This blog post is split into two parts. Part 1 focuses on building blocks of unity–what goes into team unity, and what determines how cohesive a team is. Part 2 will focus on applying those building blocks to the challenges that teams are facing today.
One of the most basic and foundational aspects of team building is the concept of team cohesion. It’s the motivating principle behind everything that we do at Invite Japan– bring team members closer together, reinforce bonds, and make teams stronger by creating a sense of team unity.
Team unity is how much or how well a team sticks together while achieving a common goal. I like to think of it as a “catalyzing agent”–team unity alone doesn’t mean anything. But when combined with a goal and the skills of team members, it can make the process of working towards that goal faster, smoother and more efficient overall.
That being said, this year has seen powerful shocks to team cohesion through multiple lockdowns and the surge of work-from-home and telework trends. Moreover, the effects of travel bans and limitations have affected international companies and teams, and the ways in which they are able to cohere. More than ever before possibly, team unity is essential. At the same time though, it is even harder to achieve.
But while these tremendous upheavals in the world of work present many challenges and obstacles to team unity, they also, quite surprisingly, have provided new opportunities and avenues for strengthening team cohesion that were not available before. If teams are willing to adapt to these changing situations and adopt new mindsets and technologies, then there are many interesting pathways for them to pursue in order to create an efficient and well-bonded group.
All of us are struggling to react to the new and the novel, which takes time to figure out. But the good news is that you are not alone. Invite Japan is also dealing with these same circumstances, both with our clients–who look to us for advice and consultation on matters like team cohesion–but also with our own team, which has been in work-from-home mode basically since last March.
By being able to look at team cohesion from both sides of the mirror, so to speak, we have a unique vantage point when it comes to what works and what doesn’t. This shouldn’t be taken to be definitive, since every situation is different. Rather, this post adds to the conversation, and provides a framework for thinking about team unity in this moment
Team Unity 101: Basic Elements and Components of Team Unity
I want to start with the basics of team unity. Understanding the fundamental principles behind team unity is useful in determining how to adapt to times where unity is uncertain or hard to achieve, which is what I believe many companies are facing.
Here are the four basic elements of team unity
- Team Identity
- Confidence in Abilities and Effectiveness
- Emotional Intelligence
The first two elements on the list are pretty straightforward. You can’t get very far working with other people without trusting them on some level. Low levels of trust among coworkers can be a dangerous sign that the team is falling apart. Trust is intimately related to a term used widely today called “psychological safety“, which expands the meaning of trust to include not only relying on coworkers to accomplish goals, but also feeling comfortable enough to receive and give feedback and criticism. Trust is critical among teams but also between different levels of the hierarchy as well.
2. Team Identity
Team identity is also quite easy to spot but somewhat hard to define. Team identity is often a sense or a feeling. A good way to think about it more concretely though, is through a concept called “alignment“–when your team members all coalesce around the same idea, goal, and/or set of principles or values. Alignment around these things forms the basis for the creation of a team identity that pervades the individual as well the team, and which creates a positive cycle in which alignment around a goal or idea leads to greater sense of team identity, which in turns fuels an expansion of alignment around more goals and ideas. So team identity should not be thought of a static concept–it can be continually evolving.
This one may not be as intuitive. We often tend to think of confidence as being something felt individually. However, teams can also gain or lack confidence, regardless of what individuals on the team actually feel about themselves. Think of it in terms of a classic Shakespeare quote from Hamlet, “To thine own self be true”. A team’s confidence is what it knows itself to be–who it’s members are and what they can do, what it can accomplish, how it can accomplish it, and why it does it in the first place. This is critical in crafting those parts of team identity (mentioned above) around which team members can align.
4. Emotional Intelligence
Emotional Intelligence (sometimes shortened to EI or EQ) as a concept has been gaining popularity in the business world recently. The idea is basically that it’s not just what you know but also how you interact and relate to others that can determine success in the workplace, as well as in life in general, and is based on factors like self-management, self-awareness, empathy, and relationship management. It should be obvious that these factors can be expanded to cover a team as a whole. A team’s emotional intelligence is based on its ability to manage It’s relationships between team members as well as those with other teams and clients, it’s ability to create a space of shared empathy, and it’s success at managing itself based on these considerations.
Determinant Factors of Team Unity
Along with the basic elements of team unity, there are also factors that determine how deep and durable that unity actually is. If the four elements of team unity described above are the foundations of the building, the following factors establish how high and thick the walls are, and how resilient they are to disasters and unexpected events.
- Clarity of standards and values
- Size/Structure of the Group
- Time Spent Together
- Previous Success/Shared Goals
- Threat and Competition
1. Clarity of standards and values
Having standards and values is important in terms of shaping how teams will unify and perform, and what they align around. Indeed, as others have said, without high standards and values, even a team with a large degree of psychological safety can feel lost and adrift. Clarifying and conveying these standards and values so that everyone understands them is another aspect to deeping team unity. On the other hand, if they are not easily communicable, or are misunderstood by team members, that can easily lead to disunity and confusion.
2. Group Size and Structure
How your team is physically assembled and functions goes a long way to determining how unified it will be. There is no one size fits all or universal rule, either. Just because a team is large doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t be unified, just that it may have to apply different methods that are different from a small team in order to become so. Similarly, less hierarchical team structures don’t automatically make a team more unified, even if they do allow for more freedom of movement and creativity which have the potential to produce more cohesion. Needless to say, group size and structure are often out of the hands of most team members, due to company and HR policies, norms, and traditions. Knowing this however, teams should take their size and structure as a given and use that a basis for determining how to improve unity. So this is a factor that teams must be aware of.
3. Time spent together
While it may seem obvious that the more time you spend together as a team, the more unified you will be, in fact not all time is equal. Quality is often as important, if not more so, than quantity. That is to say, a lot of time spent together unproductively may cause resentment and frustration. Of course, time spent together shouldn’t be measured solely based on productivity, either (at least in the short-term). Time spent chatting or checking in with each other, time spent outside work hours drinking or having fun together–these are important ways to spend quality time that seem to confer immediate results to productivity. In fact though, in the long run they help solidify team cohesion through strengthening relationships (increasing trust and EI), which in turn will increase productivity efficiency. This is also where team building activities can be extremely effective–by providing in-the-moment activities where team members can spend quality time with each other, while at the same time teaching team members the foundation and tools with which increase the quality of the time spent together in the future.
4. Shared Successes and Goals
As I mentioned earlier, aligning around goals and values is the basis for team identity. Shared successes also contribute to team identity by creating a common sense of history, and celebrating these successes together creates a psychological incentive to succeed more. Here, though, I want to emphasize the word shared. In order for successes and goals to be able to form and shape team identity, and therefore contribute to forging team unity, they have to be shared among team members. This means not only communicating them clearly, but also making sure that each team member can really feel like they are part of them, that they have some ownership and responsibility for them. If team members don’t all feel like they contributed to a successful project, this can exacerbate feelings of alienation from the group. Similarly, team members that feel like they don’t have any significant part to play in accomplishing the team’s goals may feel sidelined. Effective delegation of responsibilities and tasks may be necessary, which requires understanding, empathy and an ability to learn more deeply about team members’ individual strengths and skills.
5. Threat and Competition
There’s a Japanese expression: “Ame futte ji katamaru–When it rains the earth hardens“. The meaning is basically that adversity makes you stronger. Threat and competition, like goals and successes, help to forge team unity through common identity. Facing a challenge together can be the critical turning point in a team. This is also extremely applicable to today, when all teams in all types of industries are facing huge challenges to normal business and workplace relations. And the way teams come out of this experience will in many ways shape how they move forward into the future. Threat and competition fundamentally cause change. How teams deal with this change is based on resilience and adaptability. The key lesson is that it’s not just about survival, but rather how teams can use these challenging experiences to grow.
I have just gone through the four basic elements of team unity, and explained about some of the factors that can determine the strength, depth, and resilience of that unity. It’s important to emphasize that, while I have decomposed these elements and factors for the sake of explanation, they all overlap and interact with each other in complex ways. Expressing these relationships graphically would look like an enormous interconnected web. However, by focusing individually on each element and factor, it is easier to see more clearly which areas need to be worked on. Every team is different, and so every team will have their own “web” of team unity and how it is formed in their group.
I hope that any team can use the information here to increase their team cohesion. Even if your team is incredibly unified, there are always areas to improve. And there may be a crisis situation that changes everything–it’s always good to be prepared.
In the second part of this blog post, I will share insights into how to increase team unity that are particular to the Covid-19 situation, with particular emphasis on work-from-home, telework and remote-work teams.