How do you build true team spirit?

Work in teams is part of daily life – in business, in education, in sports and more. We all know that teams with a high spirit and strong sense of togetherness have better chances of success. But how do we actually achieve this team spirit?

Definition, Benefits, and Risks of Team Spirit

High team spirit is doubtless a desirable trait for any team. The Princeton WordNet defines team spirit as

the spirit of a group that makes the members want the group to succeed”.

The benefits are straightforward: For a group of people in which each member wants the group as a whole to succeed, we can expect a high degree of motivation, commitment, and cooperation. These, in turn, should lead to higher team performance which manifests in the form of exceptional results and high efficiency. Another important benefit of team spirit is the satisfaction of team members with what they do.

Ideally, high-spirit teams may spread out their energy, esprit de corps and morale to other groups in their work environment and thus, have a positive influence on spirit and culture of a whole organization.

On the other hand, the degree of pride and togetherness that is associated with successful high-spirit teams is not without risks.

“Team spirit” can evolve into group ethnocentrism and can prompt dysfunctional competition and conflict between groups.,

as J. Richard Hackman mentions in The design of work teams. If spirit and performance of a particular team differ too much from those of their co-workers, this team might develop elitist behavior by focusing on what distinguishes them from the rest of the crowd. Thus, their high spirit becomes counterproductive for the organization as a whole.

Building Team Spirit

Much has been written about building high-performance team and improving team spirit in both, academic and popular literature. In literature as well as in every day conversation the term team spirit is often used in connection with single teams (e.g. work teams, student groups, or sports teams), whole organizations and corporate culture. In fact, these terms are overlapping. They all are closely related to team spirit. However, when it comes to concrete action, it is necessary to carefully distinguish between these different scopes. Building organizational spirit may require a different set of measures than increasing spirit of a particular work team.

As stated above, team spirit is a desirable trait for any team. Most teams are not that passionate right from the beginning. They have to go through a teambuilding process which ideally transforms them into those high-performing groups:

‘Psychologist Bruce Tuckman first came up with the memorable phrase “forming, storming, norming, and performing” back in 1965. He used it to describe the path to high-performance that most teams follow. Later, he added a fifth stage that he called “adjourning” (and others often call “mourning” – it rhymes better!)’.

Those stages are explained in more detail at the MindTools website, from which I have borrowed the quote.

Barry Heermann describes the concept of a Team Spirit Spiral with several phases that teams attend when becoming spirited high-performing groups:

  • The core integrating phase of Service
    Quality of spirit: The team experiences contribution and service to customers and to the team.
  • Letting Go phase
    Quality of spirit: A sense of freedom and completion arises from being forthright and sharing with full integrity.
  • Celebrating phase
    Quality of spirit: There is a presence of awe, wonder, and an appreciation for the contribution of the team and team members.
  • Claiming phase
    Quality of spirit: The team experiences solidarity, single-minded purpose, and assurance about what needs to be accomplished.
  • Visioning phase
    Quality of spirit: An extraordinary sense of possibility for what can be created is alive and present for the team.
  • Initiating phase
    Quality of spirit: A profound sense of relationship exists, wherein team members feel belonging and trust in their work together.

(used with friendly permission of the author)

Success Factors

Research, literature, as well as most people’s personal experience completely agree that this teambuilding process is not an easy one and not always leads to the intended results. This is probably the reason why a whole industry of consultants, authors, event agencies and other service providers offers support for this process. The following success factors for teambuilding in general are mentioned frequently: value of each team member, empowerment, active listening, autonomy, storytelling, and celebration of success, SMART objectives, committed leadership, and many more. Of course, they are valid for building team spirit too.

The commitment and behavior of the team leader as well of the sponsor outside the team plays a vital role in team success and team spirit. They will only be able to inspire and motivate team members if they truly dedicate themselves to the team’s purpose and show a high degree of credibility. This is best illustrated by Jim Clemmer, who lists ways that ineffective managers often kill an organization’s spirit. Examples are

  • Inconsistencies between external advertising and communication and what people inside the organization experience every day
  • Managers that treat people in their organizations with about as much care as they would attach to office equipment
  • Continued existence of approval levels, slow decision making, and rules, which contradict empowerment and autonomy
  • Inappropriate recognition programs

This shows that there is no easy way to injecting true team spirit into teams. It is not enough to make impressive announcements, organize some team events and talk about self-directed teams. Team leaders and sponsors have to walk the talk. They are the ones who can inspire team members to engage themselves to this special sense of togetherness and pride. Besides that – although team spirit can only grow over time – team members should be willing to join this process right from the beginning in order to make it a success.

Related Writings:
Blogpost on Eddielogic – What to Learn from Poor Teams – with some personal experience about being once part of a “team from hell”

Our literature recommendation:
Books written by the authors mentioned in this article