Creating Cohesive Teams – Worth the Effort

Posted on November 1, 2010


Moral Leadership, photo from

How often have you suffered through an endless, boring team meeting? The clock seems to go backwards. A 90-minute agenda, if there is one, takes a half-day to cover. People drink bottomless cups of coffee hoping to stay engaged. When the meeting is over, a jailbreak ensues. Eight people contribute four days of time with little to show for it. “Does it have to be this hard?” you exclaim!

My client Melanie, founder of a rapidly growing high-technology company, felt the same way. Because of organizational growth her senior team became increasingly interdependent but progressively ineffective. Senior team meetings were dull and monotonous. Many looked at their watches, impatient to get back to their desks. She did not like the humor, distractions, evasive answers, or attempts to scapegoat others. She wanted to schedule a team meeting and talk about what was going on. Instead she called me; she could not suffer further mind-numbing meetings.

Dysfunctional meetings are one of the greatest drains of valuable resources. Hubert Herring in theNew York Times in 2006 discovered that 75 percent of the people believe their meetings could be more effective. The frustration of these meetings cannot be blamed on the failure to know how to lead an effective team meeting. When “effective meetings” is entered into Google, hundreds of articles come up dealing with being an effective leader, team member, or basic steps that ensure an exceptional meeting. Even determining your meeting IQ is a snap. Do not get me wrong, a lot of this information is helpful.

So why does the misery persist? When team members are asked this question they frequently say:“There is little energy in the meeting.” This is key-emotional energy generates cohesiveness and is the critical companion to accomplishing results.

Cohesiveness is an essential bond in teams. It is an emotional connection that members feel for others and the team as a whole. This connection, however, must be earned and is preceded by risk taking. Helen Keller stated: “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” Such a dramatic insight is itself a risk for teams. Yet Helen Keller is right. If the team avoids taking risks- being spontaneous, open, self-disclosing, expressive, facilitating, supportive, dealing with conflict, and creative, etc.-then they will likely fail. “Outright exposure” in teams is: (1) being open to addressing whatever hinders their ability to effectively work together; and (2) individually and collectively committing to make the team better.

Risk-taking supports separation and differentiation so that individuals’ ideas, orientations, and potential solutions to the problem are engaged. The team moves from a culture of commonality, saying what is expected, to tolerating differences which promote self-assertion and self-definition. Yet the transition from commonality to differences often evokes confrontation, anger, and frustration. Team members must decide the extent to which differences can be tolerated and whether it is possible to offer mutual respect, given those differences. They must care enough about each other to be willing to endure the discomfort of working through the conflict. While this transition can be difficult, especially in a business environment, the team cannot establish an identity and agree on their direction without these discussions.

The leader’s task is to anchor the disagreements by acknowledging that the tension is a natural part of earning the right to work together. At the heart of the struggle is power, influence, and decision making. Members want to know that they can influence the process without being overly controlled by the leader and/or other group members. They feel more engaged when power and influence are evenly distributed among members. Therefore, leaders encourage people to say what they think and feel while being cognizant of the impact of their comments. The goal is a unified team culture without sacrificing individuality. This is not only a business team that needs a compelling challenge it is also a social group dealing with all of the tensions and risks that confront groups, regardless of their task

Katzenbach and Smith in The Wisdom of Teams [1] concluded that conflict, like trust and interdependence, is a necessary part of becoming a team. Maturation is predicated upon the capacity to manage potential conflicts through frank and open communication. When the leader or any other team member helps competing members recognize that they have many shared goals, individual differences can be discussed and shaped into the common good. Out of this struggle, some members become astute at challenging, interpreting, supporting, integrating, and summarizing. These roles promote the mutual trust and constructive conflict necessary for a team’s formation.

The payoffs for enduring these struggles are immense. The cohesiveness that business teams desire is the direct result of productively learning to manage their differences. Cohesive team members value the team more highly, accept fellow members, and protect the team from internal and external threats more than teams with less cohesiveness. Cohesiveness provides an atmosphere in which members not only work to influence each other but also are open to being influenced; it supports willingness to listen; to state their opinions more frequently; and to address whatever the group encounters. In the end, cohesiveness undergirds accomplishing results and members experience greater satisfaction with their efforts.

Melanie would attest to the fact that developing cohesiveness is not as easy as it sounds. Relationships, especially when the stakes are high, can be messy and difficult to manage. Yet we do not have a choice. To refuse to engage the messiness of Melanie’s team would mean they could fail to develop the maturity needed to carefully lead their company. To engage Helen Keller’s “daring adventure,” Melanie had to decide which route she was willing to take. It is certain that a team focused on safe ideas would result in death by a thousand cuts. The willingness to confront their differences and make room for each other, while unpredictable, holds the hope that all will rise to the occasion, find a common purpose, accept one another, and in time become an exceptional team.

(c) Samuel R. James, Ed.D.

[1] Katzenbach, J., and Smith, D. The Wisdom of Teams. New York: Harper Collins, 1994.

Dr. Samuel James is a results-oriented organizational consultant and executive coach with over 30 years of experience. He is a trusted advisor to senior executives and has a demonstrated track record for integrating strategic vision with solid leadership development and organizational change. He is recognized for developing exceptional and enduring partnerships with leaders; expertise working with complex strategy and systems; mapping the political terrain; and assisting senior leaders to instruct, inspire and equip their teams to manage successfully through the challenges of uncertainty and change. As a psychologist certified in nationally recognized assessment tools, evidenced-based data is collected and used to accurately identify key objectives, establish measurements against progress, and achieve timely, significant results.

Article Source:,_Ed.D.