Strong teams and fisty-cuffs

Shorter thoughts |

Okay… not quite fisty-cuffs.

I am often asked to work with not one team, but two. Two teams that need to work together, or else.

Or else what? I don’t often get a clear answer. Yet, the organisation has invested in a psychologist to work out why two teams have such a hard time getting along. This is a sign of frustration from a Manager who has had enough.

I started thinking about how to explain this common phenomenon. What if we were only able to visit and observe one team. We might describe that team as high performing or “strong”. We might see that team saying or doing things that show they have a strong sense of belonging to that team. We might hear that team doing or saying things that distance them from the second team. Would we start to believe that the other team is actually the problem? Because we all know that strong teams lead to better outcomes, right? There is no dark side, is there?

To consider this further we need to take a step back and think about identity. This is our sense of self or who we see ourselves to be. Identity is one of the most powerful motivators of human behaviour. It is important to us that we see ourselves behaving in a way that is consistent with our identity. And our sense of self can lead us to make both helpful and unhelpful decisions. It so happens that the groups we belong to are an important part of that identity.

Social psychologists have known for many years that group membership is an important source of our identity. Excellent research (both classic and contemporary) shows the motivating power of group identity (see a reading list below). At the heart of this concept is that we sort ourselves and those around us into groups based on a bunch of criteria that seem important at the time. The groups we don’t belong to then become as important as the groups we do belong to in establishing this group identity… you still with me? This sets us up nicely to introduce the possibility of us and them. The groups we do belong to versus the groups we don’t.

While we have many identities and belong to many groups, the salient groups (those that are important to us in a given moment) are where we draw many cues for the way we ought to behave. In social psychology we call these behavioural norms, the behavior that is acceptable to the group. We typically learn these norms without the group ever making these explicit – through a process of socialization. The (often subtle) ways the group rewards us for conforming to the norm and punishes us if we deviate from the norm.

Now, let’s think about a team. A particular type of group. Brought together in a specific context to perform a business function or meet a business goal. Or, in the case of a sporting team to win a game. The common goals of a team help it differ from other groups and increase the speed and intensity with which we identify with this group. The naming of teams also makes group membership very explicit and easily salient. I argue that stronger teams have clearer common goals and highly explicit membership, to the point that stronger teams are defined not just by their goals and membership but by the team they are not. Maintaining that distinction is part of the team’s process for retaining its members and achieving its goals. Can you see where I am going here? Think of a political team. Ensuring they are distinct from other political teams is paramount. Team processes, at least publicly are designed to reinforce this.

Teams will establish behavioural norms such that the team understands what is acceptable and what is not. Like other groups. If the behavioural norm in a team is to emphasise its own goals and membership and make itself distinct from other teams, it becomes hard to see how collaborative practices between these two teams becomes possible. Particularly when the norm includes openly questioning the competence of the members of the other team. And in fact… this is usually the point at which I enter the room.

So what to do. Strong teams are desirable. Strong teams work harder toward team goals. They notice performance feedback cues more readily and are typically able to optimize their performance in the face of change and challenge. Yet, collaborative practices are also desirable. Very few contemporary organizational functions can work alone. Enterprise level processes and systems now ensure that most parts of an organization are connected and need cooperation at a minimum.

No doubt the scenario is familiar to many and you have a list of things tried that have been successful or not. Here are some ideas we think make a difference.

DO NOT try to diminish the identity of existing teams

If teams are to stay intact and to perform an important function their identity as a team is important. It serves no purpose to diminish this identity to get two teams to work together. Just because I identify as a Queenslander doesn’t mean I don’t have capacity to support Australia in the World Cup. We often see this play out with “one-team” rhetoric in organisations. These organisations often publicly punish the celebration of strong local team identities.

In fact it can be counterproductive and decrease the likelihood of collaboration as teams seek to further distinguish themselves from the other teams. Continue to celebrate the strong teams, but balance this enthusiasm with an equal emphasis on collaboration.


We are in a sense giving people a new and extra “team” identity with goals that match. In this case, the goal is only achieved through collaboration. Project teams are an excellent example of this. Project teams typically come together from across an organization with a very clear and specific goal that focuses the attention of the team. The “home” team identity of members less often get in the way when the goal is very clear (winning the World Cup for Australia!).

Cross-functional collaboration without such focus is harder. Particularly when the goal is fuzzy, such as “continuous improvement” or “innovation”. Add this requirement for busy teams that already have business objectives and KPIs to meet and it is likely to strengthen their home team identity. This is where focusing on the outcomes of collaboration become important. Start with “together we need to find a way to increase total output by 7%”, then allow the teams to organize themselves and create process goals together.

There are many other parts to these equations we could discuss such as the role of leaders in this process, and the focus on behavioural norms that support collaboration (such as psychological safety). However if you have made it this far, you have done well. Another blog post perhaps.

Finally though, what distinguishes organisations that are comfortable in their own skin with layered identities and strong collaborative practices?


Organisations who do this successfully have created a narrative around “how we work together”. A collaboration story the organization tells itself as a feature of its success.

In fact, they have created a group identity at an organizational level such that collaboration is their signature move. Something the “other” organisations are not doing. And hence we are back to where we started. The organisations we don’t belong to become as important as the one we do belong to as we merge the layers of our group identities and decide who we see ourselves to be.

Our Strong Teams Program can help kickstart a conversation around teams, collaboration and innovation in your organization. Contact us for a chat!

Some reading for you:

  • S. Alexander Haslam, Psychology in Organizations – the social identity approach. Sage, 2004.
  • S. Alexander Haslam, Stephen D. Reicher and Michael J. Platow. The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence and Power. Taylor & Francis, 2010.
  • S. Alexander Haslam, Daan van Knippenberg, Michael J. Platow, Naomi Ellemers Social Identity at Work: Developing Theory for Organizational Practice. Psychology Press, 2014 D. Van Knippenberg and M. A. Hogg. Leadership and Power. Sage, 2004.

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