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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.