I recently had a junior leader that I mentor in my office visibly distraught over the lack of perceived change and growth that had occurred within his 130-person team since he took responsibility of leading them some 20 weeks prior. He laid out his efforts up to that point of raising performance and expectation standards, holding members accountable, and doing what he could to explain the intent behind the team’s efforts and priorities. However, he felt that no one on the team was buying in to his efforts, committing, or even caring. He believed he was doing everything right – what he could and needed to do to improve the team through his efforts – but growth was not occurring.
As this leader spoke, I knew his intentions were in the right place and he cared deeply. Yet, as I continued to listen, I couldn’t help but think back to two foundational ideas that heavily influence my leadership style and intentions; there were certainly at play in his scenario:
“People buy into the leader before they buy into the vision.” – John C. Maxwell
“People are interested in those who are interested in them.”
I believed this leader was facing a challenge to many of us at some stage. The challenge is that in an effort to build effective teams, leaders unintentionally overlook the personal, human-dimension of cohesion; we see team members for the value they bring to the team and fail to simply see them as human beings who have worth no matter what. We unfortunately have a limited view of what defines an effective team and the full range of team cohesion sources that feed into it. So, to build effective teams of committed people that last, leaders need to start with a people-first mentality and fully understand what team cohesion actually is.
Defining an Effective Team
Leaders don’t build team cohesion for the sake to build cohesion. It is a critical factor that directly shapes team effectiveness – we cultivate cohesion to build effective teams. So, before we can explore cohesion, we must first understand what makes a team effective. We can measure team effectiveness by three core outputs :
- Performance: Teams are assembled and exist to meet the basic need to get results; this is why teams within organizations and business exist.
- Team Member Satisfaction: The degree that people enjoy being on the team. This can include feelings of purpose, fulfillment, and/or enjoyment by being associated with and working in the team.
- Team Viability: The team’s ability to survive and succeed long-term. It’s easy to push a team to burnout for immediate results for a short period. It is a much different, and harder, thing to sustain a team’s success for long, consistent periods of time.
The Role of Cohesion
At it’s most basic core, cohesion is the collective bonds that draw and then keep people together on a team. But cohesion is such an intangible thing, which makes it hard to observe, measure, and thus cultivate. Our preferred model to make sense of team cohesion is by defining three basic sources . This model is easily layered on top of the team effectiveness model, where each source of cohesion directly impacts an output of team effectiveness:
- Task Cohesion: Members uniting around a clear, shared task or goal. Usually this is the purpose of the team – to accomplish a mission or task – so members tend to bond over the collective efforts to achieve that common goal.
- Social Cohesion: Members bond over a sense of enjoyment in working with one another; they find the daily process of working together positive and fulfilling.
- Collective Cohesion: Members bond together around a shared team identity. Whether it is a team name, mascot, or belief system (values, etc.), members unite together over pride in those things.
Considered together, team cohesion and effectiveness look like this:
When assessing this model and referring back to the opening challenge, we notice that many leaders tend to focus on task cohesion. Sometimes this is the initial or primary cohesion focus, but it can also often be the sole focus. Again, this is the basic point of the team and the most easily measured output. Collective cohesion tends to be a common second in leader efforts for development and attention to build pride and ownership within the team. However, the social source of cohesion largely goes ignored and overlooked within teams, or, at best, given “hand wave” efforts from leaders of those teams.
The point of this model is to show that all three effectiveness outputs and, thus, all three sources of cohesion are necessary. We cannot cultivate a truly effective and cohesive team without all three. So, while team member satisfaction and social cohesion often go ignored within teams, we argue that leaders need to pour into placing people first. This blind spot leads to sizeable lost opportunity to create a truly cohesive and effective team.
Earn the Right
There is an essential leader dynamic in placing people first to develop this often-ignored source of cohesion and team effectiveness output that we must explore further: genuinely caring for those on your team.
The idea of team is synonymous with trust and cohesion. In leveraging our model for trust, it is a function of competence, character, and care.
Moreover, feedback is a basic and critical mechanism to build team accountability and ultimately performance. We view feedback as a signal from one team member to another of “truth in love.” By sharing feedback, I am showing you that, “I love you and I love our team. I want to see both get better. Thus, there is some ‘truth’ that we should talk about to do that.” In this feedback message, love equals care.
Now, by including these foundations of trust and feedback, below is our complete model for team effectiveness, which also includes the “people first critical path” to attend to our oft ignored team blind spots.
If genuinely caring for others is this important as a leader in order to place people first, what is care? What does it look like in our leader behavior?
Knowing Our 3 Layers of Care
At the sake of overburdening you with another model, we want to offer one final graphic to help us make sense of the ideas of caring for others and placing people first. This represents the three layers of what leaders commonly care about regarding people.
If we polled a sample of leaders, regardless of industry or level, by asking, “What do you value most about the people on your team?”, we believe the most common response would center around the team’s identity and performance – the top layer of the ‘caring pyramid.’ Leaders would most often describe the tight-knit family culture, the results they’ve achieved over the last quarter or year, or how hard they work through ceaseless hours with consistently high output. From this most-common type of response, we hear a lot about team performance, task cohesion, and some collective cohesion.
Then, if we were to follow that question up by asking, “What else do you value?”, we sense that the next common response would be descriptions of the most high performing members. This response, however, is not about the actual person, but about the work they produce. The value would be tied around a member’s role, position, rank, or particular value they bring to the team – but nothing really about the actual person. Again, this response emphasizes performance and task cohesion, and makes up the middle layer of the pyramid.
Finally, if we were to ask that question one more time, “What else do you value?”, we think we would begin to receive deer-in-the-headlights looks from them as they struggle to provide another viable response, maybe responding back to us with, “What do you mean?” Here in lies the challenge that we are targeting in this argument – leaders not truly valuing and caring for the people on their team. Hence, we introduce the third and most foundational layer of the ‘caring pyramid’: human-being.
Too many leaders are not valuing their team members first and foremost as human beings who have worth. While this oversight is unintentional (we know invested leaders are not intentionally refusing to care for their people), the impacts are real. Without fully and genuinely caring for our people first as people, we cannot begin to action our people-first critical path of social cohesion and team member satisfaction on the team. No one can be satisfied on the team if they are not fully seen and valued for who they are. We all bring identities, passions, insecurities, challenges, and life with us to work. We, as leaders, must attend to these needs as well, not merely focusing on the common themes of team performance, task cohesion, and collective identity. We refer to Lindsey’s (our 3×5 Leadership’s financial manager) sweatshirt, which reads, “Your worth is not measured by your productivity.”
5 Simple Ways to Place People First
If we’ve unintentionally ignored valuing, pouring into, and placing people first on our teams, there is hope! There are small habits that we can start now to help begin building these important dynamics of our team that have gone untapped. To close, we wish to offer the ‘so what’ by providing five simple things leaders can do to value, care for, and place people first as human beings.
- Names: We can start by simply knowing peoples’ first and last name. This is a common challenge in the military, where members are typically referred to by rank and last name or, worse, just last name. While it aims to maintain professional boundaries, just showing that you know your team members’ first and last names can go a long way to demonstrate that you care about them as a person, not simply a rank and position.
- Know Personal Basics: Next, take the effort to know personal basic information like birthday and family names (spouse, kids, etc.). Celebrate birthdays, even with a simple hand-written card. Ask about family and use their names when talking about them. Avoid vaguely asking “how’s the family,” or “How’s your husband?” While well-intentioned, that is a lazy effort. But again, merely knowing that information goes a long way. We’ve actually experienced bosses who didn’t know or remember our spouses’ names, and worse…referred to our spouse by the wrong name! While we don’t take that personally, it definitely does not help cultivate a sense of belonging and being cared for.
- Engage on Hobbies & Events: We all have passions and interests outside of work, which we naturally would love to talk about to anyone willing to listen! While we may not know anything about hobbies like fly fishing or bread making, we do know how to ask questions about them and listen to people excitedly share about it. See if we can become aware of a few basic hobbies, interests, or major events (like a competition) our team members are interested in. These can be great conversation starters and a way to show interest in them outside of work (reference quote in the introduction above about being interested in others).
- Know & Support Professional Passions Beyond the Team: Most people have professional goals and dreams beyond our current job – it’s reality. We challenge leaders to be willing to learn about and then support peoples’ goals. What is the harm? They may leave our team, sure. But is that worse than having an unengaged member on our team due to unfulfilled dreams? We have yet to experience any form of regret by supporting people on their professional journeys to achieve their passions. Who are we to judge what the “right” professional goals or dreams are for people?
- Use One-on-One Time: This idea is predicated on the assumption that we are in fact spending one-on-one time with our team members even semi-routinely, like developmental counseling, feedback sessions, etc. During those sessions, we encourage you to commit a decent portion of time to talk about the person and updates on all of the above things mentioned (family, hobbies, recent significant events, professional goals, etc.). Don’t glaze over these as required small talk to open the conversation and check the block. Dedicate time, attention, and questions to exploring these genuinely. Take notes. Remember the things you discuss. During our initial meetings with new members of our teams, in fact, we typically spend 90% of that first session solely focused on those topics about the person so we can gain a full understanding of and appreciation for who they truly are.
 Smith, D. R. & Young, L. V. (2018). Team dynamics and effectiveness. 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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