If we require a sense of “shared leadership” among a team of people to be effective leaders in the 21st century, as argued in part 1 of this series, it is necessary to develop and grow our team for improved performance, member satisfaction, and to ultimately ensure team viability. In line with Peter Drucker’s famed quote that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” the first aspect that leaders must target is the team’s culture. In the previous part (part 2) of this series, we addressed three critical team culture artifacts that leaders must emphasize for team development: psychological safety, high learning orientation, and perceptions of organizational justice.
Complete team success relies on three essential outcomes: team performance, member satisfaction, and team viability. All three rely on effective and efficient interactions between team members as they accomplish their mission and day-to-day tasks. Formally, this is referred to team dynamics. As we can see in our own lives, different personalities and ways of doing business among members can impact the team’s ability to accomplish its mission and tasks; gossip and drama are often clear signs of the damaging effects of poor team dynamics. It’s important to improve a team’s dynamics and the processes it uses to do work. I believe leaders should focus on three important aspects of their team’s dynamics: team cohesion; the use and balance of power, authority, and influence; and ensuring that team and individual member purpose, shared values, and goals are clear and consistently communicated.
Sources of Team Cohesion
The cohesion between people is a core component of a team’s culture and one of the clearest ways to assess effectiveness. Cohesion – the strength and extent of connections between team members – highly contributes to all three outcomes of effective teams referenced above. It is important for leaders to deliberately attend to, shape, and develop their team’s cohesion. But it’s a pretty nebulous concept that is hard to grasp and conceptualize. What contributes to and influences cohesion? I want to offer a simple model of team cohesion that leaders can use to ensure cohesion productively contributes to the team’s outcomes. This model breaks cohesion down into three basic sources: task, social, and collective cohesion .
The three sources of cohesion are:
- Task cohesion: Members uniting over the shared commitment of achieving a defined team goal or objective. If members are committed to a clear and common team task or mission, they tend to bond over striving toward that end.
- Social cohesion: Positive interpersonal attraction between team members. People can bond over their enjoyment of working with others on the team through the team’s daily business.
- Collective cohesion: A shared and strong identity within the team. This is often and easily seen in military small units – Soldiers assigned to a company all unify over being “Beast Company Soldiers” for example.
Like the graphic above shows, these sources are multidimensional. Leaders must target each of these sources because certain efforts to build cohesion on the team will really only impact one, maybe two, of the sources. For example, leaders can work to improve team efficiency and work systems, which will improve task cohesion. This leads to more effective team processes and ultimately, higher team performance (outcome 1). Developing the unique bonds between team members and making daily work more enjoyable will improve the social cohesion, which leads to higher member satisfaction (outcome 2). Finally, building a strong team identity develops collective cohesion and increases team viability (outcome 3). Leaders must consider, target, and take deliberate effort to improve team cohesion across all three cohesions to build the most effective team.
A Warning on Team Cohesion. There is a dark-side to team cohesion, however, that leaders must be aware of – there can be too much cohesion. Extremely cohesive teams can fall victim to groupthink, which is when members desire team harmony or conforming (in-line with their perceived high cohesiveness) which can lead to irrational or dysfunctional decision-making and outcomes. This is why integrity and character, clarity on purpose and values (discussed further below), and leader objectivity is so important. Leaders cannot allow team cohesiveness to compromise their values, their loyalties to the larger organization(s) and customers (American people for military units), and what they know to be true and right. What if the team displays social and collective cohesion that is focused on achieving dysfunctional outcomes for the team or our broader organization and society? Leaders must ensure that the team’s norms are functional. Norms are the developed and agreed-on ways of doing routine business and how members interact with one another; this can include decision-making, brainstorming and openness to dissent or counter-perspectives, and how members treat one another or others outside of the team.
As we can see in the above graphic, leaders must balance and consider their team’s norms and cohesion. If norms are dysfunctional (not healthy or in-line with team/organization/societal values), leaders must follow the arrows’ path to achieve functional norms and high team cohesion. If we work within or lead a team with dysfunctional norms (groupthink, etc.) with high cohesion, that requires the extremely painful process of breaking team cohesion to then improve the norms. It is only after the norms are adjusted and aligned with our espoused values that leaders can begin to rebuild high team cohesion. This is a monumental challenge for leaders, essentially breaking the team up and their current social/collective bonds. However, as leaders of character who maintain loyalties to our higher values, it is absolutely necessary. This is an enduring challenge to be aware of team norms, ensuring they are healthy and functional, and taking action necessary to keep them aligned with our enduring values and collective/individual character.
Use of Power, Authority, and Influence
One of the most sensitive aspects of team dynamics is who has power, what power someone has, how they use it, and the impact it has on the team. Member status tends to become a major source of team dynamics tension that can lead to bigger issues. I assert that leaders ultimately lead through authority or through influence; I believe they are distinct and have different impacts. Leaders leverage six different bases of power  to achieve that authority or influence:
- Reward: A leader’s ability to hand out rewards formally (monetarily or with awards) or informally (recognition and appreciation).
- Punishment: Leader’s ability to hand out punishments formally (restrictions, Article 15, reprimands) or informally (public ridicule or shaming).
- Information: When one has access to, shares, withholds, interprets, or controls and uses information in ways that shape team perceptions and behaviors.
- Legitimate: Formal leadership position assigned with associated authority given by the team or larger organization. For example, regardless of who fills the position, an Army company’s commander has inherent authorities tied to the job.
- Expertise: Achieved power when others believe you have superior knowledge on a given subject and they trust your knowledge and expertise.
- Referent: Charisma and a leader’s perceived level of respect and likableness. If a leader with referent power directs the team to achieve a specific goal, the team will do so not so much because s/he said so, but because they respect the leader and want to please him/her.
I see the application of the bases of power and their impact this way for leaders:
The first four bases of power (reward, punishment, information, legitimate) are based on a formal position or role a leader is assigned; they are granted some level of authority within the organization. Positional bases of power generally achieve member compliance within the team.
However, the other two bases of power (expertise, referent) are founded on personal factors – more about who you are as a person and leader, less about what position or formal authority you have. I believe personal bases of power tend to achieve influence with others on the team, ultimately inspiring others to personally own and commit to the issue(s) at hand or your leader priorities.
In the end, leaders leverage these bases of power to achieve the three outcomes of effective teams discussed throughout this series. Regarding a specific performance measure, leaders either leverage their positional power and granted authority to get the team to simply comply, or they leverage personal power to achieve influence with their people and get members to personally identify with, care about, own, and commit to the intended task or goal. Personally, I always aim to be more of a transformational leader, trying to build close relationships with my people, achieving their trust and thus earning influence with them, and inspiring them to personally commit to what our team is trying to become and do. However, reality is this is not always possible with every person on the team. If a member is unwilling to personally commit to a specific task/goal or standard, then as a leader, I must be willing to leverage my formal authority and positional power to get them to simply comply; I am unwilling to compromise our team’s standards because a member is currently misaligned with who we are and what we do. In Army units, such mechanisms for compliance can include Article 15 boards as punishment. In time, though, I hope that by continuing to provide clear purpose, direction, and a high level of energy and motivation, I can inspire them to not simply comply, but to personally commit to our team and what we are striving to do and become.
Communicating Clarity of Purpose, Goals, and Values
In looking at our own organizational contexts now, could we confidently argue that every member clearly understands why our team or organization exists, what it does to achieve that purpose, the impact it has, and its level of success at any given time? This refers from the boss at the top of the organizational chart all the way down to floor-level workers and support staff. Moreover, is every member absolutely clear on the value of their specific role in the bigger picture and how their individual “puzzle piece” fits within the much-larger organizational “puzzle?” As we can see, our own teams may not have the clarity of purpose to understand how every activity, action, and decision supports the higher-level aims of the team. Leaders have a responsibility to communicate clarity of purpose – and to communicate it often.
In order to communicate that purpose, leaders must be clear on it themselves, which is often the first issue. Your team and you as a leader have priorities whether you have named them or not. To make your team and you effective, you need to name them and name the behaviors that support those priorities. This is often so challenging for leaders though, because in naming priorities, that inherently designates what’s NOT a priority which then assumes risk on those things. That is sometimes too scary for leaders to do. Unfortunately, then, everything ends up becoming a priority. While this series is not aimed at helping leaders become clear on their purpose and priorities, there are a lot of great resources available to help that journey to include Built to Last, by Jim Collins & Jerry I. Porras; The Military Leader’s podcast episode with BG Ross Coffman; and Creating a Purpose-Driven Organization through Harvard Business Review.
One of the most important ways that high-purpose and effective teams work is not so much about sending one big signal about team and member purpose, but through sending a handful of steady, super-clear signals aligned with that clear and shared purpose. As leaders, its actually less about inspiring others with some grand gesture and more about being consistent in the message and creating as many touchpoints as possible to communicate purpose and perspective. Clarity of purpose is not really found in a single, big speech, but more within everyday moments where people can get the sense of “this is why we work, this is what we are aiming for, and this is how my role supports that.” Clear and consistent messaging around your team’s purpose functions as a lighthouse, guiding behavior and providing a clear path toward a desired end state.
Below are some small ways that leaders can consistently communicate and reinforce a clear, shared team purpose as well as how each member’s role supports that. Ultimately, it is about keeping that clear purpose at the forefront of their mind each day as they engage in their meaningful work.
- Use every touchpoint you have with your people to use the language tied to your team’s purpose. Reference purpose and use consistent, clear language about it in every briefing or lecture you give, in your emails as much as possible, in your individual interactions with members, during your leadership by wandering around (LBWA) time, and so on.
- View every reward and punishment (back to the bases of power) through the lens of purpose and shared team values. Every reward and punishment you give your people should be presented in a way that lets the team know how that person supported (or didn’t) team purpose, goals, and values. For Army leaders, you can use Article 15 punishments to communicate how that Soldier’s actions violated the core of our team (purpose, goal, values).
- Tie evaluations to team goals and values. We cannot expect A but reward B with evaluation marks. Did this member effectively support our team’s purpose by accomplishing our goals in accordance with our values through their assigned role(s)? An evaluation should reflect that and not reward other behaviors that do not contribute to it or are not defined priorities.
- As Daniel Coyle argues in his book, The Culture Code, “focus on bar-setting behaviors: one challenge of building purpose is to translate abstract ideas (values, mission) into concrete terms. One way successful groups do this is by spotlighting a single task and using it to define their identity and set the bar for their expectations.”
Finally, as we can sense, leaders must communicate purpose a lot to truly be effective in achieving team clarity on that purpose. To do this well as a leader, I’ve found that if you’ve become sick and tired of talking about and messaging your team’s and members’ purpose, you’re really about halfway there.
On Diagnosing & Improving Your Team
After addressing important team culture artifacts and interpersonal dynamics, we will conclude the Shared Leadership Series looking at the GRPI Model of team development. It is a simple and highly-relevant way to look at how to diagnose team effectiveness and target necessary areas of development. Many of the culture and dynamics components discussed over this series are captured within and support this model that we discuss in the final part.
 Overbeck, J. R. & Page, K. E. (2018). The dynamics of power and influence: Understanding where power comes from and how to use it. In Smith, Swain, Brazil, Cornwell, Britt, Bond, Eslinger, and Eljdid (Eds.), West Point leadership. New York, NY: Rowan Technology Solutions.
 Bullis, C. & Eslinger, N. (2018). Developing cohesive teams. In Smith, Swain, Brazil, Cornwell, Britt, Bond, Eslinger, and Eljdid (Eds.), West Point leadership. New York, NY: Rowan Technology Solutions.
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