Winning Strategies for Improving Team Dynamics 

February 2, 2020
Posted in: Tips and Advice

Table of Contents


There’s no questioning the importance of team dynamics in the workplace. They can have a major impact on:

  • Team and individual performance
  • Employee morale
  • Company profitability
  • Employee turnover rate
  • Company reputation

As important as team dynamics are, they’re often given inadequate attention. This can adversely affect how a team works. Successful companies recognize the benefits of dynamic teams working together toward a common goal. Strong team dynamics produce higher-quality results and facilitate faster problem-solving. In this article, we’ll discuss what team dynamics are, what factors cause problems in team dynamics, and strategies for improving them. 




What are Team Dynamics?

Team dynamics is a broad concept and represents the way in which team members behave and the unconscious, psychological processes underlying these interactions within the team. These processes influence the direction of a team’s behavior and performance. When team members engage in work projects, their behaviors are interdependent and from these interactions, there is an emergence of attitudes, motivation, and awareness that influence how team members feel about each other, their team, and team projects. 

Team dynamics are created by the nature of the team’s work, the personalities within the team, their working relationships with other people, and the environment in which the team works. Team dynamics can be good if they improve overall team performance and/or bring out the best in individual team members. However, they can also be bad when they cause unproductive conflict, decrease in motivation, and hinder the team from achieving its objectives.


Team Dynamics vs. Group Dynamics

Although the terms are similar and often used interchangeably, there’s a fundamental difference between team dynamics and group dynamics. A group is a social community, consisting of two or more people who have something in common. A team is a special type of group in which the commonality is a shared goal. This fact, in and of itself, creates a dynamic between team members because they’re dependent on each other for achievement of the goal.  For example, a football team has a shared goal of winning; the team will win or lose as a whole. A sales department may be referred to as a sales team instead of a group which is inaccurate because each salesperson is compensated individually and his/her commission isn’t affected by the performance of other sales staff.



Key Dimensions of Team Dynamics

In recent years, there’s been a lot of research focused on the role of team dynamics in predicting team performance. As a result, a few key dimensions have emerged: team cognition, team cohesion, and team conflict. It’s worth noting that, although these dimensions are essential to effective teamwork, they don’t encompass all aspects of team dynamics.


Team Cognition

Team cognition focuses on team decision-making and how teams evaluate situations. Most research on team cognition has focused on individual decision-making and how information is processed. Team cognition has previously been associated with individual knowledge and how this knowledge is distributed across team members. However, interactive team cognition theory asserts that cognition is a result of team interactions.

A closely-related management concept is team mental models (TMM). The principal theme behind TMMs is the requirement for all team members to be “on the same page”.  A great deal of empirical research has been conducted concerning TMMs and how they can be used to increase team performance. 


Team Cohesion

Team cohesion describes the social connections or bonding that takes place between team members. The motivational factors that contribute to these social bonds between team members have a tendency to increase team productivity.


Team Conflict

Team conflict takes place when team members disagree concerning tasks to be performed and there is conflict within the relationships between team members. Task conflict occurs when there is disagreement over the content of tasks, whereas relationship conflict occurs when there is a clash of values between team members. Research suggests that task conflict can actually enhance team performance, but relationship conflict impedes team performance.




Impact of Team Dynamics on Performance

Research on the relationship between team dynamics and team performance shows that team processes are important and significantly impact team performance.


Explicit Communication → Team Cognition → Increased Team Performance 

Research by Nancy Cooke and her colleagues has shown that the cognitive processes within a team have an impact on team behaviors and team performance. Within the research, Cooke describes how interactions between team members result in team cognition. These interactions frequently occur in explicit communications which then lead to team cognition. A series of Cooke’s studies support the theory of interactive team cognition – teams that perform the best are those who freely share knowledge throughout the task’s duration. These explicit communications result in effective team performance.


Team Cohesion → Positive Team Efficiency Outcomes

Considerable research has been conducted on the effects of team cohesion on team performance. Much of the research has focused on factors that influence team cohesion, thereby leading to specific team behaviors that enhance performance. In a meta-analytic review, professor and author Daniel Beal and colleagues studied the influence of the components of cohesion (interpersonal attraction, group pride, commitment to task) on performance and found that cohesion within teams led to enhanced team performance.

Their findings uncovered a significant relationship between cohesion and team performance when performance was defined as a behavior instead of as performance outcomes. When there was a focus on efficiency outcomes and when workflows became more intense, the relationship between cohesion and team performance was also positive. Efficiency focuses on inputs as well as outputs whereas performance effectiveness only focuses on output (i.e. sales). The conclusion of this meta-analysis is that team cohesion is vital to team and organizational functioning.


Task Conflict → Increased Performance & Relationship Conflict → Decreased Performance

According to Professor Laurie Weingart, conflict within a team can be both beneficial and detrimental to team performance, depending on the type of conflict.  In a study, it was found that relationship conflict thwarts the exchange of information within the team. In contrast, information exchange within the team resulted in task conflict which positively affected performance over time. This research illustrates that conflict can be beneficial when there is a focus on tasks yet relationship conflict negatively impacts performance.


Relationship-Building is Vital to Effective Team Work 

Research on team dynamics has shown that it’s important for companies to recognize the role that team interactions play in fostering effective teamwork. Although the knowledge possessed by individual team members is important, it’s not enough to positively enhance team performance. Relationship-building between team members is vital to team performance.

Research on team cohesion, cognition, and conflict showed that the worst-performing teams were those in which team members clashed when interacting and conversing with each other. Poor communication is responsible for the failures of numerous large corporations; like Nokia failing to keep up with the smartphone trend. For more than a decade, Nokia was the world’s largest mobile-phone manufacturer. However, the company lost its competitive edge when the smartphone became the next big thing in the mobile phone market. It turns out that Nokia struggled to turn its good ideas into products due to the company’s tendency to participate in unfocused discussions about strategy instead of clear plans to bring new phones to market. Nokia’s experience shows that, without clear communication, teams (hence, companies) will struggle to perform satisfactorily and meet objectives. 

Nokia’s experience also shows that business failures aren’t always related to how skilled or knowledgeable the company’s decision-makers are. It’s typically a lack of communication that’s to blame for the company’s demise. To ensure that employees at all levels possess the interpersonal skills needed to be effective team members, there are a number of tactics that can be employed. First, let’s look at the main reasons why some employees may struggle to communicate effectively:

  • Lack of social awareness and/or emotional intelligence – The employee may not realize that their communication is ineffective.
  • Lack of knowledge of effective communication techniques – The employee may be aware that they struggle to communicate but doesn’t know how to improve.
  • Lack of confidence – The employee likely knows that they struggle to communicate, and may know how to improve, but lacks the confidence to do so effectively.




Strategies for Improving Communication Skills

Regardless of the reason why an employee is struggling to communicate effectively, there are ways a company can facilitate effective communication throughout the organization. Sharing the following tactics with employees is one way to accomplish this.  


Improving Verbal Communication Skills

Verbal communication is very important in the workplace, whether it’s making a suggestion during a meeting or asking someone to do something. If an employee can voice his/her thoughts and feelings clearly, concisely, and confidently, they’ll get much better results.

According to business psychologist Simon Kilpatrick, employees can improve their verbal communication skills by preparing notes in advance of planned discussions such as meetings. The notes can serve as verbal cues to help them clearly articulate what they want to contribute to the discussion. Taking notes during the discussion can also be helpful as this can serve to help them remember the points they want to discuss later on. For those who are comfortable interjecting while someone else is speaking, care should be taken regarding the timing of the interjection as a poorly-timed interjection may appear rude and cause others to pay less attention to what the interjecting employee is actually saying. 

Listening is as important to verbal communication as speaking so making affirming vocalizations is a way of actively showing that the employee is paying attention.


Pay Attention to Body Language

The reason some people favor face-to-face communication is the unspoken visual cues that are picked up during a conversation. Body language such as facial expressions, hand gestures, posturing, and eye contact can “say” much more than clearly speaking and listening can. 

When engaged in conversation, it’s wise to face the person you’re speaking to and make regular eye contact. This not only shows that you’re listening but that you’re also open to their point-of-view. Expressing feelings visually (such as smiling if you’re happy or wrinkling your brow if you’re confused) is an acceptable form of communication and a way to open up the conversation. However, shouting or getting aggressive are not acceptable forms of communication and will only anger or intimidate the other person. 

Although hand gestures are a good way to add dynamics to what’s being said, they should be used in moderation. Overdoing it can be very off-putting. With practice, using body language to communicate effectively will feel more second-nature.


Communicating via Email

Communicating via email can be challenging since you can’t easily use vocal tone or body language to support what’s being said. For this reason, some people prefer communicating in person. However, face-to-face conversations aren’t always possible or feasible. 

If you struggle with effectively communicating via email, here are some things to consider:

  • Be mindful of how you address the recipient. If you don’t know them very well, don’t be too casual with salutations. 
  • If the email is of a more sensitive nature, follow up with a phone call or an in-person meeting. You don’t want misunderstandings to arise as a result of the absence of vocal tone or visual cues.
  • Clearly explain why you’re emailing right off the bat. Don’t ramble for several paragraphs before getting to your main point. This may cause the recipient to forego reading your entire message. 
  • If you’re including an attachment, mention this in the body of the email to ensure that it’s not overlooked. 
  • Just as you would in a face-to-face or telephone conversation, be well-mannered in an email conversation. 


Practice Makes Perfect

For the sake of team-building, it’s a good idea for employees to practice their communication skills in a team setting. By giving employees a safe place to practice, they’re more likely to step out of their comfort zones. The activities should be light-hearted and non-work related. People learn more effectively when they’re having fun and are allowed to make mistakes without judgment or criticism. 

When done right, team building activities will bring out individuals’ strengths and help them communicate more effectively due to the environment being less stressful. They’ll be more likely to put their communication skills to practice when they return to work.




Senior Employees Should Set an Example for Clear Communication

Too often, top-level employees fail to communicate important changes to employees further down the organizational chart. This is in part due to concern over the impact of the changes or because they don’t feel it’s important enough to share the information. Unfortunately, if lower-level employees pick up on whisperings about the changes, they may draw conclusions that are counter to what is actually going on.  This can cause employees to become insecure, disengaged, distrustful, and in some cases, seek employment elsewhere.

Senior-level employees should never neglect to communicate organizational changes to all employees. Better yet, research suggests that employees should be included in the decision-making concerning changes.  This practice is felt to make the company more successful. 


Psychological Models of Team Dynamics

There are many models used to describe team dynamics with many focusing on the psychological aspects, such as: 

  • FIRO/Human ElementsPsychologist Will Schutz developed this theory and found that a group goes through three phases in its development towards unity and efficiency. Those phases are inclusion, control, and openness and they relate to inner feelings of significance, competence, and likeability.
  • Group dynamics – Social psychologist Kurt Lewin coined the term group dynamics to describe the way groups and individuals act and react to changing circumstances. It also considers the common perceptions that arise within a group.
  • Personality type – Theories and tools such as the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator take into account how team members’ different preferences affect their interaction and the team’s performance.
  • Psychoanalysis – The psychoanalytic approach is concerned with team members’ natural defensive behaviors. Psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion discovered several mass group processes that involved the group as a whole adopting an orientation which, in his opinion, interfered with the ability of a group to accomplish the work it was nominally engaged in.
  • The Tuckman model asserts that you can’t expect a new team to perform well when it first comes together. Forming a team takes time, and members often go through recognizable stages as they change from being a collection of strangers to a cohesive group with common goals. Bruce Tuckman’s Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing model describes these stages:
    • Forming:  In this stage, most team members are positive and polite. This stage can last for a while, as members start to work together, and as they make an effort to get to know their new teammates.
    • Storming:  Next, the team moves into the storming phase, where members start to push against the boundaries established in the forming stage. This is the stage where many teams fail. Some may question the worth of the team’s goal, and they may resist taking on tasks.
    • Norming:  This is when members start to resolve their differences and appreciate teammates’ strengths. Team members know one another better, may socialize together, and they’re able to ask one another for help and provide constructive feedback. Members develop a stronger commitment to the team goal, and progress towards it is evident. 
    • Performing:  The team reaches the performing stage, when hard work leads, without resistance, to the achievement of the team’s goal. It feels easy to be part of the team at this stage, and members who join or leave won’t disrupt performance.
    • Adjourning:  Many teams will reach this stage eventually. For example, project teams exist for only a fixed period.
  • Team roles – The Belbin Team Inventory behavioral test measures how team performance is related to preference for nine team roles. The Inventory assesses how an individual behaves in a team environment. The assessment includes 360-degree feedback from observers as well as the individual’s own evaluation of their behavior and contrasts how they see their behavior with how their colleagues do.


Non-Psychological Models of Team Dynamics

In addition to the psychological models mentioned above, there are many other non-psychological models and factors that are relevant to team dynamics because of their ability to impact the way a team interacts and performs. Included are

  • Cultural factors – Geert Hofstede’s theory considers six factors that can impede the development of team dynamics:  power distance, uncertainty avoidance, individualism/collectivism, masculine/feminine, indulgence vs. restraint, and short-term/long-term focus.
  • Methodologies of team functioning Project management, business process reengineering, collective problem solving, holding meetings, information sharing, communication
  • Organizational structure – Hierarchical, functional, matrix, network, cross-functional teams
  • Stakeholder models – Governance structure, customer forums and feedback, representative groups such as unions
  • Management style – General leadership and management processes and practices: performance management, situational leadership, reward/recognition, and individual leadership




Dealing with Toxic Team Dynamics

When it comes to high-performing teams, all team members are generally “on the same page”.  Within these teams, there is minimal to zero relationship conflict and their companies could dominate any industry, in any market. 

Research shows that serious discord among team members takes a major toll. For individuals, team discord leads to stress, decreased productivity, low job satisfaction, anger, despair, and physical ailments such as insomnia. For teams, it can impede productivity, learning, collaboration, and even cause the team to disband.  

Discord among team members increases organizational costs when investment in coaching, performance management, conflict resolution, and mediation becomes necessary. Team toxicity not only affects team members but others in the company and consumers as well.


How to Heal a Toxic Team

To heal the dysfunctional behavior in a toxic team:

  • Leaders must initiate crucial conversations To successfully resolve toxicity, research has confirmed that a leader must be able to address team conflict. Ideally, the team’s own leader can address the issue (unless the leader is part of the problem). If not, another team member or someone from outside of the team will need to initiate a conversation to address the team conflict. A team’s success may hinge on how well it deals with negative behaviors. If not handled properly, team morale will suffer. 
  • Take responsibility Once the team conflict has been addressed, team members must take responsibility for their contributions to the team toxicity. It’s much easier to blame others than to accept one’s own shortcomings.  Members should focus on engaging in behaviors that propel the team forward instead of engaging in yelling, humiliating, sabotaging, interrupting, undervaluing or spreading rumors. Such behavior creates a miserable team experience and work environment.
  • Work on communication with professional help – Teams can need professional help to develop positive relationships the same as individuals do. People often make rash judgments in tense situations and professional mediators can help them air grievances and become better team members.
  • Create a shared vision – A shared vision of the greater purpose provides structure and direction and a context within which team members can make decisions. To increase each member’s commitment to the team’s goals, involve the team in goal setting. With a toxic team, everyone needs to move beyond the past.
  • Create a social contract for behavior – The social contract should set the norms for team interaction. It will establish ground rules for how members of the team will behave, make decisions, share information, and support each other. For example, “be honest, transparent, candid, trustworthy, and don’t blast team members with negative emails”.
  • Recognize that differences of opinion can strengthen a team – Differences of opinion and constructive conflict can be components of a healthy team. Discussing and debating serious issues can lead to better team decisions. As long as they don’t get personal, the issues won’t be destructive.  Team members must recognize that their ideas may not always offer the best solutions and graciously accept the outcome chosen by the team instead of harboring resentment against other members.




When Should HR Intervene?

In the case of a toxic team, when team bickering and in-fighting starts to compromise performance, it’s time for Human Resources (HR) to step in. HR should partner with the team’s leader(s) to find a solution and hold everyone accountable.  An “intervention” should be staged to address the matter openly and give everyone on the team a chance to start over and reinvent their relationships.

All the while, company policy should be enforced and team members reminded of the consequences of continuing the toxic behavior. The ultimate goal is to reset the team to a higher standard of performance and productivity. The intervention benefits the company and gives team members the opportunity to reinvent themselves and end the misery that may have festered within the team over months or years. 


Improving Dynamics of a Remote Team

Remote team dynamics are different than the dynamics of a team that works together in the same office every day. On a remote team, each member usually works alone, either at home or in another location. Although full-time remote teams rarely meet in person, they typically work on projects together on a regular basis. 

Here are some strategies for improving remote team dynamics and keeping your remote team cohesive:


Clear Communication  

For a remote team, clear communication is everything. Each team member needs to be able to clearly express himself or herself in writing since that’s the way they’ll frequently communicate. Everything needs to be explained clearly; don’t assume that your team members can read between the lines. 

Take the time to ensure that your processes are efficient by using online tools such as Evernote and task management software so that all members are on the same page and using the same processes. This also aids in effective communication. If you’re not sure you understood what a team member said, ask questions until you’re clear.


Use Communication Tools

There are numerous tools that make it easy for management to connect with remote employees and for employees to connect with each other.  Communication tools also allow team members to get quick responses without having to wait for an email response. All communication doesn’t have to be work-related. Since remote teams aren’t privy to the “water cooler” experience that onsite employees enjoy, communication tools can be used to share a laugh, photo, or to talk about things going on in each other’s lives. This helps the team build strong interpersonal bonds.


video call


Use Video Calls

Being able to see teammate’s faces and talking about projects together makes co-workers feel more like a team, which is great for team dynamics and relationship-building. Video calls can be used for meetings and sharing project details. They can also be used as a presentation method for sharing professional developments and giving project updates to ensure that the project is on schedule and goals are expected to be reached.


Be Responsive

Being responsive to remote teammates is just as important as being responsive to clients. If a teammate needs your help on a task, they don’t want to be kept waiting for a response. If you need help, be clear in your request and let the teammate know the date or time by which you need to have a response. For time-sensitive requests, it’s best to make the request using communication tools so that it’s viewed by all team members. That way, the person who has the time and ability can provide assistance.


Have Team Retreats

Team retreats can work wonders for solidifying relationships within a remote team. Spending time playing, talking, and getting to know each other builds a stronger team. The video calls before the retreat can serve to break the ice so that there’s already a sense of familiarity between teammates.


Be Disciplined

Working remotely often means team members aren’t held to a 9-to-5 schedule. However, tasks still need to be completed so that team goals can be reached. This makes it necessary for team members to establish a regular schedule and stick to it.


Practice Humility

Appreciate that you can always learn something from team members and that each member brings value. You’re all working toward the same goals and aren’t in competition with each other. Accept that you don’t know everything.


Openly Discuss Ideas

Another way of learning from team members is to discuss ideas. If something about a task is causing you grief, bring it up in one of your chat sessions. Ask teammates for input on effectively handling the issue. Discussing the issue in a productive manner can result in a solution that works for the whole team.


Keep Teammates Informed

For a team to be effective, members need to know what each member is working on. This allows others to pitch in as needed and keep projects on schedule. Especially when working on larger projects together, regular updates can keep the team motivated and feel that they’re being supported by teammates. 


Acknowledge Each Other’s Strengths

To have a strong team, it’s important to acknowledge that each member of the team brings value. Each member has his or her own strengths and makes a meaningful contribution to the team. Knowing what each member’s strengths are makes it easy to know who to consult on specific issues.




Final Thoughts – Winning Strategies for Improving Team Dynamics

Research on teamwork shows the importance of team dynamics in the workplace and how unconscious psychological forces can impact how team members work together. In particular, the research shows that team interactions are the principal component of effective team collaborations whereby team members use clear communication to complete tasks.

To help employees build solid interpersonal skills, organizations can introduce training interventions that focus on being an effective team member. During the hiring process, employers can also include teamwork competencies as a requisite for employment. Through personality tests, a candidate’s propensity to working effectively as part of a team can be assessed. 


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