness of leaders to take on one of their primary tasks, as Richard Boyatzis, Daniel Goleman and Annie McKee (2002) argue: to work with people’s emotions and the team’s emotional reality. This comes with the prerequisite that those leaders must first be able to process their own thoughts and feelings. That’s because emotions, it turns out, are more contagious than Covid-19.

What neuroscience tells us about teams

Neuroscience has provided us with valuable hard evidence about the effect that people have on each other when they work in teams. This makes it almost mandatory for leaders to know their biology, because whatever they do (or don’t do) and say (or don’t say), they are inadvertently having an impact on their teams.

As I explore in my book, there are several insights from neuroscience that are relevant to team leadership: even in brief, they provide a useful list of pointers for leaders to reflect on.

  • Leaders can have an emotional impact on their team without even realizing it, and that impact can be of great significance.
  • The human brain has the ability to continuously learn.
  • Emotions are contagious. They can have a ripple effect and be cascaded down an organization.
  • Fear and stress in the workplace affect individuals’ abilities to analyse, innovate and even communicate at the optimum level. They are linked to the production of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
  • Humans are meaning-making creatures and, if they don’t have certain information, they will make it up. The human brain prefers predictability and structure to uncertainty.
  • Fear is the enemy of initiative and creativity. People who are fearful will do as you say, but won’t be committed to the work.
  • Leaders need to continually gauge stress and engagement levels.

Team performance in context

As leaders, practitioners, consultants and, above all, humans, we don’t exist in a vacuum. We are all part of a system or a unit, whether that’s our family, a club we belong to, the team or department we work for, and so on. We all contribute to each other’s behaviours – sometimes without being aware of it.
A team is a living organism, much larger than the sum of its individuals; it has a life of its own, and this is how group dynamics begin to unfold. As the word ‘dynamics’ implies, these are processes that take place throughout the life of the team, and they keep it in a state of constant motion and change.

I do not believe that high performance is a static state or a fixed destination; it is a fluid point in time. When a team achieves high performance, it has no choice but to keep working on it. The ability to help teams do that is crucial for leaders to thrive in our fast-changing, complex and unpredictable world.

Dr Maria Katsarou-Makin is author of Group Dyna-Mix: Investigating Team Dynamics, From Leaders to Corporate Gatekeepers (LID Publishing).