What makes a team reach its best possible level of performance? How to make a collective truly outperform anything what its members could do individually? Here is a quick dive into literature on team performance and a couple of secrets to high-performing teams. Let’s talk about team goals and team identity.
Traditionally, organizations have tried to motivate the employees to exert on behalf of the collective by locating the central motivating mechanism inside the individual. This has meant making the achievement of their individual goals dependent on the attainment of team or organization level goals. (Ellemers, de Gilder, & Haslam, 2004.) In other words, if you want to get a promotion or a bonus, make sure that you help your team to reach its goals. Such an approach bypasses one very basic human need -that of belonging and feeling one is part of something bigger. According to the social identity theory, originally developed by Tajfel (1974), in many situations people think of themselves in terms of their specific group memberships, not as separate individuals (Ellemers, de Gilder, & Haslam, 2004). When we are at work, we are, by definition, invited to think of ourselves as members of our team. An effective organization makes sure that the employees also want to think about themselves in team terms and that this identification is positive and valuable for the employee.
Members of a true psychological group will put effort into maintaining and enhancing the value of the group they identify with, but they are only inclined to identify with a group or organization that provides them with a positive sense of who they are and what their organizational role is (Eggins, Reynolds, & Haslam, 2002). Teams, at best, are much more than a bunch of people getting their wages from the same organization or sharing their dislike of the same boss. An effective team adds something to the identity of its members and e.g. builds up the self-esteem of its members. To invite the employees to add value to the team, the team must add value to them.
A team that does not make the employee want to prioritize the team’s goals ahead of one’s own, is not a real team. When identifying with a group, people internalize group goals and are directed to act in terms of these instead of individual goals (Ellemers, de Gilder, & Haslam, 2004). I believe that the whole point of a team is that it is bigger than it’s individual members and that the goals of the collective offer something higher to try and reach to than one’s own individual aims.
Take a Minute to Think about the Goals
Forming effective goals for a team is a process worth of time and attention. Not just any kind of a goal defined by the organization’s money-making needs is enough to harness the true creative potential of the team members and make them willing to put in that extra effort. Good goals help people direct their effort and persistence toward activities that are relevant for achieving the goal and invite them to make use of their repertoire of strategies and knowledge (Locke & Latham, 2002). Firstly, to foster good performance, goals need to be clearly defined (van der Hoek, Groeneveld, & Kuipers, 2018). Thus, forget about “Do-your-best -goals”: they have no external reference point and everyone tends to define them in their own way (Locke & Latham, 2002).
It’s also important to feed people’s sense of efficacy or agency: they have to feel they are able to reach the goals to begin with (Latham, Locke, & Fassina, 2002). People also need feedback that directs them towards the goals and helps them adjust their level or direction (Locke & Latham, 2002). Even if a team’s goal is clear, sufficiently challenging, achievable, and specific, people need to feel that they are getting there, step-by-step. This also ensures that people know early enough when they need to readjust their course or do something differently to reach the goal. Last-minute calls for U -turns might be an unavoidable part of a creative process, but usually we know what the ultimate goal for the team is -otherwise the team would probably not exist in the first place. Let’s then help the people to keep on track and their eyes on the aim as well as possible.
According to the theory of High Performance Cycle, articulated by e.g. Latham, Locke, and Fassina (2002), specific, difficult goals and high self-efficacy in terms of achieving them are the motors of high performance, which results in high job satisfaction. In other words, it is the chances to high performance that make people satisfied with their job, not happiness with one’s job that pushes people to achieve higher goals. Shortly put, a good goal is well defined. People know when they have achieved it and when not. It is also challenging enough -easy goals do not foster superb performance. It is also something the team members genuinely feel they can achieve.
One more detail to consider when designing goals for a team is the diversity of team members’ own aims. Team members might have different, even conflicting individual goals, which is why they must learn about the goals of one’s teammates and create convergence (Pearsall & Venkataramani, 2015). Especially in the absence of well-formulated team-level goals, the employees easily develop goals of their own. This might be good for the collective, or then not, if the individual goals are conflicting with each other or with the team’s goal. Sitting down and learning about the goals of each other in a team is the only way to foster convergence and deeper understanding of where each member is coming from.
The ASPIRe model (Actualizing Social and Personal Identity Resources) is a tool for supporting the creation of an organization with a strong superordinate identity while aligning the goals that are relevant for employees’ identities at the individual, subgroup, and organizational levels (Eggins, Reynolds, & Haslam, 2002). Team members having their own individual goals is not negative per se, as long as they are aligned with the higher level collective goals and do not pull the employees away from the common aims.
Separately Together: Team Identity in Virtual Teams
Especially in the increasingly online-based, dispersed teams of modern organizations, developing a sense of togetherness for the team is a real challenge. The need for good communication is emphasized in virtual teams, as team identity is constructed mainly in computer-mediated interaction (Connaughton & Daly, 2004; Ellemers, de Gilder, & Haslam, 2004; Sivunen, 2006).
Communication in teams is not only a matter of distributing relevant information effectively from one person or team to another. The importance of having a positive culture of communication is key for developing a shared team identity. Logically, investing in technology that supports communication is important (Sivunen, 2006; Wiesenfeld, Raghuram, & Garud, 2001) but not enough. Employees also need to be able to use this co-operatively and constructively. Different technological tools support team spirit and identity in different ways. Asynchronous tools give the chance to e.g. come back to organizational identity strengthening messages and synchronous communication enables enhancing a sense of togetherness by real-time discussions (Sivunen, 2006). Both experiences are equally needed.
The role of the leader in creating a team identity in remote work has been emphasized (Connaughton & Daly, 2004; Sivunen, 2006). The leader is often a role model, embodying the organization’s values and goals to the employees. Ideally, the employees genuinely feel that the manager is one of them and shares their organizational or team identity (Ellemers, de Gilder, & Haslam, 2004). Sivunen (2006) suggests four different tactics for leaders of virtual work teams in supporting the team’s identity:
- catering for the individuals, that is, giving them supportive coaching
- giving positive feedback
- underlining common goals
- talking up team activities, such as organizing face-to-face meetings and trainings
Focusing on the emotional connection with the employees has been emphasized as a more “female” leadership style and helpful in crafting a team identity (McColl-Kennedy & Anderson, 2005). Personally, I believe labeling interactional styles as “masculine” or “feminine” is not particularly helpful, but the importance of the employee feeling respected by and cared for by their leader is not to be downplayed. Often, just a simple empathetic acknowledgement of the employees’ feelings is more than enough. Personally, I believe in the power of genuineness. Too much positive feedback given just for the sake of giving positive feedback can feel manipulative. A friendly question of how the employee is doing or a kind acknowledgement of the difficult meeting they just pulled off can work wonders.
In summary, some points to consider in terms of team identity and goals:
- the development of team identity and team goals should go hand in hand, as these two processes are deeply intertwined
- team goals need to be aligned with both the superordinate organization-level goals
- team goals also need to be in sync with the individual aspirations of its members
- a good goal is achievable, clear, and sufficiently challenging
- a virtual team’s identity is highly dependent on its leader
- the constructive use of communication technology is crucial in creating a sense of us especially in virtual teams
- Connaughton, S. L., & Daly, J. A. (2004). Identification with Leader: A Comparison of Perceptions of Identification Among Geographically Dispersed and Co-Located Teams. Corporate Communications, 9(2), 89–103. doi:10.1108/13563280410534294
- Eggins, R. A., Reynolds, K. J., & Haslam, A. (2002). The ASPIRe Model: Working with Identities to Enhance Organisational Outcomes. Canberra Bulletin of Public Administration, 105, 58-61.
- Ellemers, N., de Gilder, D., & Haslam, S. A. (2004). Motivating Individuals and Groups at Work: A Social Identity Perspective on Leadership and Group Performance. Academy of Management Review, 29(3), 459–478.
- van der Hoek, M., Groeneveld, S. & Kuipers, B. (2018). Goal Setting in Teams: Goal Clarity and Team Performance in the Public Sector. Review of Public Personnel Administration, 38(4), 472–493. doi:10.1177/0734371X16682815
- Latham, G. P., Locke, E. A., & Fassina, N. E. (2002). The High Performance Cycle: Standing the Test of Time. In S. Sonnentag (Ed.) Psychological Management of Individual Performance (pp. 201-228). Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons.
- Locke, E. A. & Latham, G. P. (2002). Building a Practically Useful Theory of Goal Setting and Task Motivation. American Psychologist, 57(9), 705–717. doi:10.1037//0003-066X.57.9.705
- McColl-Kennedy, J. R. & Anderson, R. D. (2005). Subordinate-Manager Gender Combination and Perceived Leadership Style Influence on Emotions, Self-Esteem and Organizational Commitment. Journal of Business Research, 58, 115–125. doi: 10.1016/S0148-2963(03)00112-7
- Pearsall, M. J. & Venkataramani, V. (2015). Overcoming Asymmetric Goals in Teams: The Interactive Roles of Team Learning Orientation and Team Identification. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(3), 735–748. doi:0.1037/a0038315
- Sivunen, A. (2006). Strengthening Identification with the Team in Virtual Teams: The Leaders’ Perspective. Group Decision and Negotiation, 15, 345–366. doi:10.1007/s10726-006-9046-6
- Tajfel, H. (1974). Social Identity and Intergroup Behaviour. Social Science Information, 13, 65–93.
- Wiesenfeld, B. M., Raghuram, S., & Garud, R. (2001). Organizational Identification Among Virtual Workers: The Role of Need for Affiliation and Perceived Work-Based Social Support. Journal of Management, 27, 213–229.