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Natalia Rossingol

What is Team Cohesion & How to Achieve it

Dealing with disconnected teams? Learn more about team cohesion to make sure your team stays united and works in harmony.

While each team member may have unique skills and produce great results individually, it’s not enough for a team to be successful. A team is more than a sum of its components, and to work effectively, additional effort is needed. Like parts of a clock form a mechanism that is able to display time, teams that work cohesively demonstrate impressive performance and high levels of job satisfaction.

What is team cohesion?

Team cohesion, also known as team cohesiveness, is the ability of a team to stay united and work as a single organism to achieve a common goal. It can also be interpreted as the connections among team members that develop a sense of belonging and encourage people to create positive relationships. Team cohesiveness is built on effective communication and trust, which, however, are not characteristics of a team by default and thus should be intentionally developed.

Team cohesiveness can be characterized by two main factors:

  • It’s dynamic. Team cohesion can vary over time, depending on the team size, tasks, and goals that naturally change in the course of work.
  • It’s both an organizational and behavioral phenomenon. Team cohesion refers to how a team organizes its work processes and how its members interact. This means that team cohesion depends on the organizational structure, but it also includes an emotional component. Team members must share beliefs and values and form specific interpersonal bonds to achieve cohesiveness. Working in an aligned organizational system is not enough.

Why is team cohesiveness important?

No one can whistle a symphony. It takes a whole orchestra to play it. – Harold E. Luccock, a Methodist Minister

On a team, you do not exist by yourself. You depend on others. This is one of the reasons why it’s so important to maintain cohesiveness. Without it, all your efforts can prove futile. Instead of getting things done, you will waste your time figuring out what to do and where to start.

Good team cohesiveness, on the contrary, can help a team reach its goals in a consistent manner. It has several benefits that make a team function like a well-oiled machine:

  1. Cohesive teams are more organized, productive, and high-functioning. In such a team, roles and responsibilities are clearly assigned. Everybody knows what they are expected to do, and whom to ask for help if questions arise. This makes it much easier to solve problems and overcome unexpected obstacles.   
  2. An environment of psychological safety. Team members are ready to help each other as they understand they all work for a common purpose. Conflicts are handled more healthily, as teams nourish workplace respect. This, in turn, leads to increased job satisfaction and lower turnover.  
  3. Resources (time, finances, staff) are allocated and used more effectively. This decreases costs spent on the creation of products or services.
  4. More team autonomy. When a team works smoothly, a boss doesn’t need to closely control what’s going on. As a result, managers can contribute more time to important tasks, and team members have more opportunities to think creatively.
  5. Better results. A cohesive team is more likely to achieve success since its members intentionally work toward a specific result.

Signs of strong team cohesion

If you could get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time. – Patrick Lencioni 

In his book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” Patrick Lencioni describes a model of team dysfunctions, which decrease team effectiveness, and provides an antidote – a model of team cohesiveness that also consists of 5 elements, representing the opposites of the 5 dysfunctions. According to Lencioni, in a cohesive team, individuals must:

  1. Trust each other.
  2. Engage in conflict.
  3. Commit to decisions.
  4. Hold each other accountable.
  5. Focus on achieving collective results. 

Let’s discuss these in more detail and, based on this model, outline a few signs of team cohesiveness that lead to team development.

Trust is the team glue

In teams with a strong sense of cohesiveness, people trust each other. No one lets anyone down for faster career growth. Individuals know they can rely on colleagues in case of emergency. They know they will be informed about serious organizational changes, as well as about any changes that will affect everybody in the company.

Personal ego is less important than a team

In a cohesive team, individuals sacrifice their personal ambitions for the sake of the team’s well-being. Everyone shares the same vision and works towards turning it into reality. For them, “we” matters much more than “I.”

The organization and its goals are the priority. There is no room for inner competition because it distracts you from working on the result. 

Conflicts are healthy and productive

Misunderstandings and clashes of opinions are handled through discussions. Team members feel safe to disagree, and this often results in more informed decisions. This is why conflicts are not ruinous – they’re less heated emotionally and are an actual part of the work process.

Related: Why Productive Conflict is Necessary in the Workplace      

Everybody has a voice

When people contribute to decision-making, they tend to commit to those decisions. Even if they don’t have the final say, they feel their opinion is valued, and accept the decision more willingly. There is no need to revisit the same topic over and over again because you can’t achieve buy-in.

Everyone is aware of the butterfly effect

The members of cohesive teams hold themselves accountable for their part of work. They understand what they do has a direct effect on the whole team. If they underperform, the whole team will underperform. If they don’t meet deadlines, it will cause a chain reaction, and another team member will not meet a deadline. This is why they always try to either seek assistance or at least honestly inform other people about their problems.

How to improve team cohesion

1. Develop trust

In his article “The Neuroscience of Trust,” Paul J. Zak, an American neuroeconomist, provides interesting research data. He mentions that at companies with high levels of trust, people report 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 50% higher productivity, 40% less burnout, and 76% more employee engagement. These numbers speak a lot and prove that a culture of trust really makes a difference. 

So how can you build trust in the workplace?

  • Lead by example. If you, as a team leader, are honest with your subordinates, they will more likely be honest with you and each other. Demonstrate the values you talk about, to not create a sense of discrepancy. Try to be open and vulnerable – admit your mistakes, ask for help, and make it clear no one, including a boss, is perfect.
  • Recognize excellence. Show recognition immediately, not waiting till the end of a quarter. You can do it either in private or publicly, but keep in mind that public recognition is more powerful – not only does it show an individual their efforts are appreciated, but it also inspires others to follow the example.
  • Openly share information. This may be challenging for leaders who practice an authoritative management style and make all important decisions in a centralized manner. However, even when people do not have a say in the decision-making process, updating them on the real state of things at a company is a sign of respect and trust, which will be returned.
  • Organize team-building activities. The more people get to know each other, the more they trust each other.

2. Develop a vision and set team goals

As we mentioned in the beginning, the force that unites a team is a common purpose. In a workplace context, a purpose is called a vision – a picture of a hypothetical future where a company has already achieved success. Think what you want your company to look like in, say, 5 years. What is the fundamental principle it's built on? What values does it have, and how are they expressed in the way the company works, and in the products or services it produces?

While a vision is a broader category, goals are easier to understand. In fact, goals are a part of the vision – they’re clear and measurable things you need to achieve to make your vision come true.

So formulate your vision, set long-term and short-term goals, with deadlines, and make sure your team knows where they’re moving and what’s the role of each team member. For team cohesion, it’s particularly important that they know their personal duties and responsibilities, otherwise some work can be done twice, and some work – not done at all.

3. Empower your team

When team members have certain levels of authority, they get to feel more involved in what they do. By sharing authority with a team, leaders send a message that they trust their people. Besides the positive psychological effect it has on team members, which inspires them to contribute more, empowerment also leads to better results, as people at lower hierarchical levels often know more and can provide a leader with valuable insights.

Empowerment can take different forms. It can be as simple as delegation, or it can be something more advanced, like a partial decentralization of decision-making power or total self-management. The point is to make people feel they matter – their work, ideas, and feedback. This will motivate them to look for ways of improvement, both personal and organizational. They will be more responsible and learn to collaborate.

For example, if a person is granted the authority to make a decision, he or she will have to consider that this decision will most probably impact the other team members. It means that the person either has to perfectly know all the peculiarities of the work process or ask for advice. In any case, this requires an individual to see the team's work as a whole and look for the most practical decision.    

4. Encourage a culture of healthy conflict

In a team, opinions vary, and conflicts will inevitably arise. However, ignoring issues is a way to nowhere. There is an alternative – a healthy discussion where people actually talk, share their concerns, express their frustration, and try to find the right solution. This way, a team builds trust and minimizes politics. Learning to hear each other and to give up your opinion when someone proves it wrong makes people more united.

There are several things that can help you handle conflicts in a productive way:

  • Focus on the solution. Sometimes people get so involved in the argument that their main purpose is simply to get victory over their opponent. This turns a professional conflict into a personal fight, and this is counter-productive. If you focus on the solution though, you will not put your ambitions first, and instead care for the well-being of a team.
  • Active listening. In a conflict, everyone wants their opinion to be accepted as the main one. It takes some humility to realize your idea may not be the best one. It’s important to listen and hear what other people have to say, letting them explain the reasoning behind their argument.
  • Candor. The more honest you are while discussing important issues, the better. There is no need to be rude, just make sure to tell about things as they are.

5. Communicate and overcommunicate 

A team cannot be considered cohesive if its members do not effectively communicate. To work smoothly as a team, people need to be aware of what is going on around them. They need to share information and continuously update each other on changes. For this reason, teams must organize their communication in advance, which includes the following:

  • Establishment of clear communication lines and methods (figuring out who reports to whom and how – using email, phone, or by holding real time meetings).
  • Appropriate information management (collection, storage, and distribution, so it’s always “to hand”.)
  • Holding team discussions whenever needed. 

Effective communication may also mean overcommuncation – repeating things over and over again, to avoid any misunderstanding. This is necessary for two reasons. Firstly, people may misinterpret information. Secondly, it also happens that information gets distorted by the time it reaches its addressee. Making sure you have been understood correctly is always very useful.

To conclude, group cohesion is about the closeness people develop within a team. This closeness is built on trust and is fueled by a proper organization of the team’s work. It doesn’t come naturally. But suppose group members make an effort to develop strong team cohesion, by valuing each other, practicing open communication, and resolving disputes in a healthy way. In that case, its chances of achieving better results get higher.   

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