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Don't Let Unhealthy Team Dynamics Bite You Where It Hurts. 5 Ways To Improve Team Dynamics.

One of the most important areas to address when coaching teams are team dynamics. A team’s dynamic is the confluence of thinking and behavior that drive performance—or completely hinder it. Think of team dynamics as an ocean current that ebbs and flows. However, the problem with a current is that it’ll sometimes take you in a direction you don’t want to go.

Team dynamics work the same way. In fact, studies show that just one “bad apple” in a team or group—teams and groups are not the same—can guide the team’s performance in a negative direction unless the team has the competence and confidence to self-direct.

Here's what unhealthy team dynamics look like:

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What do healthy team dynamics look like? Research by MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory found five simple behaviors that reflect healthy team dynamics:

1. Balanced participation. Everyone on the team talks and listens. Nobody completely dominates the conversation.

2. Energy and face-to-face. Interactions in the team should be energetic and face-to-face. There’s simply no substitute for face-to-face interaction. I once ran an exercise while coaching a team asking them to list the modes of communication they deemed most effective for accomplishing work. From most effective to least effective, they listed:

  • Face to face
  • Virtual (Skype, Webex, other)
  • Phone
  • Email

I then asked them how they actually communicated, and you know what? It was everything above but in reverse order. Their team’s performance (and as a result, their company) was suffering because they let the "current of the day"—office urgencies, meetings, Murphy—sweep them in a direction they didn’t necessarily intend to swim, but swam nonetheless because they didn’t have team fundamentals established yet.

3. Conversations are worthwhile. Team members should have conversations with their teammates outside of the team setting rather than only with or through the team leader (and I hate using the moniker “team leader” because it suggest a static role of leadership within a team). People should connect with each other rather than just “communicate.”

4. Porous “information borders.” If it’s not clear why knowledge is not power in today’s day and age, stop what you’re doing at click here.

5. They favor collective capacity over individual capability. Research shows that individual contributions and talents are far less important than the behavioral and communication patterns that either “power up” or “power down” the team’s dynamic.

Tools You Can Use

One way to unearth your team’s dynamics is by mapping behavior. Sociogramming is one way, behavior charts are another. The point of mapping behavior is to compile data on team performance. Here are just a few areas to begin mapping your team’s dynamics:

Decision types. Are decisions autocratic, consensual, democratic, or unanimous? And, if a decision is perceived as consensual or democratic, was it really autocratic all along?

Language used. There’s a lot to explore with language. Start off by listening (!) for language that creates contrast or commonality. Contrast language is  “I” or “you”; common language is “we,” “us,” or “our.” The language that team members use reflects how deeply they identify with the team.

Something else you can measure quite easily is the ratio of questions asked to statements made. If there are more statements than there are questions, then how does the team learn? What does that say about team humility? About power struggles? About trust?

Time on talking. This is my rendition of Time On Target (TOT), which was a metric we used in the military. Generally speaking, the longer you’re on the “X” (i.e. the target) the greater the threat to force. Leadership works the same way. The most impactful leaders that I’ve seen aren’t the ones who talk simply because they have something to say, but because they have value to share.

One tool I’ve found to be very useful for quelling incessant talkers is to share with them data on how much each team member (including them) speaks. When they see from the data that they spoke 75 or 85% of the meeting--and it’s consistent throughout meetings—their self-awareness grows exponentially and their participation becomes more strategic. Remember, what gets measured gets managed and what can be managed can be improved.

How would you rate your team's dynamics?

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