Team Dynamics: A Guide to the Underrated Ingredient of Peak Performance

If only forming a high-performing team was as easy as putting puzzle pieces of compatible skill sets together. Let's dive into the below tips!
Grace Nguyen
Grace Nguyen
Senior People Operations, FlexOS
Leveraging five years in HR and a keen eye for innovation, I help people-centric leaders choose HR tech that boosts employee experience and aligns with organizational goals.
October 30, 2023
min read

In romance, we all know that when two people with the perfect combination of MBTI traits go on a date, it doesn’t mean that they will automatically fall in love. But somehow in our professional life, we tend to mistakenly believe that by solely bringing people with complementary skills together, we will automatically have a dream team. 

Something is missing here. In dating, we call it “chemistry”, and in the workplace, it is “team dynamics”. It’s the relationship factor. It’s the reason why every year, many companies spend thousands of dollars per team-building activity, which actually doesn’t help that much. 

So what should you do instead to improve the dynamics in your team and unlock peak performance? We have put together a comprehensive guide to help you answer this question.

What is Team Dynamics?

The term “team dynamics” (or “group dynamics”) was first coined by Kurt Lewin, a German-American psychologist, who is often recognized as “the founder of social psychology”. In fact, Lewin was one of the most cited psychologists of the 20th century. So yes, we have solid reasons to believe team dynamics is a real and crucial factor in building a dream team. 

Simply put, team dynamics refer to the invisible force that influences how individuals communicate and collaborate as a team. It has a strong impact on the team's overall performance.

You may have noticed this before, when you put two superstars of your team in the same project, or 100% + 100%, you won’t always get 200%. You can get 400% if the two have great dynamics. And in the worst case, two superstars will cancel each other out, and you get 0%. 

What do Teams with Strong Dynamics Look Like?

It’s not easy to dissect teams with strong dynamics at Google or Apple, so let’s look into industries that are more open to the public: filmmaking and sports. 

The 5-Person Visual Effect Team of Everything Everywhere All at Once

Team Dynamics Example in filmmaking
A scene from Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)

We bet you have either seen or heard about Everything Everywhere All at Once, the film that came out in 2022 and has since received seven Oscars, among 380 other awards

What is lesser known is that 80% of the stunning visual effects (VFX) in this sci-fi movie were created by a team of five. For your reference, 1,700 people worked on the VFX of Avatar: The Way of Water. Needless to say, the 5-person team shook the filmmaking world.

How did they do it? When you look closely at the crew’s interviews and, of course, their Oscars acceptance speech, you’ll see that their team dynamics are exceptional. 

The directors - Daniels - described their working process as “fun”, “creatively fulfilling” or “love to be in there”. The movie editor - Paul Rogers - showed that Daniels had high trust in him as they were always “excited to be surprised”. Paul also viewed his job as beyond mere movie editing, but to realize Daniels’ dream and do justice to Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan, the Asian main actress and actor, who were previously played down in Hollywood. 

The Greatest Basketball Player of All Time - Michael Jordan and His Team

Team Dynamics Example in sports
Michael Jordan (No. 23) and his teammates at Chicago Bulls

Sports journalists say there will never be another Michael Jordan. He’s simply the GOAT - Greatest Of All Time. And even the greatest knows he can’t win alone. “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships”, Jordan once said

MJ has quite a reputation for being an (overly) demanding teammate, but the people who actually played with him appreciate the strong team dynamics Jordan created, which pushed them to break records after records. 

In the documentary series The Last Dance, Jordan’s teammates at Chicago Bulls talked about how he would give harsh but constructive feedback and always remind the whole team of the one and only acceptable outcome - winning.

All in all, Chicago Bulls’ strong team dynamics can be observed from how they trusted each other, communicated effectively, and worked harmoniously on the court.

Characteristics of Strong Team Dynamics

“Okay, so how are the stories of Everything Everywhere All at Once and Michael Jordan relevant to the dynamics in my team?”

Well, from the above examples, we can identify eight key traits of a team with strong dynamics:

  1. Supportive and positive environment - Think of the “fun” and “creatively fulfilling” atmosphere on Everything Everywhere's set.
  2. Collective ownership of team goals - Like how Michael Jordan always reminds his teammates that winning is not up to chance but in their hands. And how Paul Rogers’ goal was to realize the aspirations of his fellow crew members, expanding beyond his editing scope.
  3. Strong leadership - Both the two Daniels and Michael Jordan are undeniably competent leaders who gave clear and ambitious directions for their teams to move forward. 
  4. Constructive feedback - MJ often showed his team members how to perform better and in their words, “It worked”. 
  5. Healthy competition - Chicago Bulls players competed with each other to be better as a team. 
  6. Effective conflict resolution - Jordan once got into a literal fight with Steve Kerr - one of his teammates. Luckily, they were able to sort things out afterwards and the conflict ended up deepening their relationship. More on conflict resolution later.

Although the last two points are not really apparent in our examples, once the first six elements are present, these last two will flow effortlessly: 

  1. Clear communication - Above all, to be open to new ideas, to be open to share your ideas, and to listen actively. 
  2. Natural collaboration - Like a well-oiled machine. Like a basketball player passing the ball without looking. A brainstorming session where one idea inspires another. 

How Managers Benefit from Having Strong Team Dynamics

When you think about it, the benefits of having a team with solid dynamics are pretty clear:

Boost Your Team’s Performance

The way your team works together matters. In a survey from TeamStage, 86% of executives believe that when a team fails, inadequate collaboration is the main reason to point to. 

Contrarily, according to the Australian Institute of Business, strong team dynamics increase collaboration, which leads to higher productivity - do more in less time and cost less money. It sounds too good to be true but hey, that’s exactly what the VFX team of Everything Everywhere All at Once did. 

Top Talents Want to be in Positive Teams

The age of going to work, and getting your job done, while pretending you like your colleagues, is over. 

Nowadays, people want to work in teams where they can truly belong and thrive. This is especially true among our “demanding” Gen Z, who want to bond with their coworkers and work on meaningful and fun things together.

In fact, a Glassdoor survey revealed that 77% of respondents checked a company’s culture before applying, and 56% rated company culture above salary when it came to job satisfaction. 

Without strong team dynamics, it will be hard to have a positive supportive collaborative work environment, and as a result, hard to attract and retain impressive talents.

A Hallmark of Leadership Skills

As you shift from being an individual contributor to a people leader, it’s important to remember that besides doing your own tasks, you have the responsibility and privilege to build a great team. It is more than supervising and making sure that the people you manage are doing their jobs. It’s about bringing their brilliance together and making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. And that’s what team dynamics are all about.

How to Identify the Dynamics in Your Team

Whether you have purposefully cultivated them or not, the dynamics in your team have already existed. Now it's time to check whether they are helpful or unhelpful.

In order to assess your team dynamics, you can look at things from two different approaches: personalities and team development. 

How the Different Personalities in Your Team Interact

If building a team was all about skills and experience, Donald Trump might have as well invited Bernie Sanders to serve in his administration. - HBR

You know it doesn't make sense. Personalities create (or do not create) the psychological synergy in a team. 

1. Five Psychological Team Roles by Dave Winsborough

In his book Fusion: The Psychology of Teams, Dave Winsborough argues that the more balanced a team is in terms of psychological roles, the more cohesive its dynamics will be. Winsborough's five psychological team roles are:

  • Results-oriented: People who naturally organize and take charge of things. Make sure deadlines are met.
  • Relationship-focused: The people connectors in your team. Have higher EQ than average.
  • Process and rule followers: The ones who ask when they're not sure about a company guideline. Have great attention to detail and are reliable. 
  • Innovative and disruptive thinkers: Those who are most curious and creative. Anticipate problems and also solutions.
  • Pragmatic: The calm and practical colleagues who keep the team grounded.

A common mistake that prevents a team from having balanced psychological roles is that we tend to hire people similar to ourselves. You can check out some useful tips to reduce personal hiring bias from Ruchika Tulshyan, a thought leader in creating diverse and inclusive workplaces. 

2. Belbin Team Roles by Meredith Belbin

Most of the time people choose jobs that match their personalities but sometimes they don't.

While Winsborough's psychological team roles are purely about how different personalities interact, Belbin's team roles are more about the functional roles in a team. Assigning your team members functional roles that suit their psychological roles will help them enjoy their work more and create better team dynamics.

"The types of behaviour in which people engage are infinite. But the range of useful behaviours, which make an effective contribution to team performance, is finite." - Meredith Belbin

Social roles:

  • Resource investigator: Excellent at building connections, hence bringing in business opportunities.
  • Teamworker: Bring the team together, often avoid confrontation to maintain the team’s harmony.
  • Co-ordinator: Help the team keep the end goals in mind, can delegate work effectively to others in order to complete the task.

Thinking roles:

  • Plant: Highly creative individuals, when everyone is trying to think out of the box, they ask “What box?”. Can be caught up in their ideas at times.
  • Monitor evaluator: Logical, practical, and sober. Will tell you in the face if your idea is really that good.
  • Specialist: The expert on the subject that matters to the team. Can offer valuable insights.

Action roles:

  • Shaper: Drive the team forward at the price of occasional provocation.
  • Implementer: Get the work done but may be reluctant to change on the way.
  • Completer finisher: Have an eye for details. Make sure the outcomes are perfect.

It is worth noting that a person usually displays two to three Belbin roles at the same time and has certain roles they particularly don’t want to be. Try your best to be mindful of your team's preferences and coordinate accordingly. 

3. Five Dysfunctions of the Team by Patrick Lencioni

To know if your team is having healthy dynamics when it comes to personalities or not, let's go through the dysfunctions that will come if it's a “No":

  1. Absence of trust - Team members are not willing to be vulnerable with each other.
  2. Fear of conflict - When the team rather has a fake agreement than further discussion.
  3. Lack of commitment - Because people hide their disagreement, they don't want to commit to the decision made.
  4. Avoidance of accountability - Either holding others accountable or taking responsibility oneself.
  5. Inattention to results - Team members care more about their own ego and benefits than the team’s goals.

Pro Tip: Don’t wait until it’s too late! By the time you can identify the five dysfunctions above, your team is probably in a quite critical stage already. Instead, regularly hold ice-breaking sessions to get to know your people better or invite everyone to create their own personal user manual to promote understanding and mutual respect within the team.

Your Best Self Icebreaker
Spend time for meaningful icebreakers like Your Best Self to rediscover your team's strengths

Know Which Stage Your Team at in Team Development

Don't freak out if by far, based on Winsborough and Belbin’s frameworks, your team seems to have not-so-good dynamics. It may be because your team is in the early stages of team development. 

Tuckman's Five Stages of Team Development
Tuckman's Five Stages of Team Development (Lumen Learning)

Continuing the work of Kurt Lewin on team dynamics, in the 1960s and 70s, Bruce Tuckman, a psychology professor at Princeton, developed the idea about different stages of forming a team. 

Until this date, Tuckman's five stages of team development are still highly relevant and are applied in various organizations.

Stage 1: Forming

  • Definition: When the team is new, and everyone is excited about the endless possibilities ahead. At the same time, team members can be a bit anxious about what’s next. This is the time to get to know each other and know the work. Not much output is produced in this phase. 
  • Challenge: Lots of questions from team members, roles unclear, goals undefined.
  • Manager's role: Coordinating - Work with the team to define clear goals, structure, and process. Organize ice-breaking sessions for the team to get to know each other.

Stage 2: Storming

  • Definition: When the expectation bubble bursts. Personality differences emerge. Disagreement with team goals and processes becomes more prevalent.
  • Challenge: Arguments, disbelief in team goals, low in morale.
  • Manager's role: Coaching - Be a conflict mediator. Be suspicious when you see no conflicts, your team may be hiding their frustration, which is even worse than conflicts. 

Stage 3: Norming

  • Definition: When teams successfully collaborate over the differences and embrace the reality of the journey towards the common goal. Team members feel a greater sense of belonging. 
  • Challenge: If done well, this is a positive stage. Otherwise, be careful if your team has formed negative norms that do not promote inclusion and diversity, or a high-performing culture, e.g. groupthink.  
  • Manager's role: Empowering - Managers can boost the norming phase by rewarding the team as a whole, not individuals, and letting the team handle a challenging task together to highlight interdependence.

Stage 4: Performing

  • Definition: When members are satisfied with the team's progress, and confident in individual abilities as well as that of their teammates. You'll see the presence of a “Can do” attitude.
  • Challenge: While your team may have strong dynamics right now, their actual skills and abilities are strong mediators of the output quality. 
  • Manager's role: Empowering - Create learning opportunities and remind your people to continuously sharpen their skills.

Stage 5: Adjourning

  • Definition: When goals are about to be achieved, teams reflect on what they have achieved and prepare for a new journey, which can be together or separately.
  • Challenge: If the team has been high-performing together, members may be sad and low on energy on the last days together. They are also anxious about what is to come.
  • Manager's role: Supporting - Be understanding of your people's low mood in this phase and help everyone achieve a sense of closure and fulfillment. 

This fun video about how characters in Lord of the Ring go through these five team development stages may help you understand them better:

Can a team always be at the Performing phase once it reaches there? Yes and no. 

It's crucial to remember that team development is not a linear process. It's not like your team will spend three months for each phase, and then you're performing. Maybe you can go from Stage 1 to Stage 3 then back to Stage 2 (Major changes in team members or organizational / industry environment often lead to stage reversal). The point is to understand the features and challenges of each stage in order to manage effectively. 

Still, it is possible to be on the Performing stage forever. When changes and challenges are raised and addressed effectively, it is totally feasible. 

>> Still not sure what are the dynamics in your team? Copy our team dynamics quiz and send a pulse survey to your team!

Strategies to Build Strong Team Dynamics

So, where should you start on your quest to conquer team dynamics? Here are five key strategies to get the wheel turning!

1. Psychological Safety Always Comes First

Psychological safety refers to the extent to which your team members can voice opposing ideas and give feedback, both good and bad, without the fears of personal judgment or stepping on toes. 

It’s about trusting that your coworkers only have the best interest of the team in mind when they disagree with you, and that all team members care about each other as a person. Without trust, a team won’t go anywhere (or only go to bad places). 

Unfortunately, the state of trust at work is somewhat alarming. As we see each other in person less often, miscommunication is rising, and trust is fading. BetterUp recently reported that 38% of workers don’t trust their colleagues.

As a leader, there are three recommended actions you can take to improve the psychological safety of your team. Firstly, be consultative, and ask for your members’ points of view, especially on issues that affect them. Secondly, be supportive, help and show concern for your people. Lastly, and this only works if you have done the first two and your team already has a positive climate, be challenging. Challenge team members to do more than they think they can. Question previous assumptions for the team to learn and improve to a new level.

McKinsey & Company - The skills leaders can develop to create high psychological safety in the workplace
McKinsey & Company - The skills leaders can develop to create high psychological safety in the workplace

2. Set Clear Goals (that Everyone Agrees Upon)

One of the crucial characteristics of a team with strong dynamics is the sense of collective ownership of team goals. And collective ownership can only exist when the whole team has set out those goals together. No one will commit to something they secretly disagree with. In your next goal-setting meeting, make sure everyone has a say. 

To help you guide the goal-setting process in your team, here are a few things to consider:

  • Start with “Why?”: Many of us have the thinking habit of visioning the product (What) or the method (How) before the purpose (Why). But it’s the purpose that inspires us the most. When changes come and the What and How we thought would work don’t work anymore, the Why keeps us going. Encourage your team to start with “Why?”.
  • Set SMART goals: SMART stands for Specific - Measurable - Achievable - Relevant - Time-bound. A goal that is not SMART is just a floating dream. SMART goals help you create execution plans for the later steps.

Get inspired watching TED Talk by Simon Sinek - How great leaders inspire action by starting with “Why?”

3. Define Roles and Responsibilities (ASAP)

If whenever a patient is rushed into a hospital, doctors and nurses start to discuss and assign their tasks “Who would like to administer the anesthesia? Who will set out the instruments?”, it would be a mess. 

Instead, medical teams are famous for having roles and responsibilities so well-defined that they can jump into unpredictable cases and still collaborate harmoniously. That’s the goal.

Clear roles and responsibilities help team members understand what is expected of them. When a person knows that their performance review is based on a list of concrete and transparent responsibilities, they are more motivated to perform at their best

When defining roles and responsibilities, make sure you don’t make the work of team members overlap or conflict with each other, which will not only create tension and negative team dynamics, but also be a waste of human resources. 

4. Create a Great Collaboration System

A great collaboration system goes beyond having the right tools and platforms. Remember that the bedrock of effective team dynamics is psychological safety and trust that flow from open and transparent communication, and your collaboration system should reflect these priorities. 

At an individual level, this includes having regular one-on-one meetings with your direct reports to timely understand the challenges they’re facing, as well as their wants and needs. We understand that you’re really busy and being a good manager (who can pose good questions in one-on-ones) takes time, so let us help you a bit with this one-on-one question generator.

One-on-one question generator
Click here to try One-on-one Question Generator

On a team level, as meetings are a huge part of collaboration, try to make sure that every team meeting is purposeful, productive and fun! Because nothing demotivates a person faster than pointless after pointless meetings. It only takes a minute to rethink if you really need this meeting and ten minutes to run an ice-breaker (that is actually fun) together, so why not?

5. Effective Conflict Resolution (Make Up Whenever You Break Up)

When a couple keeps breaking up and going back together, it may be a red flag, but when a team can go back together after every fight, it’s a sign of a resilient team with strong dynamics. 

We are humans. Humans are so different and diverse, and conflicts are inevitable. According to Harvard Business Review, the four most common triggers of team conflicts are: miscommunication (39%), unclear expectations (22%), unreasonable deadlines (16%), and questionable performance review (14%). Nothing too surprising, right?

So what to do when disputes come? From a team perspective, there are five strategies to resolve conflict, depending on the importance of the end result and the importance of the relationships among the people involved. Make it clear to your team that team relationships should be the priority. Consequently, encourage your team to Compromise, Collaborate, or Accommodate, not Compete or Avoid the problems. 

Indeed - Five conflict resolution strategies‍
Indeed - Five conflict resolution strategies

From an individual perspective, Amy Gallo, the author of Getting Along: How to Work with Anyone (Even Difficult People), suggests the following tips:

  • Remember that It's normal to have different opinions. We can't agree on everything.
  • Be aware of your own biases. Is your solution really the only solution?
  • It's not “me against them". Don’t take it personal.
  • Know your goal and don't get into unnecessary arguments.
  • Don't gossip. 
  • Why not experiment with new ideas?

Most importantly, Gallo hopes we remember that the coworker we disagree with is an ever-changing human being just like us. You can disagree on one thing, but not the others. You may not get along well today, but maybe tomorrow you can.

Tips to Overcome the Unique Challenges of Building Strong Team Dynamics in Hybrid and Remote Teams

When it comes to cultivating positive team dynamics, we understand that hybrid and remote teams have some unique challenges. Both Gallup and FlexOS surveys point out that most of these challenges relate to the lack of social connection, sense of belonging and collaboration.

Gallup - The most common challenges of hybrid work
Gallup - The most common challenges of hybrid work
FlexOS - The typical challenges in managing remote teams

1. Improve the Social Connection in Your Team 

Humans are social creatures after all and too much working from home can make us feel lonely and isolated. Perhaps it’s a good thing because it makes us realize how much we miss our colleagues (even though we don’t agree all the time). 

Check out (at least) one of our suggestions below to improve your team’s social connection today!

2. Make Remote Collaboration as Smooth as Possible

“For better collaboration” has been the reason many big tech companies used to call their employees to go back to the office. It’s true that remote collaboration is tricky. When you ask for your boss’ approval on Slack and they give a 👍, should you proceed? The more you can reduce confusion like this, the better your remote collaboration will become. 

Pick Up the Phone

The rule of thumb from Bonnie Biafore, author of 25 best-selling books, when it comes to managing remote and hybrid teams is that: when miscommunication or conflicts happen, pick up the phone (or of course, video calls). Firstly, it’s quick. Secondly, when you can feel the human elements in the message, their tone of voice and their facial expressions, you often realize your coworkers are not really in the arguing mode you thought them to be.

Cockroach Meetings

In the same line of thought, Chris Dyer - a company culture and remote work expert - recommends hybrid and remote teams have a cockroach meeting practice. 

A cockroach meeting should be no longer than 15 minutes, and there is no "How's it going?", no icebreakers, no "What's the weather like?" But instead, this is how it goes:

  • Caller: Here's my problem.
  • Supporters: This is how you solve it, or this is who you need to talk to.
  • Caller: Great, thanks, everyone! Bye!

Too often than not when we work remotely, we hit a blocker that is not big enough to raise in the whole team’s chat but also not small enough for us to solve alone. Then we will send a message to a teammate and wait for their answer. If it doesn’t help, we move to the next one. It’s a time-consuming and ineffective process. 

Having a cockroach meeting practice allows your team members to put five to seven colleagues, who they think may help, on a call and quickly get the needed answer. Attending a cockroach meeting is not compulsory so there won’t be a meeting overload for the team, either.  

The Best Collaboration Tools for Hybrid and Remote Work

Last but not least, the right collaboration tools will help greatly in improving remote team dynamics. Check out our comprehensive guides to choose the ones suit your team the most:

3. Say Goodbye to “Productivity Paranoid” and Encourage Autonomy

“Productivity paranoia” is a term coined by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella to describe leaders who always feel like their people are not doing enough when they’re not in the office. To be fair, employees may feel the same about each other, too. 

When you work from home, you don’t see your teammates working. Whenever you text to ask them something, it seems like they always take forever to reply. It’s easy to have the feeling that you’re the only one working that hard. As a result, you have trust issues with your team members and you don’t want to work that hard anymore.

To eliminate “productivity paranoia” among the team (and maybe also in yourself), you can introduce project management or time management tools that help make the scope and progress of each team member more visible and transparent to the whole team. 

However, please keep in mind that it is important to let your people have autonomy and agency over their work. Since the creation of the Earth, we have known that micromanagement will only lead to bad stuff. Some even consider it a form of bullying at work

4. Keep learning as a team

It's crucial to make sure everyone pulls their own weight and has the necessary skills to keep collaboration fair and maintain a great team dynamic. That means keeping a close eye on your team, investing in ongoing learning and skill development, and helping each other out with any knowledge gaps. 

One cool idea is to have team learning sessions a couple of times a week, even if they're only 15 minutes long. You could try something like the TED-together icebreaker or colleague-led skills workshops during break times. Another great resource is Rising Team – which offers a wide range of development sessions that can help remote or hybrid teams learn and connect.

Ted together icebreaker
Even with 15 minutes a week, TED-together sessions are great to learn new skills together.

Wrapping It Up

To sum up, building a great team is way more than putting people with the right skills together. As a manager, you will also need to take care of the delicate dynamics among your team members. If you can make sure your team dynamics are positive and effective, as a whole, your team can achieve more than the sum of each person’s individual ability. 

Building team dynamics is a dance between personalities, values, relationships, and work styles. It’s not a dance easy to learn, but we promise you, it’s gonna be fun, and we’re always here when you need any help.

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