Wonder what CEOs are most concerned about? According to a recent study by The Predictive Index (PI), the top concern of the 160 CEOs they surveyed is team cohesion — a state where the team is completely aligned in their purpose, strong in their connections and communications, and dedicated to the team’s success. And the view of the CEOs is that team cohesion has worsened since the pandemic started, not improved.
PI also found that 69% of companies restructured their teams during the pandemic, and 97% of CEOs are allowing some degree of remote work in the future. All this disruption, uncertainty, and distant connections adds to the strain on teams and the relationships of their members.
Even as we’re emerging from the pandemic, business is getting more complicated, not less. All this leads to greater challenges to productivity and achieving the results you’re looking for.
And the old ways of solving for that — working more hours, increasing pressure to deliver, holding lectures on performance improvements and team dynamics, giving people new processes to adopt, or having a night out with the team to blow off steam — won’t work.
Neither the proverbial carrot nor the stick will help you achieve your goals. So what’s the answer to increasing team cohesion, especially in a time when so many people are working remotely?
How can team members become closer, more aligned, more committed to the team and its objectives when they’re not in the same room with each other? (Actually, how can you achieve all that even *if* they’re in the same room together?)
Let’s see what science says.
Trust is Critical to Success
Trust is the cornerstone of working effectively as a team. When team members trust each other, they not only achieve more, but they are better able — as individuals and as a team — to weather difficult challenges, to find new ways to solve problems, and to create new opportunities.
Lacking trust is the first sign of a dysfunctional team, as discussed at length by Patrick Lencioni in his blockbuster book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.
Philip Sandahl, wrote in his Teams Unleashed, that there are two ways to build trust on teams.
One way is to “…engage in disagreement or conflict successfully and survive.” That requires, however, a safe and supportive environment, as conversations can be heated.
The second way is easier and less risky — having team members get to know each other on a deeper, more personal level. “Learning more about one another’s personal stories gives team members a human dimension and a higher level of regard that can’t be ignored,” Sandahl said.
This is supported by research from Katzenback and Smith, in a paper entitled, “The Discipline of Teams.” They said, “Taking the time to occasionally get to know team members’ backgrounds, experiences, successes, and even their stories about stumbling, all build trust.
This is especially valuable on new teams or teams going through reorganization.”
Takeaway: Trust matters, personal connections are key.
Positivity Drives Productivity
It may sound counterintuitive, but if we put blinders on and just focus on work, work, work, we don’t actually become more productive.
Instead, we become rigid in our thinking, less creative, less resilient, and our connections with others can become strained. The occasional short sprint is one thing, but to make that kind of pressure a way of life for your team can threaten your results, not to mention increase turnover.
The secret is to have the right balance of focus on results and focus on the needs of the team. Surprisingly, the key to that is not to drill down on productivity, but rather to build up the positivity that the team experiences and shares.
By positivity, we don’t mean how much they smile at each other. Instead, it’s a mix of trust, respect, camaraderie, communication, constructive interaction, diversity (of thought and approach), and optimism.
When positivity is high on a team, you will see them smile and laugh, but they’ll have the resilience to be able to do that even under the hardest deadlines. And as positivity grows, so will the team’s productivity. They will be more invested in their work and in each other, and they’ll have a greater sense of purpose about what they’re trying to achieve.
Neuroscience supports this. When we’re under stress, whether mild or acute, or when compliance is the operative directive for a team, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is activated. This is the fight-or-flight reaction, and it causes our body to shut down all but the most important functions. Also engaged in this sequence is the Analytic Network (AN), which limits our attention to focus on a specific task or issue. We need the SNS and the AN to help us get things done, but spending too much time in these states is toxic to our health.
The complements to the SNS and the AN are the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and the Empathic Network (EN, also known as the Default Mode Network).
When these are activated, we’re in a more open and relaxed state, our creative juices flow, and we’re more receptive to new ideas and new connections. We need both of these to be effective, and the balance will shift, depending on the demands of the moment.
Unfortunately, too much of how business is conducted and teams are led activates only the SNS and the AN. That not only stresses our teams, but it reduces their capacity to thrive. Research, particularly by Boyatzis, Smith, and Van Oosten, shows that the ways to unlock the PNS and EN include a positive vision of the future, a sense of purpose, compassion, time spent in nature, mindfulness, playfulness, and laughter.
Barbara Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina focuses on the specific impact of positivity, which includes the influences of the PNS and the EN. She says that positivity broadens your mind and expands your range of vision, making you stronger, wiser, more resilient, and more socially integrated.
Creating that kind of environment not only aids the individuals on the team, it creates a dynamic that takes the team into higher reaches of achievement.
Takeaway: Positivity not only builds creativity and resilience, it also expands the capacity to achieve, or exceed, the desired results.
Learning Together Accelerates Growth
In a paper on “Does Team Training Improve Team Performance?” the researchers (Salas, Granados, Klein, Burke) found that team training, as opposed to training focused on individual development, explained 20% of the variance in team performance.
Team training, as cited, included constructive interaction, conflict resolution, and creating a supportive environment. In another study led by Eduardo Salas, their discoveries highlighted the need to view training as a system, or an on-going series of learning experiences, rather than just a one-time event. Included in this is what happens before, during, and after training.
They found that fall-off from one-time events occurred within a few days, and that there was no substantive change in skills or behavior from this single session approach.
Separate research showed the limits of passive learning, as is experienced in classroom lecture situations, where participants are expected to absorb and reflect on new information, but not necessarily to apply it.
Instead, learning is best transferred by doing, in what is called a Learning Loop, where one learns new information, applies it, gets feedback, reflects on the learning experience, and then repeats the process. When the Learning Loop is applied within teams, the process of knowledge and skill development is accelerated.
When students are learning with each other, rather than learning alone or in parallel, they develop a collective intelligence that builds on itself and expands the range of creativity, understanding, and insight. This type of co-learning further serves to deepen connections and understanding.
Takeaway: learning together improves everyone’s growth, and one-off training sessions don’t work.
Engaging the Whole Person Pays Dividends
So often in business, it seems like the only thing that matters is what goes on between our ears — our thoughts, ideas, plans, and decisions. But there’s so much that goes on below our neckline that informs how we think, where our ideas come from, which plans get pushed into consciousness, and how comfortable we are with our decisions and our colleagues, partners and customers.
Even if we try to ignore it, our bodies and emotions always have a say in things. Research by Srini Pillay at Harvard and others suggest that 98% of mental activity is outside of our conscious awareness. This body-centered exploration is further supported by Alan Fogel at the University of Utah, who has done deep research on the differences between our Conceptual Self-Awareness (CSA) and our Embodied Self-Awareness (ESA).
Most of the focus in the business world is on our CSA, but since we’re not robots, our ESA is always present as well. When we ignore that, when we shut down what’s happening inside our body, we not only cut off an incredible source of wisdom, we also limit our ability to think in abstract ways, to find surprising creative ideas, and to assess all aspects of a decision.
Research has shown that when we quiet our minds, when we allow the body-centered feelings and sensations to inform our work, we tap previously hidden stores of wisdom and insight.
Among the approaches to expressing our Embodied Self-Awareness are meditation and mindfulness practices, movement and dance, music, and connecting to nature.
Takeaway: we need to include our full self in our work, not just our mind, for greatest effectiveness.
How Fujoli Applies These Insights
At Fujoli, we’re serious about helping teams learn, grow, and become more cohesive. But seriousness itself is not the ticket to achieving sustainable high performance, as we’ve seen above. So we don’t go the typical route of droning on about how to get better — we have teams experience that themselves, backed by the scientific insights mentioned here.
Recognizing the importance of working with the whole person, not just their analytic brain, we begin every session with exercises to get participants totally present and connected, both with their bodies and with each other.
Some of these exercises might seem fun or frivolous, but as we’ve seen from the science, it’s exactly what is needed to get each team member ready to learn.
We also spend time getting people connected to each other on a deep, personal level. That builds trust and makes them more open to working together without the agendas or barriers so often seen in corporate settings. We don’t presume that just because two people have worked together for months or years that they really know each other. We make sure that bonding develops.
Then, depending on the particular team skills you want to focus on, we have team members work together to solve challenges, build on each other’s creativity, and discover ways to have difficult conversations that actually enhance trust, not tear it down.
And all this is done from the expansive space that positivity affords. When people are not guarding themselves against an onslaught of PowerPoint slides and dozens of bullet points to sift through, they get more work done and better work done.
So what may look like simple, even fun activities are actually rigorously designed techniques to unlock connections, creativity, cohesion, and results that traditional approaches to team development can’t achieve.