We all have basic needs, such as food, water, shelter, security…and we all need people.
As Abraham Maslow wrote back in 1943, we have a need for ‘social belonging’. In organizations, some of this need can be met by being part of a team because it creates a space where people can belong and feel connected.
All of us have different interpersonal needs, but almost everyone needs to belong to a group, at least to some degree. It’s not only important at an individual level, either. Organizations need to leverage this sense of belonging if they want their employees to perform well and work together effectively.
Unfortunately, teams don’t always meet people’s need to belong. Teams are groups of people who work together to achieve a common goal, and who are dependent on each other to deliver it. Many ‘teams’ in organizations don’t fit this definition because they are nothing more than people who are brought together. And just being brought together does not make a team.
Some leadership teams work this way. Each member of the group is so focused on the success of their own business unit, rather than on the common goals of the organization, that they become competitors. They’re not really concerned if other business units fail, and the overall performance of the organization suffers.
Sometimes, groups of people working in the same business unit don’t even have a common purpose or vision. Those teams typically lack cohesion and perform less well than those who do.
Google’s Project Aristotle
The sense of belonging that people can get from a well-structured team is important for achieving performance. In 2012, Google embarked on a largescale research study, codenamed Project Aristotle, to discover what made some of their teams successful while others crashed and burned.
They found that the most important factor was psychological safety. This is where team members feel safe taking risks and being vulnerable in front of each other. Trust is important because it speeds everything up. In relationships where you have a high level of trust it’s easier and quicker to get things done.
Project Aristotle identified other success factors too. They included:
- Dependability: team members can be depended upon to complete quality work on time;
- Structure: clear goals and well-defied roles;
- Meaning: the work is personally significant to each team member;
- Impact: the group believes that their work is purposeful and positively impacts the greater good.
Cisco and team performance
Cisco has also invested in research into high performing teams, and defying and building team intelligence. Studying teams’ performance across the organization, Cisco identified three key factors which explained why some teams were more effective than others. They were:
- A focus on the individual strengths of each team member;
- An environment where every individual feels their values are shared;
- A safe and trusting environment, where members feels like their teammates support each other.
Both the Cisco and Google research projects mirror the work of Patrick Lencioni who, in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,5 identified a lack of trust as one of the key obstacles to effective team performance.
Changes in the way that organizations work have had an impact on the way teams function. From the rigid hierarchies to the more collaborative structures, each structure presents challenges to the effectiveness of the teams within them.
When people belong to several teams, as happens in many modern organizations, it can take time to build psychological safety and trust. Individuals may have one core team that they feel they belong to, but many more teams that they interface with, taking on different roles in each. Sometimes it’s unclear which team is their core team, but it’s important that a person’s psychological needs are met by at least one of them. People need a ‘home team’ where they can talk openly.
In some organizations, the wirearchy is displacing the traditional power structures of the hierarchy.
The notion of a ‘home team’ often creates challenges within senior leadership, and we’ve seen it with some of our own clients too. There can be a difference of opinion about what the home team is. Individuals who have been with the organization for many years form a central group and see themselves as the ‘real’ team. Other members are more peripheral. It’s not dysfunctional, but there’s a feeling that they could perform better and one way of doing this is to ask, ‘Who do you see as being in the team?’ It brings issues to the surface and can help a team on the road to great performance.
As teams have become more fluid, things have become more complex. A modern team may have people who see it as their core team, as well as other (possibly temporary) team members who fulfil a specific role. What’s important is that these temporary members still have a home team somewhere in the organization.
Teams are still the bedrock of corporate structures. They just look different now. Fluid teams are often also more diverse. Which creates both challenges (finding a common vision) and opportunities (members can bring their different approaches, viewpoints, knowledge and skills without fear of ridicule).
Wirearchy or hierarchy?
In this more complex environment, the need for a team leader is more important than ever. This person needs to move things forward, provide a link to the rest of the organization, and protect the boundaries of the team.
It doesn’t need to be a formally structured leadership role. The leader may change depending on what task the team is engaged in. In some organizations, the wirearchy – a degree of power and influence based on connectedness and the flow of information – is displacing the traditional power structures of the hierarchy.
As the number of teams increases, so does the number of relationships we have. There is, however, a limit to how many relationships we can hold.
The ‘Dunbar Number’, named after the anthropologist and psychologist Robin Dunbar, suggests that 150 is the maximum possible number of people that we can maintain stable relationships with. When any organization, team or combination of teams exceeds this number, they tend to fragment into smaller units. This means that very large teams or groups will find it difficult to work together, and some companies deliberately restrict unit sizes. Gore Associates, manufacturers of Gore-Tex™ fabric, limit their factory sizes to 150 employees.
Two other key trends have affected how teams work: globalization and the availability of new technology. Put them together and we have a whole new team dynamic.
With a reliable WiFi connection, many professionals can do their job from anywhere in the world. They don’t need to be in an office or physically close to colleagues. Virtual teams are becoming more common. Ferrazzi Greenlight found that from 1,700 knowledge workers they surveyed, 79% reported always or frequently working in dispersed teams.
However, virtual teams are not easy to get right. Globalization scholars Vijay Govindarajan and Anil Gupta studied 70 global teams and 82% said that they had fallen short of their intended goals. A third of them rated their performance as largely unsatisfactory. Lack of trust, communication barriers and the lack of a well-defied team charter were among the key reasons for failure.
For many virtual teams, the geographical spread and organizational makeup of the team can cause problems, but these issues are largely controllable. It’s the human dynamic – factors such as psychological safety – that is more likely to be an issue. Research has shown that trust is even more important in virtual teams than those working in the same location.
The good news is that the technology which makes virtual working possible can also be used to address its issues. Team development can be delivered virtually and it’s something which global businesses need to consider. Teams are still the bedrock of corporate structures. They just look different now.
The rise of the gig economy may have drawn attention to individuals working alone, but most people still work in teams and most projects still depend on them. Team membership, and the sense of belonging it creates, is more important than ever in our looser, technologically-enabled structures. This is reflected in the growing number of people who have an idea that they need to do something. But they don’t quite know what.
Team development can open the door, but teams must be willing to step through it. With the help of their team leader. And the organization needs to give them the space to do it. It’s the only way to see an impact on performance.
Original article: People First For Organizational Fitness