What really makes a supportive, purposeful team?

The secret behind positive teamwork is fostering a supportive team dynamic. Microsoft and IDEO’s new ‘Art of Teamwork’ report reveals how this will drive innovation and business success.

by John Stern
Last Updated: 24 Mar 2020

Businesses are facing increasingly complex and unpredictable challenges. Tackling them – now and tomorrow – will involve unlocking the potential in others and embracing differences, both cultural and personal.

As a result, developing, nurturing and motivating high-performing, cohesive teams is vital. What can you do to achieve a positive team dynamic?

Team purpose

For people to be inspired, happy and deliver the right results there needs to be more to their working lives than the monthly pay slip. In sporting teams, the broader purpose is often clear and fundamental. “Teamwork is about coming together... for one positive impact, one really strong purpose, and really fighting to death for that purpose,” says Tayyiba Haneef-Park, a former USA volleyball player and three-times Olympian.

In the workplace, that singular purpose may not always be so obvious, especially in the face of a particularly complex challenge, but it’s important to develop a shared meaning that keeps teams focused, fulfilled and aligned towards achieving their objectives and common goals.

A great example are the fishmongers at Seattle’s Pike Place Market, who turn the mundane process of selling fish into performance art. Hefty salmon and trout are flung between the fishmongers accompanied by smiles, yelps and guffaws. Happy customers and happy workers.

“When you’re contributing to something bigger than yourself – like making people happy – it’s motivating because you’re doing something for a larger purpose,” says Taho Kakutani, a fishmonger at Pike Place for 15 years.

Collective identity

A shared sense of belonging builds cohesion and helps teams work as one. A successful team forms a collective identity by aligning around shared values, creating agreements that are revisited and bonding through shared experiences and practising rituals that are uniquely theirs.

Farnaz Fassihi is an award-winning war correspondent and former Baghdad bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. Her team contained Americans and both Sunni and Shia Iraqis. The emotional turmoil of war-time life made collaboration nearly impossible but Fassihi had to find a way to bring people together.

“I say: ‘Let’s just start the day by telling each other about what happened in your community. What are your concerns? What are your anxieties?’ I feel confronting the tension is a really good way to overcome it, and to get them to see each other as friends and colleagues rather than rivals and enemies. “I made sure that I visited [Iraqi team members’] homes and had meals with their families, and I brought them gifts and remembered children’s birthdays...

I made sure they understood that we really look at them as equal team members, and in a sense that we were all a family.” One way to start building a collective identity is through a ‘team quotes’ board, which will capture the team’s personality and humour. The resulting stories can be told as part of a ritual connected to team meetings.

Awareness and inclusion

An understanding of self and others enables teams to navigate interpersonal dynamics and foster inclusion.

Helen Wilson is Microsoft’s Director of Modern Workplace – Customer Success in the UK, enabling their customers to realise the value of their investment as they digitally transform. When she took the role of diversity and inclusion lead for her business segment, she shared a very personal story as a way to promote the importance of inclusion.

“My son Tommy was excluded from school for most of his teenage years and he was 18 before he was diagnosed with dyslexia,” she explains. “His self-worth was extremely low. I was and still am on first name terms with the former chief inspector at Thames Valley Police! Thankfully for different reasons now. When Tommy was 20, he joined a company that recognised his raw talent. At 25 he had the opportunity to open their Manchester office. I want to be like that organisation – I want to hire great people, show them the Microsoft ‘ropes’ and then step out of their way and watch them fly.” Wilson says she presents this story – which she compiled with Tommy’s help and blessing – to customers and is “amazed by the discussions that follow”.

Another example is Alex Grishaver, who has been a search-and-rescue lead in Northern California for five years. On one particular occasion he was in charge of leading the technical rope exercise but didn’t feel right. “I didn’t sleep at all the night before,” he says. “We have a rating system for risk, one being low and 10 being high. That day I said I was at level five, which is not good.”

He was moving slowly, giving inaccurate directions and slipping up. His team-mate Fred pulled him aside and asked how he felt. Fred asked Alex if he’d like him to take over. At first Alex felt “agitated and a little demoralised”. But he knew it was the best thing to do. By practising this interpersonal awareness, which in turn helps to create an inclusive, ‘safe-space’ working culture, Alex and Fred had averted a potentially dangerous situation. Properly mastered, situational, emotional and self-awareness are powerful skills that let team members take a breath, evaluate objectively and push forward with a new understanding, trust and respect for each other.

Trust and vulnerability

The virtuous circle of trust and vulnerability establishes psychological safety in a team. Team members who feel psychologically safe are able to take greater interpersonal risks, which in turn allows innovative ideas to flourish.

But how do you build that trust? Maybelle Kou is the residents’ program director at the INOVA medical simulation centre, which trains doctors in handling life-or-death situations. “We create an environment where doctors can make mistakes without fear of repercussions. That’s an oxymoron in medicine where you’re expected to be perfect, but humans make mistakes.”

Regularly practising vulnerability at work invites other teammates to also let down their guards, creating space for the best ideas to be shared. Wilson was moved and surprised by a conversation between team members on their digital chat tool. “When the Joker movie came out, there was a really open conversation about mental health on my team’s chat,” she explains. “It was wonderful to see how openly they were prepared to be with each other on that kind of subject. You can only do that if you have trust.”

Constructive tension

Tension is often seen as destructive but used constructively, it can harness differences within teams and accelerate innovation. In addition, teams that value diversity tend to perform better for the simple reason that more diverse ways of thinking means more ideas and viewpoints.

However, diversity means so much more than gender, ethnicity or upbringing. All teams need cognitive diversity – a variety of ways of thinking and perceiving – that naturally breeds tension. “You build muscle around recognising tension,” Wilson says: “Our customers will have their own conflicting priorities, for example between IT and business. Having tensions and differences in our own team allows us to practise for our customers. It’s all about the dialogue.

“I want to be inspired by my leader to do my absolute best for Microsoft and my team want that from me. I’m proud to work for a strong leader.”

Read the full report at aka.ms/artofteamworkuk

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

A mini case study in horizon scanning

Swissgrid has instituted smart risk management systems for spotting things that could go wrong before...

Interview ghosting: Stop treating job seekers like bad dates

Don’t underestimate the business impact of a simple rejection letter.

5 avoidable corporate disasters

And the lessons to learn from them.

Dressing to impress: One for the dustbin of history?

Opinion: Businesswomen are embracing comfort without sacrificing impact. Returning to the office shouldn't change that....

How to motivate people from a distance

Recognising success in a remote or hybrid environment requires a little creativity, says Insight SVP...

What pushy fish can teach you about influence at work

Research into marine power struggles casts light on the role of influence and dominant bosses...