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Collaboration and the Team - Fundamental Unit of Adaptive Organization

Recently, reflecting on the frightening degree to which human beings have become polarized across a wide variety of issues, I remembered an experience of years ago.

As we flew into the very remote community of Kalaupapa, I considered the many reasons why people afflicted with Hansen’s Disease (formerly called leprosy) might be difficult to deal with. I had been contracted to conduct a class on “dealing with difficult people” for the staff of Kalaupapa, the Hansen’s disease colony where patients had been exiled in the days before a cure had been discovered. It seems that conflicts among the staff had become an increasing concern. About half of the staff were also patients.

As I entered the training room the participants were all sitting in the back three rows with their arms crossed, glaring at their desks, clearly unhappy at the idea that they were to spend a whole day in class with a haole (white) psychologist from O’ahu. This is a common game played in Hawaii in training settings, leaving the front rows empty as a silent protest. Realizing that this could be the beginning of a very bad day, I took a radical approach. I set up my materials in the back of the room and proceeded to lecture to their backs. When they looked back at me, glaring, I said “No way you are going to get away with the ‘sitting in the back of the room game’.” This made some of them laugh, a little.

So I moved to the front and leaving them to them sit where they wanted to, and then asked them to begin with an exercise. “This is a class on dealing with difficult people. Close your eyes and think of the specific difficult people that you have trouble dealing with. Now, open your eyes and look around the room.” Now they really started laughing, realizing that they were all those difficult people. Then I asked them to consider what it was that made them a difficult person.

The answer really surprised me. I thought it would be something to do with having a degenerative disease and being isolated at Kalaupapa. Not so, the problem they all had was that the lease of the facility from the State of Hawaii was coming up for renegotiation, and the various employees, some Federal, some State, and some County were at odds with each other, and they had no common entity which could negotiate on their behalf.

This dialogue had taken us to lunch time. I then asked, “This is a class on dealing with difficult people. We now know why you are difficult. We have a half a day left. What do you want to do with it? Somebody said, “Let’s form a community association and make a plan for negotiating our lease.” And they did.

Perhaps the most significant invention in history is the organization. Working together, it seems almost any problem is solvable. But when we are faced with a challenge that evokes our defenses, our first reaction tends to be defensive, suspicious, and even hostile. It seems to take an intentional act to shift from the reaction to defend to the response of collaboration.

We may be entering a new phase of human history- driven by need. The complexity and scale of the challenges we face to our very existence, let alone our way of life- demands much higher levels of collaboration among individuals, organizations, institutions, and nations. The need is driven by climate change, global pandemics, and the impact of those crises on our societies and economies. If we do not become masters of collaboration, we may not survive.

Steve Taylor in his book The Fall, presents a fascinating synthesis of anthropological findings that suggests that the rise of “ego consciousness” as a dominant feature of human life began about 6000 years ago with a series of environmental desertification disasters around the world. His thesis is that the challenges presented by these disasters cultivated and selected for human beings in which the competitive ego was highly developed.

Previous peoples, indigenous people who still exist in some places lived much closer to the earth. For them, the natural world was intensely alive and captivating. The earth was considered sacred, and it appears widespread war and the suppression of women were not common features of life in that time. The rise of the ego dominated human being has given us science, the arts, our current culture for better or for worse. It is marked by a feverish intellectual competitiveness and a strong tendency to solve the problems of growth and conflict through competition and by going to war against our neighbors.

On a local level I see my clients consistently presented with problems that require increased degrees of internal and external collaboration. A current example is the crisis Hawai’i faces as our primary industry; hospitality has been derailed. We desperately need to create new industries, businesses, employment that matches our cost of living, and is less destructive to the environment. One of the biggest obstacles to diversification of our economy has been a lack of trained people to staff these new industries. There is a potential system, already in place in Hawaii called “Career Pathways.” I say potential system because what exists is a wide variety of organizations in the government and non-profit sectors which already receive significant funding to help prepare people for new employment. But the system is significantly under-performing, and inadequate to meet our current needs.

This potential system includes the State Department of Education, University of Hawaii at Manoa, the Community Colleges, and the American Job Centers. Each of these entities contains resources that can be aligned to create a pathway to develop trained workers. The system has for instance produced CNA’s for the healthcare system and financial advisors for the banking industry. This potential system is designed to be driven by business sector partnerships which identify the job types that are required by their industry, and then the other elements of Career Pathways can engage to provide training, beginning even in our high schools and then continued through the community colleges and, ultimately the University of Hawaii at Manoa if appropriate.

What is required is for a business sector to become organized enough that it can identify a job type based on a plan for that industry’s future, and then to engage with the other elements of Career Pathways. Here is where the required collaboration falls apart. So far there is insufficient collaboration in the business sectors to drive the system as a customer. And second, the various organizations that comprise the potential elements of Career Pathways tend to each go their own way. There is no overarching, organizing entity which connects one part of Career Pathways to the other parts. There is no one who has ultimate authority and responsibility over this potential system, and as such an essential potential asset for Hawai’i’s future is not really engaged, and seriously underperforming.

This is not an uncommon pattern in the organizational world. Collaboration requires the hard work of understanding the perspectives of other people with whom we need to collaborate, the willingness to sacrifice some control over our “own” entity, and the persistence to keep at the work of creating collaborative structures that integrate the work of different units and organizations in a common pursuit.

I want to share a perspective on why collaboration is so difficult and then explain how the use of teams can cultivate the competency of collaboration in an organization. What has really amazed me is how difficult collaboration is for human beings. It does not come to us naturally. To understand why this is, it is necessary to define the word. I think of collaboration as the deepest of four kinds of relationship:





When asked about the challenges they face as part of an organizational assessment, people almost always cite the same one-word problem: communication. If there is dysfunction in an organization, it is a guarantee that there are people not talking to each other productively. Sometimes the greatest difficulty in solving a problem is to get the right people in the same room saying what they really mean and listening to each other.

If they come to understand each other a bit, they might move on to the second level by coordinating their activities, which basically means working in a way that involves some thought about how what they do impacts others. This is the beginning of the idea that other people, internal or external are our customers, that we may owe them something as we do our work.

I have encountered significant levels of resistance to this idea. The idea that we owe somebody something, that we need to meet their standards, requires that we see things from their point of view, and this is not something the ego mind likes. I have come to see that there are two kinds of human beings: those that can and are willing to see things from another’s point of view, and those who are not.

This shift to seeing “we” instead of “me” can be very irritating to the ego and is only worth it if some other part of us, something deeper and higher recognizes the value of making that shift. This shift is the beginning of the idea of synergy and interdependence. Here we consider the possibility that, if we work together properly, we might get better outcomes more easily.

If this work continues, we may get to the next level: cooperation, which is more than just thinking about the activities of another and adjusting the timing or some other feature of our work. With cooperation, there is more real time consideration of how my work impacts the work of others. With cooperation I periodically adjust and improve how I do what I do to improve our common work. When we cooperate, we talk to each other more, solve problems more together, and even make some decisions together.

Collaboration goes much deeper. In order to collaborate, two individuals or units or organizations must change, often significantly, how they work in order to create a new way of working that is significantly more effective. With collaboration we seek much higher levels of synergy. With this new way of working there is an increased level of interdependence and need to change. Here we encounter four of the big reasons why collaboration does not succeed.

1. We may not believe that collaboration will produce valuable synergy. We may not believe it will produce any value at all. And sometimes the work of collaboration is not worth the potential value.

2. We may not trust our potential collaborators to be able to or to be willing to do their part consistently.

3. We may not want to change how we work. Thinking beyond the boundaries of “my job” is more work, harder work, and we may not want to put in the added effort.

4. And the big one is, we do not want to give up our sense of control.

Learning to collaborate is not an easy thing for people, it does not come naturally. We have to overcome the tendencies of our ego, learn to trust and to value what comes when we become a wholehearted part of a greater whole.

From “Me” to “We”

It is important to recognize that people go through a developmental process to become effective collaborators and team members. This process is clearly described by Dave Logan, John King, & Halee Fischer-Wright in their book “Tribal Leadership”. They provide an excellent model that describes the transition that people go through from dysfunctional separation to integrated team member.

Tribal Leadership Stages

Stage Mood Theme

1 Despairing Hostility “Life sucks”

2 Apathetic Victim “My life sucks”

3 Lone Warrior “I ‘me great (and you’re not)”

4 Tribal Pride “We’re great (and they’re not)”

5 Innocent Wonderment “Life is great!”

This really is a brilliant model. It depicts the stages a person goes through from being a dysfunctional misfit at stage 1 to an effective team player at stage 5. We know that the person whose life script revolves around the idea that life sucks is not somebody we want working with us. It is actually an improvement when they realize that it is their life that sucks.

Then they have to get over feeling like a victim and get their act together. If they succeed in finding a role and becoming effective at it, they graduate to where their script is “I’m great and you’re not”. This tells us a lot about the role of the ego. The ego can actually help us get our life in order to some degree. It will do that in order to feel superior. Many of the features of organization are designed to engage the ego and provide it a game that it can excel at.

We give it a job description, we hopefully keep score somehow, we give it feedback, we give it acknowledgement, we give it compensation. Our organizations are built to engage the ego to get people disciplined enough to fit in productively with the organization.

“I ‘me great and you’re not”, however as an attitude does not create a person who is much good to work with. A purely ego driven person is a pain to work with, and in general, they create a lot of management issues. They are high maintenance. So, we want to get to the next level which is “We’re great and they are not”. Unfortunately, sometimes this “we” takes the form of a clique inside a group, in which case the “they” are people in their own work group. This is where team building comes in. In working as a team, we learn to work together with a common purpose. We learn to see things from another’s point of view, we learn to make sacrifices for the good of the team.

The interesting thing is the ego dynamic does not go away. Often, we find one effective team in an organization, let us say a sales team, complaining that they are great, and the service team is not. Or the team of employees is great, and management is not. The work of level 4 is first about developing a viable, functional “we” with a work team, and then expanding the “we” to include other people and teams that are part of a common process or system. Ultimately the goal is to get to where the “we” includes all of the people that must work together in a common purpose.

Anyone who has worked on themselves or tried to help others change knows that these changes, from one level of “Tribal Leadership” to the next is not easy. These changes involve a shift in world view and self-perception and require persistence, and work on oneself. The shifts from level three to four is most publicly played out in with the “star player” who must learn to work as part of a team. Some stars just cannot make that shift. It all has to be about them. I have seen this same dynamic repeatedly in the world of work with the star player who is often a strong salesperson, business developer, or deal maker. The organization comes to believe they cannot function without this person, and they cut them more and more slack, exempt them from more and more organizational requirements and boundaries until they become source of dissonance and disruption. Quite often, after finally terminating such a person, the remaining people find that they can function even better without the star and are very relieved to have them gone.

So how do people learn the discipline of collaboration? In my experience, the best way is to learn to be part of a team. In a team we learn to commit to a common purpose, we learn to accept our individual accountability and our boundaries. We learn communicate, we learn what our strengths are and how to contribute them, and we learn what our weaknesses are and how to engage others to compensate.

The Fastest Road to Collaboration

Over my 40 years in the organization development business, I have seen a variety of methods developed to improve organizational functioning, there have been Quality Circles, Total Quality Management, Self-Managed Teams, Six Sigma, Organizational Redesign, and the Agile approach to implementation. The one thing they all have in common is the use of teams. Why teams?

It seems that teams of up to nine or so people are a natural unit of collaboration for human beings. The challenge is to reconcile the value of diversity with the need for coherence. The effectiveness of the team depends on the degree of coherence achieved in integrating the diverse human qualities required. This dynamic can be observed within an individual. An individual who is internally coherent is more successful in life- they are not fighting themselves, and they appear to others as having integrity and trustworthiness. Similarly, coherence is essential in creating an effective team. The purpose of a team is integrating the people who have the different qualities and orientations required for a common mission.

We build organizations in order to harness more people to a common purpose and gain the advantages of scale and complementarity. As the world has become increasingly complex and work more specialized, this value has increased. Complementarity provides the possibility of engaging people with different competencies and orientations to a common pursuit.

This means that potential conflict is built into any well-designed team. The challenge to the team leader is to make that conflict productive. And there is a valuable by product of working in a team. We learn how to be a good team member. We learn how to collaborate. We learn to see from another’s point of view, we learn to adjust our behavior to fit team norms, we learn when to lead and when to follow, and we get to see the magic that is possible, working in a fully functional team.

The need for coherence in diversity only increases as organizations grow. The larger the organization, the greater the likelihood of separation, alienation, anonymity, and lack of productive relationship required for success. In my experience this dynamic plays itself out at three levels of functionality.

1. At the lowest level, there is chaos. The forces within the individual, or the self-oriented urges of individuals on a team or in an organization play out unrestrained by structure, discipline, or shared purpose resulting in a devastating waste of energy, time, and resources.

2. At the next level, individual self-interest is harnessed in pursuit of a common goal, there is more productive use of energy, time, and resources, but conflict abounds, between labor and management, between high producers and low producers, between sales and service, across any major boundary of diversity in the team or organization.

3. At higher levels of performance whether individual, team or organization, the diversity present is integrated in a consistently coherent focus on the mission and conditions required for success.

In my experience, the best way to evolve from level one to level three is through the use of the team structure. The team structure provides a concrete and flexible mechanism to effect change and improvement. Focusing on the individual is too small a unit and focusing on the organization as a whole is too unwieldy to affect change in something as complex as collaboration.

Networks of Teams in Times of Crisis

As we face a time which is present an escalating series of crises, it is more important than ever to learn to create adaptive organizations. McKinsey recently published an article entitled: To weather a crisis, build a network of teams April 8, 2020.

In it they argue:

In this rapidly changing environment, your people need to respond with urgency, without senior executives and traditional governance slowing things down. Waiting to decide, or even waiting for approval, is the worst thing they can do. Yet some level of coordination across teams and activities is crucial for your organization’s response to be effective. How do you do this? How do you accomplish the seemingly impossible?

The answer: create a robust network of teams that is empowered to operate outside of the current hierarchy and bureaucratic structures of the organization.

To do this they recommend four steps:

1. Launch teams fast and build as you go. Build the teams around strategic priorities, expect that the teams will evolve, teams will be changed, added, and disbanded as you progress. Create a network around a central hub team that enables shared learning and coherent decision making. McKinsey recommends including two teams in particular: an intelligence team whose job it is to make sure the network has a current and accurate level of situational awareness, and a planning- ahead team, which works through a variety of scenarios for navigating the crisis. Teams should be small, cross functional and should be led by team leads who are good at troubleshooting, are action oriented and willing to make tough, potentially unpopular decisions.

2. Get out of the way but stay connected. As the network of teams grows it is essential that leaders keep the teams connected and empowered. This means pushing decision making to the teams while staying connected enough to ensure that decisions are made based on the proper criteria and made at the right level. This may involve a daily check in stand-up meeting with team leads.

3. Champion radical transparency and authenticity. The style of leadership employed is as important as the content. It is essential to foster an environment of collaboration, transparency, and psychological safety. In a recent study of team effectiveness at Google it was discovered that one of the most significant determinants of team success was the degree to which each member felt safe to say what was on their mind.

4. Turbocharge self-organization. As the number of teams and people involved increases, a healthy network begins to organize itself around more critical relationships. Even though the network may be large, each individual may only be dealing with a small number of teams and individuals. The authors point out that, at this stage it is important for the central hub to avoid behaving like a bureaucracy. The purpose of the crisis response network is to respond to the crisis, not redesign or operate the company.

We live in a time of unprecedented crisis at virtually every level of human society. And at the same time, we have tools for communicating, coordinating, sharing learning, and working together in teams that have never before existed. The decision we have to make is, are we willing to take up the creative challenge of harnessing the disruption of crisis to an intelligent reinvention of how we live and work. Teams are an essential tool for succeeding in meeting this challenge.

The Tribal Roots of Team Structure

As we set out to create a network of teams, there are some fundamental limits that are worth considering. The first is what has come to be called “the Magic Number Seven Plus or Minus Two”, and the other is “Dunbar’s Number” which is 150. The Magic Number Seven refers to limits on human memory described by George A. Miller. I first recognized this limit noticing that I very seldom received any inquiries from client organizations that had less than ten or more members. Something changes at around ten people. The old way of working together begins to break down, and the organization must find new ways to communicate and coordinate their work. I have come to believe that this is a manifestation of this Magic Number Seven. This limit can be observed in meeting dynamics. Meetings that include nine or less people tend to be more evenly participative. Beyond seven, the tendency for some people to dominate the discussion, and for others to remain silent increase. This creates a medium in which active and passive manipulation are more likely, and the healthy interpersonal dynamics which are based on trust begin to degrade.

Dunbar’s Number (150 people) represents the upper limit on the number of stable relationships that human beings appear able to manage. Dunbar’s number has been put to use, for instance by Gore Corporation which limited the number of parking stalls in its business units to 150 cars in order to limit their growth beyond 150. Gore is seeking to build business units that have minimal organizational layers and maximal integration that supports product development and organization effectiveness.

According to Peter Marsh, these limits appear to be rooted in out primeval past.

The principal difference between the earliest hominids and their primate ancestors was that they ate flesh. As time passed, meat was increasingly obtained through hunting rather than through scavenging. As the early hunter's ambitions increased and his typical prey became larger, there evolved a pattern of cooperative behavior within small groups: a band of 6-8 males could trap and kill much more effectively together than could the same number of hunters acting as individuals.

The hunting band was an effective, adaptive solution to the survival and development of a partly carnivorous species. A group of 6-8 hunting males implied a typical band size of about 25, including women and children. However, while this unit could provide for efficient hunting, it was too small for social and reproductive stability. For example, simply to ensure a balance between the rates of birth of boys and girls - essential when a band relied on the activities of male hunters - a larger unit of social organization was required. The ideal population of such a unit seems to have settled at about 500 men, women, and children. And so, emerged the tribe, typically embracing 20 hunting bands, each consisting of about six families. (Tribes p.9)

Marsh also makes note that keeping a tribe of upwards of 350-500 people appears to require that the tribe be at war with another tribe. As Desmond Morris says in his foreword to the book “Tribes”:

Man is a tribal animal. We must fully appreciate this fact if we are to understand one of the most important facets of human nature. To ignore it or deny it – as so many priests and politicians do, - is to court disaster. The tribal qualities of the human species color almost every aspect of our social lives. They are so basic to us that, were we ever to lose them, it would mean we have mutated into another species altogether. (Tribes/p.6)

Morris goes on to describe the roots of tribalism in the grooming, hunting and food sharing behavior of our monkey ancestors. These behaviors, he believes linked through active cooperation as the primary means whereby groups of monkeys could subdue larger animals and thereby access the high protein diet which fueled the evolutionary process which led to “man, the hunter”. Along this journey, primates became larger, became bipedal, meaning they could then carry weapons, and prey. The prey could be carried “home”, which meant there was a home, where females and young lived in relative safety. This led to a division of labor, and differing personality dynamics between males and females. Males, for instance becoming more risk oriented, inclined toward roaming in a pack, and perceptually “targeting” other beings for the purposes of hunting or procreation in a “gang like” manner.

Organizing the “Whole”

In the business of refining organization, we have these two limits to work with. The lower unit limit of around nine people, and the upper limit of the whole organization that the members are expected to integrate with from 150 to 300 people. This means the fundamental unit of adaptive organization is around nine people and we can then consider the various models for organizing the whole organization.

The unit of the “whole” has historically been significant for human beings. Originally this unit was the tribe, which then became the company which people would devote their lives to and work at until retirement. Human beings have a strong need to identify with a social grouping about which they have a positive attitude. This identification shows up in political party affiliation, church membership, devotion to sports teams, schools, and fraternal organizations. We very much want to be a part of something positive which is greater than ourselves.

With the dissolution of the corporate contract, when workers no longer believed the organization would take care of them until retirement, workers became increasingly dis-identified with their employer, resulting in the current tendency to job hop from one employer to the other in search of greener grass.

At the same time, production sharing and the globalization of businesses resulted in a far more complex context within which workers might identify with their organization. The most common term we hear in the world of work these days is “employee engagement”. We want to rebuild the bond between individual and organization in order to create an environment where people can do their best work, be productive, well supported and experience fulfillment. The magic number seven and Dunbar’s number suggests that in cultivating this engagement we need to focus people on their immediate work group, and through some form of team structure create more productive, supportive team relationships in a network of teams.

There are many types of teams:

1. Project teams work together to complete a specific project that has a defined end point.

2. Process teams execute a series of tasks which enable the smooth functioning of a particular process.

3. Problem-solving teams are usually temporary, frequently cross-functional, and focus on solving a specific problem.

4. Cross-functional team are composed of experts from various functional areas and work cooperatively towards some organizational goal such as improving coordination of interdependent activities between specialized subunits.

5. Design teams, usually made up of a cross functional group of people who design or redesign an approach to a defined opportunity or challenge.

6. Leadership teams made up of the heads of the units that report up to the overall team lead.

7. Self-managed teams: these types of teams are the most empowered, as they have to power to make decisions, with little or no status differences among team members.

8. Virtual teams are usually geographically spread apart and can be any type of team that communicates digitally rather than in person. Electronic communication tools allow managers to build teams based on strengths and weaknesses rather than geography and accommodate new workstyles such as telecommuting.

9. Crisis response teams as described in the McKinsey article.

Team Design

Often people at work call themselves a team, but on close inspection it becomes clear that they are not. The definition of a team is a group of people working collaboratively together to accomplish a common purpose. The concept of “team” comes from sports, and in sports we know there is always a defined “game”. If there is no game, there is no sport and there is no team. This is a statement of the obvious, but it is common to encounter people in the workplace who have no idea what game they are playing. And it shows in their work.

James Shonk studied teams of all kinds and identified five factors that must be considered in designing and building an effective team:

Shared Vision and Purpose – the Game

Meaningful Goals – the Scoreboard

Complementary Roles - the Positions

Effective Processes – the Plays

Supportive Relationships - Teamwork


The foundation of any team is supportive relationship. In a healthy team, people feel good about each other, appreciate each other’s qualities, and at on the lookout for ways they can help each other. In an unhealthy group, negative feelings take up time, waste energy, and distract attention. Such groups tend to be unproductive and create endless issues that their managers must deal with. Such work groups tend to be endlessly reactive, and people are exhausted, unhappy, and have to drag themselves to work. Often such negative relationships are the result of longstanding conflicts, and a lack of understanding of interpersonal differences and as such the solution employed is conflict resolution. James Shonk, however pointed out that root cause of the difficulty may be ineffective processes.


If our processes do not work and things are going wrong, we tend to get into a bad mood at which point we then look for somebody to blame. This throws our relationships off. There are two kinds of processes: core processes and support processes. Core processes are the processes that are essential to the purpose of our team. They are the processes through which the team produces the products or services that it provides to its customers.

Sometimes there is no defined process, only an accumulation of activities which may or may not make any sense. Often there is some semblance of process, but it is not well defined, and contains many unnecessary activities that just waste time. The solution to these problems is to map the process together, and look for ways to streamline, eliminate steps, and perhaps apply technology to improving the process.

It is also important to consider the second type of processes that support the core process. These include such things as team meetings which should enable communication, sharing of information, problem solving, and decision making. Other examples are customer communication, coordination with other teams, provision of resources, and training.


As you consider how processes are working, you may discover the next element that Shonk identified, complementary roles. The only way to make processes work is if members of the team understand and accept their roles, as well as the roles of other team members. Roles must also be well designed so they fit together, complement each other. This makes it possible to work the handoffs and thereby make the processes work. One of the key role issues is decision making. Modern organization design is based on the principle of driving decision making as close to the customer as is workable, vesting individual team members with as much decision-making capacity as possible. Effective teams therefore are built on clarity about who makes what decisions, what decisions must be taken up by the team, and what decisions must be escalated to the team leader.


As you seek to define clear roles, you will discover that you need to refer to the goals of the team. It is not possible to create a winning team if you do not agree on the goals. Meaningful goals make it clear what is required for the team to win. Clear measures of progress toward goals make it possible for the team to make good decisions, evaluate performance, and celebrate wins. The more real time the feedback on measures the more useful and motivating the measures will be. It is very difficult to get good at a game if there is no real time scoreboard.

Shared Purpose

Finally, as you consider what the goals and key performance indicators are for your team, you may find yourself considering the degree to which your team members understand the “game” your team is playing. What is the purpose of your team? Who does your team serve and what do those customers need? Shank’s last factor is the shared purpose and vision for the team. It is very unlikely that your team will perform well if the members do not have a common vision for and understanding of the purpose of the team. Without this understanding, it will not be possible to define the other elements of the team framework.

The Shonk Model is a hierarchical diagnostic model and a guide on how to build a new or rebuild an existing team. Elements which are higher in the hierarchy set context for and drive elements lower in the hierarchy. So, the first thing to do with a new team, or with an existing team going through a major change, is to establish a shared vision of the team’s purpose. Then it is possible to establish meaningful goals and measures, and that makes it possible to clarify roles, and the interaction of those roles, which then makes it possible to develop effective processes, and when those processes work well, people feel better about each other and are more supportive.

How A Team Is Made

The true value of and reason for fascination with teams is that a team is fundamentally different than a group. A team is a group of individuals that have gone through a process through which they can, to one degree or another, function as one:

  • The team has a shared mindset, making shorthand communication and rapid problem solving possible, they have a common understanding of the game they play and vision for the end they seek.

  • The team shares a common emotional orientation to each other and their game, they are bonded to and committed to each other and their common end.

  • The team is able to act together as one, synchronized in action, sometimes to a very remarkable degree, allowing the team to work plays or run processes to an extremely high level of precision.

The team builds confidence and identity as a unit, coming to recognize its ability to meet challenges and solve problems that would be impossible to achieve as a group of un-integrated individuals. The power of the team is leveraged on complementarity. The more effective the team, the more its members are enabled to contribute their best when it is needed. This means team members not only take on a lead role when it is appropriate, they take on a supportive role when it is time for another member to shine.

How, then does the team evolve from the group? Bruce Tuckman observed that teams develop through four stages: Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing. These four stages represent a cycle of development as opposed to a linear, one-time process. Teams may have to return to the forming phase when there are significant changes in the team’s makeup or conditions.

Forming Phase

In the Forming Phase, there is no team, there is a group of individuals with the possibility of becoming a team. The group is leader dependent, requiring the presence and direction of the leader to act and to solve problems. There is a need for leader reassurance and initiative. Interactions among members are impersonal, communication tends to be polite, guarded and there is little trust. Individual needs and opinions tend to be hidden. Problem solving dialogue is either unfocused or task or transaction related.

In the Forming stage there is little sense of the team agenda. Instead, individual agendas and egos drive the dynamic. Ego’s may express themselves actively and overtly, or passively and covertly, and usually there is a combination of these two dynamics resulting in a push and pull of ego strategy to achieve individual agendas. The social fabric of the Forming stage is “pseudo-community.” The fabric is thin, superficial, and not very resilient. Group members tend to be reticent to risk tearing the fabric with too much truth.

It is possible, even common for groups to stay at the Forming stage, meaning they never really become a team. The reason they do not become a team is, they don’t go through the process of Storming, which a kind of transformative cauldron through which the raw material of team (the individuals) become integrated into a team that can act as one.

Storming Phase

The Storming Phase can be initiated by a number of factors: a crisis, a realization that things just are not working, or patience may have become exhausted resulting in skirmishes between two or more members. Storming is characterized by frustration, the emergence of conflicting views, the team concept itself questioned in the realization that the group is not functioning as a team.

A clear struggle for control may manifest between members or against the leader, sometimes in the form of resistance to change. Individuals begin to express their more genuine needs, opinions, and emotions. Often concerns emerge that goals are not being achieved, or workload is excessive or unfairly distributed. In general, the realization is emerging that the “team” is not winning the game. As the discussion deepens, it becomes clear that the group does not really share a common vision for its “game” or the norms by which the game is played. Ultimately the concept of “team” is questioned in the realization that the group is not and may not ever be a team.

It is through the Storming Phase that the group has the possibility of learning the competency of honest dialogue. Often groups never develop this team competency because the stakes are too high, the perceived benefit too low, the unexpressed issues have become too toxic, or the leader lacks the courage and commitment to see the team through this phase.

Patrick Lencioni has presented an excellent model for understanding and appreciating this phase and related competency in his book “5 Dysfunctions of a Team”. He points out that:

1. An absence of trust and an unwillingness to be vulnerable leads to a fear of conflict.

2. A fear of conflict results in “pseudo-community”, an unwillingness to speak the truth to team members for fear of alienating them.

3. The unwillingness to speak the truth when the team is making decisions leads to a lack of commitment, because, when the team makes a decision, it is not based on the real attitudes and beliefs of the team members.

4. A lack of commitment to the team’s decisions leads to avoidance of accountability, meaning, members do not hold themselves or each other accountable to act in accordance with the team’s decisions because they did not really commit to the decision in the first place.

5. A lack of accountability leads to inattention to results, meaning the team’s results. Instead, team members pay attention to their own agenda, often their own status, ego, power, and greed issues.

These models point to an uncomfortable truth. If we want teamwork and collaboration, we will have to go through some difficulty. We will have to take the risk of saying what we think, listening to others, stand up for what we believe, and let go of our preferences that stand in the way of team success. We will have to conclude that the purpose of the team is more important than our individual agenda, and we will need to make an investment in building trust, by being trustworthy. This is why the team approach is an accelerator of individual development. Nobody in the team is exempted from working on themselves.

The team is born in the Storming Phase when it begins to make decisions based on full and complete dialogue to which the team is sufficiently committed that all members will hold themselves and each other accountable to the decision.


In the Norming Phase, the team applies the competency of honest dialogue to its decision making and problem-solving process. Through this process important issues are confronted, cohesiveness is developed, individual needs aligned, members come to value each other’s contributions, goals and roles are defined, procedures are set and followed, leadership is shared, and the team develops an increasingly integrated and inter-dependent work process.


In the Performing Phase, the team has developed and refined disciplined problem solving and decision-making techniques, team goals well aligned with organizational and individual goals, a significant degree of openness, trust and mutual respect, and a strong customer-oriented focus. The team may well be ready for team self-management. In this phase the team becomes increasingly capable of experiencing Flow.

The Team as an Entity in its Own Right

We have a fascination with teams. When we see a play come together on the field that seems impossible. When we hear a symphony coming together and the sound and feeling are of such a remarkable quality that we are deeply moved. When we are working with others and somehow find a solution to a seemingly unsolvable problem, we are witnessing the emergence of another level of human functioning. Richard Rohr has described it well in his essay on collective consciousness.

The dynamic relationships in a family, classroom, workplace, or grassroots movement can have an evolutionary effect, creating new ways of thinking and being. Louis Savary and Patricia Berne share how Christopher Bache, a college professor, noticed what he called “collective consciousness” emerge when he gave assignments to small groups of students. Many showed abilities “as team members” that he hadn’t witnessed before in their individual work: Bache recognized that each of the teams in his classroom had a life of its own . . . [and] enjoyed a kind of “collective consciousness.” They were thinking as one unit and each person seemed to have access to the consciousness of the others. When someone on the team made a good suggestion, everyone on the team seemed to recognize its value, so it became easy to implement with minimal discussion, without people taking sides, pro and con. . . . [1]

Savary and Berne turn to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to explain how this happens: Teilhard’s insight [that union differentiates] revealed that each student team had become a true unity, or “union.” It had also become a new being. . . The team as a unit was more complex than any of the individuals in the team, and their shared consciousness was richer . . . than any of the team members. Furthermore, that new being (the Third Self, or the team, itself) allowed each member to find a fuller identity and capacity within that team. Each student was, in Teilhard’s words, “differentiating” himself [or herself]. . . . In order to contribute to the success of the team, each member was challenged by that team spirit to manifest latent abilities in themselves. . . . Love is the most powerful force or energy in the universe. That power is multiplied in relationships. Love’s potency is released most powerfully among people who have formed a relationship (a union). People who truly unite for a purpose beyond themselves become “differentiated” as they unite and work together in a shared consciousness to achieve their larger purpose.

. . . . In a true relationship, no one’s individuality is lost. It is increased. That is the beauty of Connections. These unions that enjoy a collective consciousness become the launching pads for the next stage of evolution, as we learn consciously how to create them and use them…{2}

[1] Louis Savary and Patricia Berne, Teilhard de Chardin on Love: Evolving Human Relationships (Paulist Press: 2017), 53.

[2] Ibid., 54-55.

The Dual Benefit of Team Building

The challenges we are now facing may well force our next stage of evolution. Just as environmental disasters may have brought about the cultivation of ego mind in human beings, the current need for global collaboration may, if we can muster the will to do it, may engender the evolution of that something in us that allows us to rise above our individual ego’s and pursue a higher aim.

Creating functional teams is challenging work, often likened to the work required to build a good marriage. Often the root of team dysfunction is an unconscious outplaying of our inner cast of characters. When we are unconscious of our problematic inner dynamics and become uncomfortable with others, our defense mechanisms are activated. We go into denial about that which we do not wish to see, we project qualities in ourselves that we don’t want to see onto others and hate them for those qualities, we avoid, we attack, and the result is miserable turmoil. Working through the storming phase of team building is a great opportunity to bring these inner conflicts out where we can work on them.

What I have seen is a potential double benefit to team building. If we sincerely engage in building a healthy team, we learn about ourselves and are offered opportunities for putting our inner house in order. And when we put our inner house in order, it becomes much easier to work with other people in the team. We become more insightful and wiser, and we become part of something greater than ourselves that is capable of accomplishing much more in the world.

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