Why Everything Must Work at the Team Level

Teams are the instruments of change in a company. Changes in their microcultures are more likely to shape your company's culture than anything else. In today's COVID-19 world, flexible team sizes are a must, and small teams are how companies will be able to climb the resilience curve.

June 5, 2020 4 mins read

My father was a business leader. He was the CEO of a 3,000-person business that manufactured sweets and candies, a well-known brand in the UK called Trebor. At the time, it was a family business and because of this he was thrown into the deep end at a young age – being appointed manager of a large factory at just 25. He quickly figured out that he knew very little compared to the employees that had been working there for as long as he’d been alive. However, it was at this time he became what we now call a “facilitative leader” — he brought out the best in people, rather than telling them what to do.

It’s this life lesson that shaped how I’ve gone about designing measurement tools to promote wellbeing and positivity at work. He told me, “Whatever you do, make it work at the team level.” I took that statement to heart and now it’s a fundamental feature of how Friday Pulse works.

He understood that the real driver of change was the team. Data can now confirm that insight — local team culture is over eight times more influential on our experience of work than the wider organisational culture.

Microcultures, football, and team performance

A company is made up of smaller parts: divisions, departments and, ultimately, teams. Similarly, a company’s culture is made up of the microcultures that are part of every team. Understanding the varying microcultures in your company will result in happier, higher-performing and resilient teams.

We need only look at a football team (soccer for our American cousins) to illustrate the point.

A team has ten outfield players and one goalkeeper. These players are broken up into smaller groups — backs, midfielders and forwards. We all know a great team when we see it in action. They win. They enjoy playing together. They consistently create scoring opportunities.

We use phrases like “chemistry” to talk about their ability to execute. The chemistry between forwards could lead to offensive dominance. The chemistry between these players can be defined as its own microculture — their personalities, interactions and rituals. In turn, their attitudes affect other positional players and the overall team bond.

The reverse is true as well. As the bond between teammates breaks down, so too does their level of success. Sports fans can point to any number of teams that have fallen apart after the end of a winning period or unhappy players that underperform.

In business we form teams in the expectation that collaborating will produce better results, but this only happens when teams work well together. So, because there are nearly as many microcultures as there are teams, winning the hearts and minds of your teams will ultimately shape your company’s future performance.  

Is there an ideal team size?

Team size plays a critical role in success.

A study of a 2015 Nobel prize-winning team found that small teams were great at creatively disrupting the status quo with new ideas, inventions and opportunities. Large teams were suited for solving problems, executing and building on ideas. They are fantastic for working on the logistics of big projects (send a person to the moon!) but also have more communication issues and are typically risk-averse.

However, in the current COVID-19 world and with tech and pandemic restrictions in place, we believe that a smaller team of 4 or 5 people is ideal. Indeed, psychologists talk about a skill that they call “mentalising” — it is an essential building block for empathy – the ability to understand another person’s state of mind and intentions. Critically, we can only really pay attention to three or four other people at any one time. This is why when we are chatting in a small group and a couple more people join, more often than not the conversation quickly splits into two groups – we simply can’t keep all the people ‘in mind’ at the same time.

We will always need large teams for large problems. Larger teams can be made up of smaller teams, and it’s essential to make sure that cross-fertilisation occurs — shared ideas across teams — and silos don’t form.

How do you support your teams?

If there is one thing that is true about good teams, it’s that they collaborate, communicate well and challenge each other. Here’s how you can support your remote teams during this time:

Smaller calls

It’s easier to connect with small teams on Zoom and video calls. Large groups tend to have people that do not actively participate, or even actively disengage from the meeting. Use smaller groups so that teams and team leaders can connect with everyone effectively.

Laugh a little

Maybe it’s not always about business first. Generate some fun and laughter into your meetings, to relax your team and improve their bond. Laughter sparks laughter, and real laughter is one of the best ways to keep your teams emotionally connected.

Encourage team leaders to be more facilitative

With increased remote working and smaller groups, team leaders need to devote more time to their teams. Encourage team leaders to become more facilitative and more intentional in their interactions and interventions. They may find that delegating more will free up their own time and help them identify synergies between team members better.

How can Friday Pulse support your teams?

Friday Pulse tracks employee wellbeing. During this pandemic period, my team and I are committed to helping businesses bounce back and improve their morale. That’s why we are continuing to offer companies and teams (50 – 1,000 employees) free access to our Friday Pulse people platform for 12 weeks.

For more information on how we can help your organization weather the crisis, please contact my colleague Clive Steer at [email protected]