When Satya Nadella became CEO of Microsoft in 2014 he made sure that each employee knew and lived the company’s mission statement, which is, “To empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.” As a part of this journey, Microsoft has moved away from focusing on how people interact with teams to study how people, specifically people on teams, work together. Microsoft teamed up with design company IDEO to research and define The Art of Teamwork.

Based on this research, the two companies believe they have found the “secret sauce” to achieving the most successful teamwork. Key components of a successful teamwork framework include collective identity, trust and vulnerability, awareness and inclusion, team purpose, and constructive tension.

The core elements of teamwork

Team purpose

Team purpose is the shared meaning that keeps teams focused, fulfilled, and aligned toward achieving their objectives.

A clear team purpose not only keeps teams focused, but is the foundation of teamwork, providing teams with a filter for which to use for all decisions throughout their duration on that team.

An important part of defining a team’s purpose is to set is as an aspiration and not a metric. For example, tell the team what impact it is looking to make on the world, not what number in users it is trying to reach.

A team purpose should be understood as more of a collective exercise instead of a corporate mandate. Instead of presenting a team with a fully formed purpose, a leader should incorporate exercises asking team members to think about the impact they are looking to have in the world.

Having shared goals will go a long way in clarifying a team’s purpose. These goals should be “discrete, achievable milestones a team strives toward which ladder up to the team’s purpose.”

A purpose should be clear and agreed upon by all so that individual team members will have the confidence to make independent decisions that each team member will agree on.

In the absence of team purpose, the research found that a team will have difficulty understanding what they are working toward, which impedes their ability to take charge of long-term and short-term goals.

Once a team’s purpose is set, it’s important that it is lived out each day through decisions that work toward the team’s goals.

Collective identity, awareness & inclusion, trust & vulnerability in teamwork

The healthy combination of collective identity, awareness, and inclusion, and trust and vulnerability

Collective identity is a shared sense of belonging that builds cohesion and helps team members work together as one.

Collective identity begins with creating experiences that reflect the team’s shared values and agreements. Having a collective identity does not mean that members of the team must conform to certain behaviors or opinions, but instead it’s about having a shared set of values that the team aspires to uphold.

There are three key components to building a collective identity: shared values, agreements, and rituals. A strong sense of collective identity builds cohesion in the team and helps individual members work together as a unit.

Shared values are the beliefs and attitudes that a team deems necessary for success. Shared values like “make others successful” must be brought to life by behaviors and actions each day. Microsoft defines agreements as the “tangible, agreed upon manifestations of a team’s values.” Examples of agreements are start and end times as well as agreed upon methods for feedback.

Rituals are repeated behaviors and activities that reinforce those formal and informal agreements that teams have created. Examples of rituals include going out to eat on a certain day or doing certain creative exercises together.

In the absence of a collective identity, a team will lack key elements that help it bond as an entity, leading to distance between team members which can cause negative tension and demotivate the group.

Awareness and inclusion is an understanding of self and others that enables teams to navigate interpersonal dynamics and foster inclusion.

Awareness and inclusion start with respecting differences, not resolving them. Team members should be aware of different needs and preferences, not trying to change or control others ways of working. Before trying to be aware of other’s needs, team members should first understand their own needs. Instead of demanding certain things, your needs should be presented as the best conditions under which you will be able to work with the team.

Awareness can be divided into three levels: self-awareness, co-awareness, and situational awareness. A heightened sense of awareness leads to an inclusive culture, allowing team members to navigate interpersonal dynamics.

Self-awareness awareness is the ability to recognize and understand one’s own emotions, whereas co-awareness is the ability to sense other’s emotions and recognize the impact one’s actions hav on others. An example of co-awareness is using headphones to listen to music because you know another team member can’t focus with music playing.

Situational awareness, which is a bit of a combination of the two, is taking into account the context that you and your teammates are in. Having situational awareness allows you to know the best ways to have different conversations. For example, a having a conversation about performance issues is best done face-to-face and in private.

When a team lacks a sense of awareness and inclusion, members can feel unmotivated and find it difficult to work through disagreements.

Trust and vulnerability are the components of emotional safety that enable interpersonal risk-taking in teams.

Microsoft defines trust as “knowing you can be vulnerable with someone without being put down or hurt.” A great example of trust is when a team shows unwavering support for a team member who is struggling with a personal trauma. It’s important to remember, both from a manager and employee’s perspective, that trust is earned over time. While you don’t wan to reveal all your dark secrets on day one, trust looks like meeting your team members where they are in order to build a relationship.

Vulnerability is not feeling exposed, but rather feeling safe enough to be open with others. Microsoft defines vulnerability as “entering into situations that involve risk and emotional exposure.” Team members may show vulnerability by telling their team about a trauma they are struggling with.

Trust and vulnerability consist of a virtuous cycle, one in which members feel safe to take interpersonal risks, with the outcome being psychological safety.

In the absence of trust and vulnerability, team members don’t fee; safe sharing opinions, which holds them back from participating fully, therefore diminishing the quality of the team’s work.

Constructive tension

Constructive tension is the generative force that results when teams harness their differences.

While tension brings along negative connotations, Microsoft found that constructive tension plays a role in the most successful teams. Microsoft defines constructive tension as “the productive force that emerges when a team harnesses their differences.”

Constructive tension is born when team purpose, collective identity, awareness and inclusion, and trust and vulnerability are all both nurtured and in balance. Tension can be an extremely productive force if harnessed correctly, acting as a way to push your team’s thinking and expand their point of view.

Thinking differently from your teammates is not a bad thing, and can actually lead to better solutions to issues. Constructive tension looks like defusion over disturbance, or recognizing a moment of tension and using tools to resolve it rather than reacting to a moment of tension with anger or aggression.

Diverse perspectives are important for achieving constrictive tension. When harnessed properly, diverse perspectives allow innovation to happen. Under healthy conditions, diverse perspectives are able to flourish into constructive tension.

Destructive tension, the opposite of constructive tension, is defined as “the negative force that emerges when diversity collides in unhealthy conditions.”

In the absence of constructive tension, or in the presence of unhealthy dynamics, the tension becomes a destructive force and has the ability to destroy a team.

Activities for team building

As a part of the research, Microsoft created activities for each part of the important teamwork components.

Team purpose activity

Writing a team purpose should be an activity that includes each member of the team, not something given to team members to memorize. To build a team purpose, start by reflecting on defining moments. Team members can do this by asking the following questions:

  • In the past quarter or year, what moment at work did you feel most proud of? Why?
  • How did you feel at that moment? What caused those feelings?
  • If you were to tell the story of that moment, what would the takeaway be?
  • How can experiences like this be recreated within your team?

Creating a team purpose statement allows team members to understand what matters most on the team. Team members can answer the following questions to help with creating a team purpose statement:

  • What work are we doing as a team?
  • What outcomes are we trying to achieve?
  • How do you contribute to these outcomes?
  • Why does our work matter?
  • What matters most to the team?
  • Who does our work matter to?

After members have an understanding of the answers to these questions, they can create a team purpose statement using the following format:

“Our team exists to (create this impact) for (intended audience).”

The guide recommends leaving company-specific words and business jargon out of the purpose statement. Instead, use language that inspires and matches human truths.

Once a team purpose statement is created, it should not be forgotten. Successful teams revise their statement when necessary and revisit the statement to celebrate when it comes to life or needs adjustments.

Collective identity

A collective identity means creating shared values and agreements within a team that are reinforced through rituals. When shaping a collective identity, the team should ask itself these questions:

  • What experience in the past year made you feel connected to your team?
  • What was involved?
  • What made you feel connected?
  • Who were you working with?
  • How did the team members contribute to this feeling?
  • What mattered to you in this moment?
  • Are there other situations at work when you have felt just as connected?
  • Do you notice any trends across these moments?

Behavior mapping is an exercise you can use to help identify a collective identity. Team members should identify shared behaviors that it already practices and what it looks like in real-life situations. Next, identify behaviors that the team aspires to be batter at and what that would look like in real situations.

Defining a team’s values is another important aspect of a collective identity. In order to understand the teams values, the guide recommends that the team lists values that reflect strengths and growth opportunities. Take the list of values and describe how the teams they translate into agreements and rituals. Then, assign an “owner” to the value and ritual.

For example, if the team’s value is “make others successful”, the ritual can be that the team kicks of every stand-up meeting by asking who needs help with something, and one team member is responsible for making sure this ritual happens.

A feel-need-do map is an exercise that helps define key moments from the past quarter or year. Team members will reflect on those key moments, then outline how team members feel during that moment as well as what they need. Lastly, team members brainstorm rituals or agreements that meet those feelings and needs.

For example, a key moment is a new member joining the team. In this situation, the new member needs to know about the work being done and the manager feels pressured to teach them everything. The agreement can be to distribute the onboarding process across the team.

Awareness and inclusion

Awareness and inclusion in a team is important so that members honor each other and the viewpoints that each person brings. To start working on awareness and inclusion, each team member should reflect on what makes them most successful on a team. To do this, use the following questions:

  • When are you at your best?
  • What situations, tasks, and people contribute to this?
  • What conditions do you need to keep working this way?
  • When are you at your worst?
  • What situations, tasks, and people contribute to this?
  • What would you need to change to remediate these issues in the future?

Creating a “profile” of how you like to work can help team members understand your work style. Start your profile by making a list of the following things:

  • Things you can count on me for…
  • Things I may need help with…
  • My preferred way of receiving feedback is…
  • Ways I’m looking to grow…
  • I’m most successful when…
  • I get stressed if…

Trust and vulnerability

The starting point to building trust and vulnerability is understanding when you feel most recognized and when you feel discouraged. To start this process, you can ask the following questions:

  • What actions and behaviors get recognized/rewarded at work?
  • What actions and behaviors get discouraged at work?
  • What are specific moments that prove each of these?
  • What happened in these situations?
  • What were your particular feelings/perceptions?
  • For each scenario identified, how do you think these experiences have shaped your behavior and influenced how you show up at work?

Another aspect of building trust and vulnerability is to find common connections within your team. Each team member should make lists using the following:

  • I secretly nerd out on…
  • Joys of mine are…
  • If I could learn a new skill it would be…
  • At work, I wish I was better at…
  • I would love tips on…
  • If I had a magic wand, I’d change this about my working style…
  • Ways that I can offer help to the team are…

Reflecting about how team members can help each other can ease tensions when it comes to reaching out for help with a project. Use the following questions to brainstorm this topic:

  • Who might help me on the team?
  • How might I go about asking for help?
  • When have I felt comfortable asking for help on the team? Why?
  • When have I felt uncomfortable asking for help on the team? Why?

Constructive tension

Constructive tension comes from thinking differently, not from differing opinions or disturbance on a team. The most effective teams know how to harness tension and turn it into a productive force. The guide recommends that teams go on a “tension tour” in order to reflect on the root cause of moments of tension on the team.

Map out answers to the following:

  • When did you experience conflict within a team?
  • Who was involved?
  • What was the situation?
  • What do you think made the moment so tense?

Successful teams have processes to harness and defuse tension. The guide recommends creating rituals help the team do this.

There are two types of tension- destructive and constructive, and there are also two different ways to deal with tension. Team members can defuse destructive tension by acknowledging it and harness constructive tension that results from differing perspectives by turning it into a generative force.

The first step when it comes to constructive tension is to identify tensions that you would like to harness or defuse. Here are questions to answer that will help with breaking down those tensions:

  • Name the tension
  • How do you spot it?
  • What does the tension feel like?
  • How do you know it’s constructive or destructive?
  • What are some strategies or techniques that might help you defuse or harness the tension?

To translate tension into tactics, the guide recommends listing common types of tension and brainstorming ways to either diffuse or harness this tension. For example, the tension could be that you are often interrupted by coworkers when you need heads-down time in an office space. The tactic for handling this could be that you set the norm that headphones in your ears means that you need heads-down time.

The guide recommends analyzing tension in the following way:

  • Summarize the context of the tension.
  • What happened?
  • What did the tension feel like?
  • What was a breakthrough moment?
  • Choose two perspectives from people involved. What enabled them to be open and considerate? What might they have been challenged or fearful of?

Teamwork wrap up

Successful teamwork feels like it should come naturally, but that”s rarely ever the case. By working to create a strong team purpose, collective identity, awareness & inclusion, trust & vulnerability, and collective tension, teamwork can happen anywhere.

Originally published on Ladders.

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