What are team dynamics? Let me answer that question by telling you what happens when yours are poor or even toxic.

I once worked in a department that had an outstanding leader, so it functioned well for the most part. But despite his best efforts, there was one woman- let’s call her Rhonda- who made it impossible to cultivate a positive team dynamic.

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No, she wasn’t a slacker. She worked hard and was good at what she did. But she was a poor communicator unless you worked for the HR Department. Then you heard from her on a routine basis.

Rhonda had a short fuse but if you didn’t report to her, she was afraid of confrontation. If you tried to joke with her and she didn’t find it funny or took a few minutes of downtime because you were up late working on a project from home, she never said anything to you. You just got that call from HR.

how to improve team dynamics

It was so predictable that others in the company referred to her as “the snitch.” A young man who reported to her dreaded making mistakes. I once saw them leave a closed boardroom and, as he took his desk, he said with a self-deprecating laugh, “I hope I can earn your trust again.”

Rhonda’s complaints got some people fired, but she still wasn’t happy. Finally, she left the company and a semblance of normality returned.

When team dynamics are this poor, the cost can be high for an organization in terms of absenteeism and high turnover rates, which in turn lowers productivity and costs the company a lot of money in recruitment and hiring. On the other hand, when you have a positive and healthy group dynamic within your team, your department -and your company- can be unstoppable.

What are Team Dynamics?

Social psychologist Kurt Lewin first described team dynamics in 1939. He saw it as the process of understanding the abilities of the people that make up a team. In addition to exploring their behavior, Lewin recommended understanding the reasons for that behavior, so that it was easier to orchestrate a positive outcome.

Today, we see team dynamics as psychological factors that affect the direction of a team’s performance. The dynamics are created by the people involved and how they interact with one another on all levels, including:

  • Verbal and nonverbal exchanges
  • Written correspondence
  • Performance on shared tasks

Team dynamics are also impacted by company culture and structure and the upper management’s leadership style, but the strongest influences come from within the group itself.

In one case study on teamwork carried out by Edith Cowan University, Perth, Australia, researchers studied two teams. One was successful and collaborated to create a quality product. The other experienced severe issues that made it impossible for the members to work together, resulting in it being split up.

The researchers found that the successful team was committed to shared goals and enjoyed a synergistic team environment. The dysfunctional team had members that were content to put in minimal effort and were highly competitive with one another.

The message was clear: if a team didn’t have a ‘one for all and all for one’ philosophy, it couldn’t succeed. The next section explains how teams are developed and how their dynamics affect performance.

5 Stages of Team Development

In 1965 psychologist Bruce Tuckman identified five stages of development that teams go through, from formation to project conclusion. Below is a list of these stages along with behaviors that are typical for each one.

  • Forming. This stage is where team development begins. Interactions tend to be friendly but cautious as everyone gets to know one another. While the project will be a regular source of discussion as the manager explains its objectives and how to achieve them, the emphasis is on building a sense of community and preparing to work together.
  • Storming. The storming phase is one of the most critical stages of team development. This is where the risk of conflict goes up because members are now confident enough to disagree with one another (sometimes strongly). With project teams, the manager’s goal is to get everyone on the same page and prevent some members from imposing their goals and opinions on others.
  • Norming. Now that everyone on the team understands one another’s strengths and weaknesses, they focus on working together. Project hierarchies are created at this stage so that everyone knows who they are reporting to and who they may be managing. The emphasis shifts from team building to project completion.
  • Performing. If you are the project manager, this stage is where you delegate tasks and accord team members more independence. Bringing new members or removing existing ones won’t have an appreciable impact on team dynamics unless the additions or subtractions involve a significant percentage of the original team.
  • Adjourning. This stage is the last one in the team development cycle. The project has been completed and its members prepare to assume different responsibilities and work with other teams.

These stages of group development happen naturally, but good teamwork and ideal performance don’t. Putting together your company’s best and brightest is no guarantee that a rockstar team will emerge or that the results will be praised in this year’s holiday speech from the CEO. If the team dynamics aren’t great, the outcome won’t be either.

How Can Team Dynamics Affect Performance?

Teams that enjoy great dynamics will work well together. They build on one another’s strengths, compensate for weaknesses and, in my experience, create stellar results. Those with poor or strained dynamics will have substandard deliverables or perhaps no deliverables at all. Yes, personality changes can make or break a project.

How do members of a team affect team dynamics? Imagine that you’re running a team of ten people tasked with designing a new website for a client. Three of them have worked together on other projects and developed a strong friendship in addition to a productive working relationship. Their dynamic can affect the team in a positive or negative way, depending on how they treat everyone else.

For example:

  • If this trio welcomes input and conversation from other people on the team, it can make the working atmosphere more social and convivial. The bond between all group members will grow stronger, which motivates better performance and outstanding results.
  • On the other hand, if the three colleagues only support one another and ignore everyone else’s requests for assistance, it can cause resentment and partition the team into two groups instead of one. This division can lead to poor communication flow, misunderstandings, and other problems that impact team performance.

How Do You Build Team Dynamics?

As you can see, a strong group dynamic is critical to team and even organizational success. It enables your company to fully leverage the potential of team members and benefit from their experience and skills. So how do you build the positive dynamics that will improve team performance?

While no two teams are exactly the same, the steps below will set the stage for a positive outcome.

Align the Work With a Strong Purpose

All employees want purpose in their work. When you create a strong mission and purpose and communicate it to them, they will have one thing in common that can be strong enough to overcome any personality differences.

Define Roles and Responsibilities

All teams need direction but with new teams, guidance is especially crucial. When you assign roles and responsibilities based on the strengths of each individual, everyone understands where they fit in and they will feel more accountable for the team’s success.

Encourage Open Communication

Team dynamics are strongest when every member feels that they can talk and be heard. Encourage open and honest communication and remind everyone of the value of constructive feedback. Remind everyone that conflict is not always a bad thing- in fact, it can be healthy. But the goal is to support, not criticize, one another.

Stop Problems Quickly

If you see any signs of poor dynamics, such as one member verbally overpowering everyone else or two members failing to get along, it is important to act quickly to rectify things and prevent the negative attitude from spreading. Provide the team members in question with honest but supportive feedback about their actions and offer a positive and healthy solution.

Conclusion

When you want to build a successful team, the first step is to assemble a group of employees with the right mix of expertise and knowledge. That’s the easiest part. Then you get to know everyone’s personalities and create a collaborative environment where everyone can flourish.

The strongest team dynamics happen when everyone trusts one another, holds one another accountable in a respectful manner and is willing to work collectively. When HR learns about issues before other members do (which was the case with Rhonda), you have a problem, and fixing it will be the best investment in your team’s future success.

Rose Keefe

Rose Keefe

Rose Keefe is an author and technical writer who has over ten years’ experience in supporting project managers in the manufacturing and construction sectors. One of her primary responsibilities was developing product manuals that supported efficient use of industrial equipment. She continues to write on the subject of time management and commercial productivity for trade websites and publications.
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