As you know, cohesion has to do with sticking together, but it is not simply being stuck together. Team cohesion can be defined as the broad set of attributes that allow a team to be productive within itself and within it’s organizational community.
Cohesion occurs when the sticking together leads to a united whole. For example, a chair has cohesive parts because the wood pieces stick to each other in a way which constructs the united whole, the chair. If the parts stuck together in a way which did not form the chair, it is not cohesive.
In the same way, in a functional organization, each part, each team, needs to be cohesive with every other part of the organization to serve bring about the vision and mission of the organization. The team needs to be a part of the organization’s united whole.
Team cohesion reflects both internal and external qualities. The internal qualities reflect the culture of the team. This internal culture translates directly to external cohesiveness. Thus the team’s ability to perform its cohesive role is dependent on its internal culture.
We can see why team cohesion is critical. It’s not merely collaboration. Any team can collaborate for the sake of getting something done, but if the team is not interlinked with what the organization is trying to accomplish as a whole, then the team is not cohesive. It does not effectively provide value for the organization.
Actually, you would think team cohesion comes naturally. You would assume that teams best function within organizations when they are cohesive. Teams that are not cohesive would be naturally selected out.
However, what we find is that silos form within companies because management focus is turned towards the teams that are the primary profit centers. Teams with the most management attention have the most need to be cohesive. Thus, management ensures that they are.
On the other hand, there are many teams in which management doesn’t pay such close attention. In these cases, human individualism takes over and creates qualities that do not facilitate team cohesion. Sadly, the vast majority of the teams within organizations fall in this category. Thus, team cohesion becomes a fundamental problem that infiltrates all aspects of an organization.
Steps towards Team Cohesion
Team cohesion as we said has to do with two parallel results. First and foremost, establishing a team that has the capability of being cohesive with the rest of the organization and, second, utilizing the team for the sake of the organization.
The team must identify the characteristics that either help or hurt its ability to be cohesive.
Although a leader can drive the identity of a team, the team does not naturally take on the identity of the leader. When a leader walk in, they cannot automatically change the identity of the team.
If a leader does try to enforce their identity upon the team, the team will burnout. The team is almost enslaved by the leader, thus leading to discontent and attrition in the long run.
We see this authoritarian rule succeed in tiger teams and other short-term teams. The leader walks-in, says this is what needs to happen. Management endorses this authority. Hence, everyone on the team agrees to adapt to this forced culture. They say to themselves, “We know what needs to get done and then after that we will be out of here.”
The joy is in the quick accomplishment, not the long-term, productive relationship with the team. Naturally, this is not the attitude one wants for their team. It does not translate to cohesiveness and will eventually lead to disunity.
A Unit-Based Identity
The first step is to identify the team’s cultural identity. The work culture needs to be defined in terms of the attributes which create team cohesion and those which detract from it. Teams can neither be 100% cohesive nor 100% disfunctional. Each teams balance must be understood.
The good qualities must be recognized so that they can be enhanced. The negative qualities must be recognized and addressed by the team. The leader can facilitate the process of recognition but it is the team that must discover the qualities. In this way, the team acknowledges that “this is not the way we want to be.”
Even in individual counseling, the same reasoning applies. We must first identify our own character flaws. Second, we tell ourselves that “this is not how we want to be.” Then only we can make the necessary course corrections to ameliorate the character flaw.
It is in recognizing the true nature of the team that self-awareness takes place and change can begin.
Team Identity – Goals that Bring us Together
The team must see itself as a unit-based team (UBT). Not all teams are constructed as UBTs, but all teams can perceive themselves as one.
To do this, the team must discover its identity. Identity involves the team’s reason for existence. Why did this organization create this team? How does this team serve the overall vision?
A UBT will hold itself accountable for its goals. A team that does not care if its objectives fail is not a UBT.
A UBT will discover its own performance gaps and make internal corrections. This is the basis of self-regulation and only a team that functions as a UBT will self-regulate.
Put it this way, a team that is not a UBT, will view itself as a slave to the rest of the organization. Such a team cannot have its own identity and definitely cannot team cohesion.
Team Identity – Boundaries that Set us Apart
Second, the team must know its boundaries. Unless boundaries are clearly defined, the team is amorphous. An amorphous entity has an amorphous purpose. Organizations like to define teams based on hierarchy, but this does not always translate to a UBT. This is why in many organizations functional UBTs span multiple departments. In such cases, boundaries must be connected to team vision and goals.
Thus, a team must be identified both from within and through its relational context with the rest of the organization. Identity is found through self-regulation stemming from a unified mission and clear role/responsibilities. Identity is maintained through a balance of autonomy and accountability. Team boundaries must allow freedom to self-regulate while enabling external feedback that spans borders.
It is only starting from the team identity can we find its culture. A team’s identity drives its culture and its tendency to lean towards certain characteristics. A team that has the identity of independent workers will work independently from the organization as well. This becomes its culture. The team must identify its cultural characteristics through the lens of its identity.
Recognizing Which Flaws to Address
By now, we have identified all the qualities of our team culture. From here, we have to determine which qualities are correlated with our team’s ability to be cohesive.
As a team, ask yourselves the question, “how is this quality helping our team to be cohesive? How is it hurting the cohesiveness of our team?”
In many cases, these qualities might be construed as positives when looked at through an individualistic lens. However, the same qualities might be detracting from the cohesiveness of he team from the perspective of the rest of the organization.
For example, if a team has a very strong intellectual capacity that propels it to lead the organization in innovation. This team is a huge asset to an organization. However, this cultural quality might become a negative depending on how closely they cling to that innovative identity. Is it to the extent that they do not effectively share knowledge? Do they not seek external inputs and ideas?
This is why think tanks are isolated teams. Their culture is isolationistic. A think tank stuck in the middle of an operational team structure would not be cohesive. It is not going to get along well with the rest of the organization.
It is the think tank that must recognize that this pride in innovation is in fact handicapping their ability to be cohesive. A leader or outside consultant can only guide discussion but the team must determine the flaw and desire the change.
Fixing the Flaws
These flaws which we have identified need not be completely undone. After all, sometimes it is this characteristic that makes the team great. Instead, many must be adapted to bring about cohesiveness while not sacrificing the internal value.
First, we need to understand why this flaw prevents cohesion. To do this, we must envision the ideal situation. A world in which this characteristic brings cohesion instead of removes it. Naturally, we must be creative to imagine the ideal.
In the case of our think tank, seemingly isolated in a room while the rest of the organization looks on with disdain, what could be done? Again, an ideal world solution. The team might suggest expanding their brainstorming sessions to include the rest of the organization. While this does not remove the prideful, motivating cockiness of the think tank, it transforms the message to include everyone. “We are cocky not because only we can innovate, but because everyone helps us innovate.”
This obviously might be a stretch because no think tank would conduct company-wide polls to simply facilitate brainstorming. Since this is not possible, the team, the entire UBT, must now identify solutions which are a step in this direction. Foremost, the team must want the change.
If the think tank desires the cultural change, “we want to not just be brilliant but be collaboratively brilliant” then steps towards this end can be achieved. These steps are evidence of self-regulation.
Self-Regulation Transforms Work Culture
Self-Regulation itself brings about the cultural shift. The team achieves cohesion long before the rest of the organization benefits from the change.
In the case of the think tank seeking collaboration, it may take 4-5 years before the organization feels the benefit, but the team has initiated the change.
The team has become self-aware of their current inability to be cohesive.
The team has identified the root cause of the their lack of cohesion.
The team has made a commitment to change.
The team has identified solutions, no matter how gradual.
The team is making the effort to implement the solution.
This is self-regulation. A team’s effort towards change that stems from self-regulation brings about team cohesion.
Cultural Changes that Take Root
The rest of the organization needs to feel this change. Not the benefit, but the feel of it. The new attitude of the team must be felt. The success of this effort can come later. This is accomplished simply by promoting these shifts in work culture.
As the team’s self-regulatory efforts are promoted, the team’s new identity reforms its relationship with the organization. The team develops interprofessional collaborative tendencies with the rest of the organization. The organization will be forced to take notice.
Any good management that embraces these changes will then come to depend on these new cultural paradigms. The rest of the organization will anticipate and look forward to these changes as a part of its greater mission and vision. Then the new culture of the team, a work culture that is team cohesive, integrates and takes root within the overall dynamic of the organization.
The Leader’s Role in Team Cohesion
In all of this, the leader has not been mentioned. We have talked about team, team, team, team….. What is the leader’s role?
To this point, the leader can observe. The leader can help in identifying the factors. The leader can suggest ideas for improvement. However, the leader can not and must not take decisions. For a culture to change, the team must make the decisions towards change.
If the think tank wants to be isolated, it will continue to be isolated. In such cases, the elements of the team which encourage its isolationism might need to be removed.
Let’s hope this is not the case. Rather, isolationism is just the existing nature into which these members joined.
If this is the case, then the leader can facilitate change. The leader can act as a guide to get the team to the point to desire change. The leader can create the forum for which these culturally transformative efforts are promoted and later integrated with the rest of the organization.
You can see that the leader acts as guide and facilitator. They are urging and pushing, peripheral tasks, but the leader is not leading from the front. That is until the last step.
As we said early on, most teams tend to drift towards incohesion. The leader must always assume that the next step away from team cohesion is just around the corner.
The leader continually returns the team back to self-regulation checks. The leader must always ask the question “are we drifting away from the rest of the organization.” And the leader must continually find ways to promote and integrate the efforts of the team with the rest of the organization.
In doing so, the leader can bring about not only resiliency in the team, but also the understanding that self-regulation instills the belief that this team is not simply a one-trick pony. Self-regulation is a team’s constant search for self-improvement.
This is how work culture can evolve towards team cohesion. The team must identify itself, its characteristics (both good and bad), and how this identity build or detracts from cohesion. The team must then truly desire change, sometimes painful change. Change is then shaped by the efforts of the team in pursuing self-improvement. The new efforts must be taken notice of and taken root into the organization.
Since the natural instinct of most teams is away from cohesion, the leader must be the checks and balances to ensure the team continues to self-regulate. The leader is the cog that makes this constant search for team cohesion possible.