5 Behaviors of a Cohesive Team

Teamwork as a concept is relatively simple. Where team leaders find a challenge is in building positive behaviors that increase a team’s overall cohesiveness. This type of team-building is a continuous, rather than a one-time challenge. Take, for instance, the experience of a new team leader.Joanna had worked her way upward over five years from a level 1 support specialist to a team lead. On the way, she gained plenty of experience working within a team and observed ways to lead a team. Now, she had been promoted to team leader and given the challenge to take charge of a desktop support team that suffered higher employee turnover and lower customer service scores than other groups.

She knew the problem of turnover was one of her biggest challenges. While many of the team members who were leaving were moving up or elsewhere within the companya form of “positive attrition”the effect on the remainder of her team was noticeable. Joanna initially had a difficult time keeping the remaining team members focused and productive. In addition to their regular tasks and goals, they were taking over responsibilities shared by the former team members while new team members were brought up to speed.

When she asked her manager, Judy, for advice, Judy suggested meeting one of the most important goals, increasing customer service scores. To do that, the manager pointed out, Joanna needed to refocus her team and get them moving forward together. Judy suggested that Joanna observe how her team interacted.

“The work of any group is likely to be a unique and changing blend of decision-making, exchange of information, conflict, fantasy, participativeness and other group behaviors,” wrote Amanda Sinclair in The Tyranny of a Team Ideology. In short, a lot of interpersonal connection is taking place among team members. How a leader harnesses that interpersonal activity is key.

Much has been made about “dysfunctional” behaviors among team members, and many people mistakenly believe that conflict and intense passion are detrimental to a team’s cohesiveness. That really depends on why team members are having a conflict or expressing something. And knowing the reason for that conflict is part of five key and positive behaviors of a team.

Moving the Goalposts

A team’s cohesive status can be placed along a continuum, from completely disjointed at one end, to completely cohesive at the other. Looking at the chart below, think about where you would place your team:

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To shift the status of a team toward that cohesive goalpost, five key behavior shifts need to occur.

#1: Build Vulnerability-Based Trust

Predictive trust is good and necessary for a team to function: It is a state where team members are predictable, where you know what a team member will do and when he or she will do it.

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For a team to become cohesive, its members need to transition from just predictive trust to an environment that includes vulnerability-based trust. This is where everyone on the team allows themselves to be vulnerable to managersand when managers allow themselves to be vulnerable to team membersbecause they know that others will not take advantage of them and that everyone on the team has the best interest of the team as a priority. Vulnerability trust is an important step for your team to have healthy conflict.

#2: Allow Conflict Around Ideas

Wait a minute, you think. Conflict between team members doesn’t seem like a positive behavior. Well, think about it more deeply. When your team is trying to solve a difficult problem, would you rather have members sit silently around the table in an all-out effort to avoid conflict or have a spirited discussion about a number of ideas put forward by those team members?

Without vulnerability-based trust, positive conflictthat spirited discussion, for examplecan easily turn into negative conflictwhen the conflict turns personal and moves away from addressing the ideas or challenges at hand. When team members are comfortable and vulnerable with each other, they more easily engage in “ideological” conflict, one where concepts and ideas are discussed, and are less likely to engage in the type of “political” conflict, where arguments become more personal and less goal-focused.

One way to build comfort with ideological conflict as a team leader is to encourage a concept-based discussion. During a meeting, have two team members take opposite sides in a discussion about a goal or project issue. The challenge for the team leader is to keep the discussion spirited and idea-focused, while not shutting down the discussion too early. This kind of exercise can help the team become more confident about expressing their ideas and feelings about how to solve specific problems.

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An outsider may mistake such conflict for “unproductive discord,” because of its external qualities of passion, emotion, and frustration, says Patrick Lencioni in The 5 Dysfunctions of a TeamA Leadership Fable. Its purpose, though, is “to produce the best possible solution in the shortest period of time.”

#3: Cultivate True Commitment

Deep trust in each other, and feeling comfortable engaging in spirited discussions of conflicting ideas, will take team members to the next level: fully committing to the team and team decisions.

When team members are not fully committed, team developmentand accomplishmentcan be much harder to achieve. Often, passively committed team members will feign commitment and never become actively engaged with a projectand may even subconsciously sabotage it. Over time, this can result in missed project deadlines, diminished team morale, and loss of team cohesiveness.

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There are two dangers lurking on the path to total commitment: consensus and clarity.

The most successful teams recognize and understand the dangers of trying to reach total consensus and perfect clarity. “Unanimous decisions and easily won ‘consensus’ inevitably betray a condition of group powerlessness rather than effectiveness,” Sinclair wrote. When team members rubber-stamp decisions without participating in discussion around the issue, they may feel like they can’t commit fully to the team.

Great teams pride themselves on being able to unite behind a decision and commit to a course of action. An easy way to build commitment is to take a few minutes at the conclusion of a meeting to explicitly review all of the decisions that were made and agree on what needs to be communicated to other stakeholders who were not present. This is a great opportunity to make sure everyone understands and agrees with the decisions that were made. The review should take no more than 10 minutes and gives everyone a clear view of the team’s next steps, helping all members feel more confident.

Developing that level of commitment is necessary for team members to become accountable to each other.

#4: Hold Each Other Accountable

A team that is comfortable discussing conflicting ideas has a high level of vulnerability trust. And when that team fully commits to a decision to move toward a specific goal or complete a certain task, they have the fourth piece of the structure necessary to understand each other’s role in completing that taskand hold each other mutually accountable for getting there.

Mutual accountability is about team members holding each other accountable for what they said they would do. The challenge is that it is difficult to accomplish unless there is effective leadership accountability as well.  Such accountability is not about putting people downthat would erode the trust that has been established. Rather, it is about ensuring things are on point and provides an additional opportunity to provide encouragement from the team leader as well as team members. Structure is the secret to that mutual accountability, and it’s built when the manager and the team develop a set of performance goals, standards, and core beliefs and review them regularly.

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Without that trust, conflict, and commitment, peer-based accountability can deteriorate to interpersonal politics, and team members may begin to avoid each other rather than answer as to why a certain task hasn’t been completed.

#5: Focus on Team-Based Results

Building those four previous behaviors enabled Joanna to re-engage her team and set them on the path to achieving the concrete, tangible goals set by the company. She was able to work with them to set collective goals and rally the entire team to achieve them. With a group of people who were fully committed to each other, who trusted each other, and who held each other mutually accountable for accomplishing assigned tasks, Joanna’s team met their goals with much more enthusiasm. These team-based results helped boost the team’s customer service scores significantly.

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While positive attrition still occurred, with team members moving upward or shifting to new teams, turnover for other reasons almost completely went away. Joanna’s team was motivated, excited to come to work each day, and accountable to each other for achieving each goal set in front of them. To say their morale skyrocketed would be an understatement. Her team and its method of working together became the model for other customer support teams within the company.

Many teams have this set of goals, standards, and values in place when they’re formed, and it’s the application of these five specific behaviors that makes the whole thing work.


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