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Building excellent teams: applying the Social Identity Approach to team building

Anyone who has ever been involved in a project team will know the difference that having an effective team can make to the outcome of a project. We all know the quality and attitude of a project team has significant bearing on a project’s success or failure. But how do you go about building an excellent team?

Lee Herd (Practice Lead for Intergen’s Enterprise Applications team), and I were asked to speak on exactly this subject at GOVIS 2012, held in Wellington last week. With <Share> as the conference’s theme, more than 200 government leaders and their IT staff gathered together to share and learn on themes including better public services, information sharing between agencies, open government data, innovation and the government ICT roadmap.

Lee opened proceedings, speaking about the importance of leadership and leadership style – citing James T Kirk and Darth Vader as two examples of effective yet contrasting leadership styles. He summarised good leadership as being about a number of things, including a bit of cheerleading, getting the best out of people, conducting a symphony of action and delivery and being there for the team.

In the words of Lao-tsu: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

Lee also stressed the importance of a team having a shared objective, with a clear purpose and expectations, honest and concise communications and an environment of trust. Collaboration and contribution should also be encouraged, within a culture of accountability and mutual respect.

In order to fully visualise the power of an excellent team, Lee evoked the memory of the 1924 All Blacks, commonly known to posterity as The Invincibles. Winning 32 out of 32 overseas games, scoring 838 points and conceding only 116, you don’t get much better teamwork than that.

As The Invincibles teach us, effective teams can achieve great things. For an organisation, these things can be successful projects, strong ROI, a sense of accomplishment and pride amongst team members, a strong contribution to organisational goals, and the ability to make better decisions and accomplish more in less time.


All Blacks

All Blacks - 1924


And then I took proceedings in a completely different direction…


Applying the Social Identity Approach to team building

I took a look at some of the Psychological influences around building great teams. the overarching question being: What makes a group of moderately capable people with reasonably competent leadership and a common objective an effective team?

In the 1970s and 80s some social psychologists, especially a guy named John Turner, came up with something called the Social Identity Approach, which is made up of two complementary and overlapping theories: 1) Social Identity Theory and 2) Self-Categorisation Theory.

Key features of these theories are things called in-group bias, self-affirmation theory and cognitive dissonance.

At their heart, these theories – in both a macro and micro sense – deal with how we categorise and define ourselves in different contexts and the influence this has on how we feel about ourselves and others.

In simple terms, to give an example: on the battlefield we’re Anzacs, but on the Rugby field we’re two distinct entities: we’re the brave Kiwis and they’re the cheating Aussies (I’m sure the view is similar the other way around, right Aussies?). One of the simplest tricks to developing a strong team is to enable the members to clearly identify themselves as a part of that team, which is achieved as much by defining who you aren’t as much as by who you are, creating a seemingly impermeable definition of who is the “in-group” and who is the “out-group”.

Groups are distinguished by their context, and to distinguish your group, you need:

  1. Commonality – how do we recognise ourselves?
  2. Comparison – how are we set apart?
  3. A role – what is my role in this team? What is the role of others?
  4. A positive view of your team.

Psychologists have found that if you put any group of people together and then define them into two or more sub-groups (even randomly) they will automatically start to see themselves in a more favourable light

The simplest things will trigger this effect.

Things like:

  1. Co-location in a definable area.
  2. A highly visible team meeting – that’s fun. I favour the 4pm team meeting in a glass meeting room, every so often with a surprise beer or two. The rest of the organisation notices, and your team picks up on that.
  3. Referring to the team as a single unit.
  4. Creating in-jokes and nicknames.
  5. Pressure – nothing creates a team like being in a metaphorical foxhole. Keep them busy.
  6. Clear roles and responsibilities.

Hierarchy – it seems like counter-modern, politically correct thinking, but most people like working in teams with a clear hierarchy. Who’s the boss? Who’s number two? Don’t pussy-foot around that stuff.

If you put a group of reasonably capable people together, with moderately competent leadership in place, and if you do it right, human nature will take over.

If we are part of a group, we will give positive attributes to the group and its members simply because they are members of it. It’s called in-group bias.

When in-group bias is operating:

  • A leader will be seen to have greater leadership capabilities than should normally be attributed, provided the leader is seen as a part of that group. This speaks volumes about the benefits of hands-on, direct team leadership.
  • The individual members will also see each other’s strengths more than their weaknesses, and will see individual failures as group failures and often work to overcome them.
  • The only general exception to this is if there is an individual that just can’t gel – the “Black Sheep effect.” While not common, especially if you have been careful when pulling the team together, it does happen and if it does you need to eject that group member as fast as you can for both their sake and the group’s.

What’s amazing is this takes almost no effort to manufacture. Even arbitrary groups in studies – created by an open coin-toss – can lead to this effect. This idea of the in-group being good and the out-group being bad and the apparent ease with which people will fall into this way of thinking, can have huge positive and negative outcomes – from driving a group’s cohesiveness to achieving spectacular results in a project or on the sports field, to (at a macro level, out there in society) to the kind of in-group bias that can contribute to such regrettable outcomes as prejudice and hate-crime.

This is primal human nature, folks.

Where boundaries of a group are thought to be strong – when it’s clear who is in and who is out, and where each member’s status in the group is stable, you create the strongest possible environment for a high-performance team. To use a clichéd All Blacks analogy – is the high-change rotation policy better for building a winning team, or stable, careful choices?

If you have any doubt about in-group bias, here’s a little proof. Think about your own work team, or any other team you might be involved with. If you stop and think about it (and if you assume a normal distribution) half of you are actually members of below average teams, and a quarter of you are below average members of below average teams, but I am certain that almost none of you think that you are. The below average, poor performing team is always “the other guys.” It’s always Marketing, Customer Services, IT – whoever isn’t you. Right?

Organisations spend fortunes trying to break down these silos – and it never, ever, really works.  Because it goes against basic human nature. My theory is not to fight this, but to find out how to use it to take a group of reasonably capable people with moderately competent leadership and distinguish them from everyone else – and when you do this they will almost always perform.


Posted by: Ryan Day, Senior Project Manager | 28 June 2012

Tags: communication, Collaboration, Teamwork, Team Building

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