One of my favorite YouTube spots is a breathtaking video of thousands of starlings on Otmoor uploaded by Dylan Winter. A dense cloud of birds appears to be a single entity swooping and swirling and finally settling into the trees. This grouping behavior is not just for the birds: Many fish, insects, and mammals naturally group together when it increases their safety or their access to resources. 

It seems to me that we are no different. It is natural for us to group together as well. Social psychology has accumulated powerful evidence of our “need to belong.”[1]We form bonds with people who are similar to us, people with whom we share interests, and people with whom we can cooperate to secure resources. We naturally want to be part of groups of people like us. We join groups with the hope they will enrich us in some way and if we leave them, it is often with regret. There are many, many ways in which our tendency to group together influences our behavior when we are assigned to work in teams. But teams are not the same as natural groups. 

Teams require that members subordinate their individual interests to achieve a collective goal. This is not part of the natural order of things. In nature, animals group together to increase their individual chances of survival. What happens to the group or flock as a whole is a simple consequence of each individual’s struggle to survive. Within the group, individuals compete for resources or status in order to increase their individual well-being. This is a natural behavior for people in groups, but it is a destructive dynamic in teams. 

Teams are made up of individuals who must work hard to make unique and valuable contributions to a collective goal. Once again, this is not the natural order of things. In nature, similarity attracts. Groups of people who are similar to us fulfill our need to belong. We are motivated to stay in the group, so we do what is necessary to secure the goodwill of the other members. If we do not feel we belong in a group, perhaps because we are unique, we are not motivated by the other people in it. It is natural to feel apathetic when we don't feel we fit in, and this feeling is destructive in teams.

Putting people in teams and counting on our natural ability to work together can lead to disappointing results. Our instinct is to do the work only if it promotes our individual well-being, or if we value being a member of the group. To harness our abilities for the sake of a team, leaders have to recognize that a team is an artificial group, created not for the sake of its members, but for an external client. We can avoid disappointing results in our teams by addressing this distinction. We can create a strong sense of belonging in order to motivate team members. Ice-breakers, team-building exercises, and recruiting volunteers all increase the chances that team members will form bonds. We can ensure that individual interests are aligned with the team goal. Team incentives and a motivating team goal increase the chances that team members will be motivated to work hard. 

Perhaps you are fortunate enough to enjoy a feeling of belonging in your team, and to believe that your well-being is directly tied to the team's success. Then it may feel rewarding on many levels to work together with your team. If you don't feel you belong or that you will share in the team's success, do you still enjoy working on your team? Why or why not? 

[1]Baumeister, R.F., & Leary, M.R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497-529. 
David White
1/22/2014 12:00:02

As I have said before, we all climb the mountain together, hand in hand! We all do things for each other as part of a team!


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