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Need to improve team dynamics? Here's a 10-step framework

Introduction

Imagine two different teams. We’ll keep things simple and call them Team A and Team B. Both teams are made of skilled people who know how to get their jobs done.

On Team A, things are running smoothly. Issues are resolved collaboratively and positively. Members have energy, enthusiasm, and a sense of purpose. People communicate effectively, and everyone is on the same page. This team consistently crushes its goals.

Things aren’t quite so rosy with Team B. The group keeps missing deadlines. Emails are flying everywhere, but nothing’s clearly communicated. Things run off the rails because nobody speaks out, and there’s conflict whenever a decision is made. Resentment and frustrations are brewing.

So what’s the difference between these two teams? It’s tempting to point the finger at a number of potential causes, but it all boils down to this one simple answer: team dynamics.

Sure, we all want to be part of a high-performing team, but making that goal a reality is where things get a little trickier. In this article, we’re doing a deep dive into what team dynamics are and some of the current research that out there, answering some common questions about team dynamics, and sharing some strategies you can use to operate more like Team A.  

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So...what are team dynamics?

We’ll admit that a team dynamics definition can be a little difficult to wrap your arms around. That’s because it’s not something that’s all that tangible or measurable.

Think of team dynamics as the way your team members interact with one another. These interactions are shaped by things like individual personalities and behaviors, the nature of the work being done, and the relationships that exist within the team – all things that are tough to put your finger on.

As you might guess, a positive dynamic will get the best out of everyone. But a negative dynamic? That’s where you’ll see things like demotivation, lowered productivity, and even conflict.

Related link: How to keep your team feeling engaged and appreciated

The groundwork: current research on team dynamics

So what makes for an effective team? And why are high-performing teams so difficult to find?

Well, it depends on who you ask. Team dynamics aren’t a cut and dried topic, which means there aren’t necessarily clear cut answers to those complex questions.

Here’s the good news: there’s a lot of great research on positive group dynamics, and what it takes to build a top-notch team. Let’s get a deeper understanding by digging into some of the recent theories and frameworks.

1. Google's Project Aristotle

Google is one of the most famous and high-performing organizations out there today, so it makes sense that they’d take a closer look at what makes for a great team.

Enter Project Aristotle, based on the quote from the famous philosopher of the same name that said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Google’s goal for the research project was simple: to figure out what makes a team effective at Google. The researchers found five ingredients for good team dynamics. Here they are, in order of importance:

  1. Psychological safety: Nobody has all of the answers, and team members need to feel comfortable saying or doing things without risking embarrassment. In teams with high psychological safety, teammates are comfortable asking questions, admitting mistakes, and contributing their ideas.
  2. Dependability: Team members need to be able to count on each other. In dependable teams, people do what they say they’re going to do – they complete their work on time and well.
  3. Structure and clarity: Teamwork shouldn’t be a guessing game. That’s why it’s so important that team members understand the expectations and goals of their role, and how to meet them.
  4. Meaning: There’s little that’s more frustrating than feeling like another cog in a wheel. Team members need to be able to find a sense of purpose in their work or the results they’re achieving.
  5. Impact: Similarly, it’s important for teams to feel like their work is making a difference. They should have full transparency into how their individual work contributes to the company’s overarching goals.

2. The 5 Stages of Team Development (Tuckman Model)

Project Aristotle did the legwork in identifying the ingredients needed for positive team dynamics.

This theory (called the Tuckman Model, if you’re interested in acing your next trivia night) is a little different, as it walks through the different phases of team development. Basically, what stages will a team pass through on the way to peak performance?

Knowing this helps leaders understand where their team currently is, as well as what they still need to do to reach that team dynamics finish line. Even better? All of the phases rhyme, so they’re easy to remember.

  1. Forming: Things are just getting started. The team is coming together, assigning tasks, and collecting information. It’s important to note that if and when a new team member hops onboard, the entire existing team might return to this stage at that point.
  2. Storming: Here’s where things start to get real. The niceties are out of the way, and the team members are discovering more about each other – including habits and preferences that can serve as annoyances. Relationships form (for better or for worse!) and competition can run high, which means leadership is extra important at this stage.
  3. Norming: That rocky start is out of the way, and things are starting to calm down a little bit. Team members are beginning to build trust and recognize everybody’s strengths, and cooperative work is happening. Leaders can begin to take a step back, but be aware that there’s a risk of the team becoming complacent and losing some of its creative edge at this stage.
  4. Performing: If you’ve made it to this stage, give yourself a well-deserved round of applause. Not all groups become high-performing teams (effective leadership communication is crucial for reaching this level!), but this phase is really where the magic happens. Team members are on the same page and are knowledgeable, motivated, and competent. They’re acting mostly independently, and have come to accept collaborative decision-making as part of the process.
  5. Adjourning and Transforming: This is the end of the team’s time together – whether you’ve wrapped up that project or a member has left. Goodbyes are always bittersweet, but don’t forget to take a minute to celebrate everything you accomplished together!

3. Our 20-year study into team dynamics

Positive team dynamics aren’t all up to the leader. Every single team member places a role in creating an effective, happy, and high-performing team.

It’s tempting to think that it’s only personality traits of individuals that influence group dynamics, and that those are set in stone. Yet, our research has found that it’s not about personality, but actually an individual’s motivations.

We all know that no two people are motivated by exactly the same thing. Something that drives energy and inspiration in one person may send another person running for the door. So, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach here.

Here’s an example from our research of how individual motivations affect group dynamics. Some people like to work solo while others love group work. If those needs aren’t met, this preference may cause clashes within a team:

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That’s just one scenario, but there are tons of different ways that these sorts of individual preferences can affect teamwork. For example, everyone has a different way that they prefer to learn and absorb information:

  • Seeing Motivation: Want to see graphs, presentations, and visualizations
  • Hearing Motivation: Want to talk things over and listen to others
  • Reading Motivation: Prefer to read reports, articles, and stats
  • Doing Motivation: Like to try things out and have a personal experience

All of these styles can co-exist within a team (trust us, it works!), provided that team leaders and other members identify and understand the needs and preferences of each member. That way, the visual communicators are just as prepared as the doers to make informed decisions and contribute their two cents.

When people get to work to their preferences in this way, it unlocks their ideal work mode.

Related link: Discover the 48 unique work motivations and how they affect your team.

Think of the last time you had to work out of alignment with your own motivations. Chances are, it was a draining and demotivating experience that ultimately impacted your performance. If you force team members with different drives to squeeze into a mold and work in the exact same way, frustrations will fester and team members will undoubtedly be at odds.

Great leaders understand that everyone needs something different to help them do their best at work. They also recognize that they have their own bias towards certain motivations, which can prevent them from seeing that others might differ. When you recognize your own bias, you can start seeing the value of diversity.

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Which factors impact team dynamics?

We’ve covered a lot, but you probably still have some questions about team dynamics. You’re in luck, because we’re answering some of the most common questions right here.

How does good leadership affect team dynamics?

Strong team dynamics don’t happen by magic – good leadership is the not-so-secret sauce to making them happen.

We’ve all heard of businesses that assume putting a ping-pong table in the office break room creates a positive culture, but don't do anything else to support that effort.

Leaders need to do more than those surface-level efforts. They need to get involved in talking about the hidden beliefs, motivations, and preferences in the group, including their own. After all, there’s little that’s more powerful than leading by example.

What are some ways you can improve team dynamics?

Don’t worry – we’re sharing a framework in the next section that you can use to improve team dynamics. But, in terms of simple tips, It’s clear from the research we’ve already discussed that the following can give a big boost:

  • Setting clear goals
  • Communicating with team members about their impact at both the team and company-wide level
  • Creating a culture that welcomes risk-taking and promotes psychological safety

You should also go deeper and uncover each individual’s motivations and dig into the data on how every member prefers to work. How? It’s as simple as starting an open dialogue so that everyone understands that, for example, if Lee takes a laptop into the meeting room, it’s so she can do her best work – not to be anti-social.

How does team size affect team dynamics?

Imagine a dinner party. Around four to six guests might be an ideal number – everyone can comfortably talk to everyone else, listen, and be heard. The bigger that table gets, the harder it is to have one focused conversation and for everyone to connect with each other.

It’s the same for teams. Harvard group dynamics expert, J Richard Hackman, who studied team dynamics for decades, says:

“My rule of thumb is that no work team should have membership in the double digits (and my preferred size is six), since our research has shown that the number of performance problems a team encounters increases exponentially as team size increases.”

London Deanery has made a resource for teachers (but rest assured that it’s useful for all kinds of teamwork) that shows the risks for doing certain kinds of work with a larger group.

How does emotional intelligence lead to better workplace performance?

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is the ability to recognize and manage your own emotions, as well as recognizing and understanding the emotions of others.

Emotional intelligence expert, Daniel Goleman, says, “[Emotional intelligence] is what makes people highly effective, no matter what they do”. In a talk at Google, he poses “how we handle ourselves, how we handle our relationships. The soft side of ability…. They allow us to make best use of them, to apply them and leverage them.”

In short, the higher the EQ on your team, the more they'll be able to understand the subconscious interactions, impulses, and emotions that are inevitably at play.

How does personality affect team performance?

We’ve already touched on the concept of personality differences briefly. But, it’s worth noting that the word ‘personality’ tends to make people think of a static identity, which is why personality theory doesn’t make a lot of sense for team dynamics.

Personality theory just doesn’t go deep enough to explain why some people become motivated and get energy from certain environments. That’s because motivations (typically, unlike personality) constantly change. They change either very intentionally or as a result of significant emotional events throughout a person’s life.

How does office layout affect team dynamics?

Something as simple as changing the layout of the space might improve your team dynamics.

As we already discussed, some people like to work solo and others prefer group environments. So an office that’s entirely open will cause issues for the person who needs a little alone time.

The answer? Maybe it's to provide a mix of workspaces, offer the tech support to take a laptop to a quiet space, and encourage the cultural understanding that the solo worker is doing high- quality work, even if they aren’t entirely visible. (Or, as Atlassian puts it: Teamwork = the right tools + the right people + the right practices.)

How does generation affect team dynamics?

There’s plenty of research out there about the differences between the numerous generations that are under one roof in today’s workplace.

For example, Baby Boomers are said to prefer a hierarchical, authority-led team.

In our own research we’ve discovered that Generation X prefers taking sole responsibility for tasks. Meanwhile, millennials opt to self-organize in teams and share responsibility. Someone coming into a millennial team with an interest in solo responsibility may struggle. So, they might be best used on solo projects where they can take ownership over a particular task.

Each of these different preferences could co-exist in a single team; that team just needs to be flexible and understanding enough to accommodate them.

How will the future of work affect team dynamics?

Today’s team is no longer guaranteed to have desks side-by-side in a single office. Remote, distributed and flexible work and the gig economy are becoming more the norm.

That means team dynamics as we know them will shift dramatically in the future. Right now we're in flux. According to Buffer’s State of Remote Work Report, 40% of remote workers are part of teams that have a mix of off and on site members.

This presents a unique challenge for leaders, who need to make a strong team while managing the different needs that come with different time zones, languages, and work and communication styles.

Related link: How your talent acquisition needs will change in the future of work.

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What are some practical tips for improving your team's dynamics? A 10-step framework to make the magic happen.

1. Understand motivations

Are you starting to get a sense that understanding the motivations of your team members is important? We certainly hope so.

Before you gather your team, get a clear picture of what potential members’ motivational preferences are. Using a People Analytics tool like F4S can help you quickly understand your team’s individual and shared motivations, blind spots, values and potential friction points.

With that information in your back pocket, you can start to think of each individual in your team as a puzzle piece. They can all fit together, they just need to be assembled in the right places and not forced into positions that aren’t working.

2. Bring the team together

It’s up to the leader to design the team to suit the task or project at hand. But, in doing so, they can’t only consider motivations – they also have to identify the functional roles that are needed to get the job done.

One of many examples of innovative team design can be found at startup unicorn Canva, which organizes its whole structure around goals. The company is constantly reorganizing its teams to meet the “crazy big goals” it sets, ditching traditional job titles to make the most of the people behind the titles. Recently valued at $4.7 billion dollars, it’s safe to say that Canva is doing a great job with rapid team development.

They use Fingerprint for Success to help support their rapid growth and mission to become the “‘best place to work.” Watch the video below to see how Canva uses F4S:

3. Design the space

Remember, it’s not just about designing the team – you also need to adequately design the space that they’re going to work in.

Make sure that you can accommodate both solo and group work, and confirm that you have the equipment you need to help the visualizers see and the doers do.

4. Communicate about working styles

Once you’ve gathered the team together, it’s smart to have an open discussion about who likes to do what at work and how. This gives everybody the opportunity to better understand each other – like some people on the team might prefer to see graphs before making a decision, while others will want to discuss with the group.

Using a tool like F4S is great, because it also gives your team members the chance to understand their own motivations and working styles. As a result, their work improves.

But when your team takes things a step further and begins to share and discuss their motivations with one another openly, they are able to get to know each other deeply and much faster than through traditional methods. As a result, compassion increases, conflict decreases, and truly amazing things start to happen

5. Create shared goals

As Project Aristotle discovered, creating clear shared goals is essential for rallying the troops and fostering positive team dynamics.

But it’s important to realize that some people get motivated by goals, and others are inspired by avoiding problems. These problem-oriented people may appear to be negative as they tend to point out potential roadblocks – so it’s all in the framing. Both angles are useful to achieving the goals you’ve set.

6. Build trust

Remember the Tuckman Model? Like we mentioned, during the “storming” phase there may be some conflict when people’s preferences first collide.

Using a people analytics software like F4S allows you to bypass this phase for the most part, but keep in mind that any conflict that does arise is an opportunity to build up relationships and cultivate a shared understanding of each other and the work. Lead by example and take the time to engage in team cohesion, understanding, and trust-building activities.

7. Prioritize adaptability and flexibility

Team leaders need to remember that flexibility is a gift for a team, and being able to adapt to new situations and information helps a team foster positive group dynamics.

For example, if a new team member enters the picture, a flexible group that’s not stuck in its ways will be able to adapt to the new work setting and form new dynamics with that person, instead of trying to white-knuckle their same dynamics, even if they’re no longer working for this adjusted group.

8. Encourage differences of opinion

Diversity isn't something that’s nice to have, it’s something that you need to have. Does it sometimes create conflict? Sure. But, that conflict is actually important to high performance:

As J. Richard Hackman says, “Homogeneity... is a frequent problem because each of us works most easily and comfortably with people like ourselves… Our creativity would be higher if our group had a diverse mix of members – people who have real substantive differences in their views about how the work should be structured and executed. It is task-related conflict, not interpersonal harmony, that spurs team excellence.”

F4S research has found that homogeneous teams, if they are all motivated in the same ways, will also have the same blind spots, which is when balls get dropped and important things get missed.

In diverse teams, people can play to their motivational strengths. The detail-oriented person can check everything closely to ensure the nitty-gritty is perfect, while the big-picture thinkers are already considering the next phase of the project. As long as everyone understands that the range of styles gives the whole group strength, your team can work like a well-oiled machine.

Related link: The power of difference: How everyone can be a better team player.

9. Use the right tools to encourage collaboration

Technology should be your friend, which means you need to select the tools you need to get the job done.

Atlassian found that on average, 31 hours per month get wasted in meetings, and the annual cost of unnecessary, spam-like, and poorly written email ranges in the thousands of dollars. That shows why it’s key to choose the right collaborative tools for your team to cut down on wasted time and support positive team dynamics.

10. Recognize motivational bias

If you aren’t aware of your biases, you’ll engage with people as though those are a shared reality for everyone else.

As a team leader, the biggest thing you can do for team dynamics is to increase your own self-awareness awareness and become more accepting, tolerant, and understanding of diversity.

If you foster this sort of environment where diversity is embraced and celebrated, you’ll create an exceptional team that can grow and learn new skills and excel by playing to their motivational strengths.

For team leaders wanting to improve or shape team dynamics, the best thing to do is to start learning more about the subtle ways that our seemingly sneaky unconscious preferences and motivations shape us.

Ideally, you’ll make them conscious. Encouraging everybody to talk about them openly can help you create a fulfilled team that understands that its superpowers are ultimately in its differences.

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