Team Building and Group Cohesion

Team cohesion is “a dynamic process that is reflected in the tendency for a group to stick together and remain united in the pursuit of its instrumental objectives and/or satisfaction of member affective needs” (Carron et al., 1998). There are a few key points within this definition that need to be taken into account when beginning to develop cohesion with a group. Firstly it is a dynamic process; indicating that it is ever changing and needs to be address at regular intervals. There is little point doing a one-off team building activity and providing no follow up. Secondly cohesion is about sticking together and remaining united; implying the need to keep all members involved and working towards the team goals. Finally the inclusion of “and/or” provides a clear distinction that is regularly overlooked by those in leadership positions charged with team development and performance. This distinction determines that the focus of the team can either be towards performance and achievement or it can be related to helping members of the group get on well together. It is here that I have spent quite a bit of time within professional sports organizations helping staff and athletes to understand that while it is nice for members of the team to get on well together, it is not essential for performance.
In order to better understand cohesion it may be best to start looking at the individuals that make up that team. Carron et al.’s (1998) conceptual model identifies that each team member has two separate dimensions for becoming involved with a team: 1) Individual attraction to the group, which reflects the individual’s perceptions about personal motivations acting to entice the individual to the group; and 2) Group integration, which reflects the individual’s perceptions about the closeness of the group and how well they bond together. Both of these dimensions can be split further into task or social reasons. Task cohesion is related to the degree to which group member’s work together to achieve a common goal i.e. about getting the job done. Social cohesion is the interpersonal attraction among group members i.e. about liking the people you work with. As mentioned it is the distinction between task and social cohesion that helps to explain how teams can overcome conflict to succeed.
There have been numerous examples of teams overcoming adversity and internal conflict to achieve. A German researcher, Hans Lenk, was one of the first to disprove that teammates needed to like each other to be successful when he collected data from the ‘riotous’ German rowing eight team that won the gold medal at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. The team needed to be coaxed into the boat and had massive leadership issues off the water, with team members stated as hating each other. What they did have in common however was their desire to win an Olympic gold medal. Each member knew that for them to have the best hope of achieving this they needed each other member. This created an extremely high task cohesion between them.
Team Building

It is essential to have a specific focus for team building interventions. Many teams only consider social cohesion when doing this. If you are aiming to improve performance this approach may overlook some key factors, instead to increase performance (and subsequently results) a task specific focus is needed. On the other hand if the focus is to have a group come together and enjoy working together then social team building strategies are essential. Therefore it is important know what the objectives are before commencing. No matter what the focus is the team building approach should incorporate the following 4 stages:
  1. Introductory Stage – the purpose of the first stage is to introduce the team building program and provide a background to the effectiveness and results from team building interventions. This is important because participants exhibit greater motivation and adherence when they understand the intervention.
  1. Conceptual Stage – introducing the conceptual framework. For visual learners, a framework may improve comprehension of the focus areas of the program. While a conceptual model also assists with the transition from theory to practice. Although many in the group may not be interested in the theory, they will be interested in how it will help the group.
  1. Practical Stage – the third stage encourages group members and leaders to become actively involved in the process. By becoming actively involved group members have been shown to increase commitment. (It is important to note that these first three stages can be accomplished in one relatively brief session).
  1. Intervention Stage – The specific program developed from the previous stages is implemented.
Team building for performance

Task cohesion is most important for performance, with research identifying substantial increases in cohesiveness and individual’s adherence behaviour from task focused team building activities. The primary aim is to demonstrate how important each individual is for the team and develop each individual’s responsibility. Those in leadership positions are crucial to this, by creating a positive, confident and empowering climate that: provides coherent, visionary and accepted leadership; encourages members to dedicate their effort to collective achievement; provides efficient use of time and resources; and reduces / eliminates any negativity. Some specific strategies that can be implemented include: group goal setting and behavioural norms; clarity of team roles; establishing unique team identifiers; provide opportunities for member input; foster mutual trust and respect; and be really clear with communication.
Team building for exercise groups

Much research has been conducted using group exercise settings and the benefits of social cohesion, which is why it infuriates me to see so many poorly structured groups exercise classes (not to mention poorly trained instructors). High levels of social cohesion leads to: less dropouts; reduction in absenteeism and lateness; increased work output; and greater goal achievement. Some suggested strategies for those leading exercises groups include: having a group name and identity (i.e. group T-shirt); encourage members to work together; promote a smart work ethic; encourage group activities after training (i.e. coffee); include lots of variety; keep activity levels high (not necessarily intensity but keep people involved); promote group interaction and communication; and perhaps most important is to keep it fun.

Teams are constantly developing and progressing. Understanding the purpose and goals of the team is essential. Research has demonstrated that about 90% of the time developing cohesion within the team has led to increased achievement of goals. Why not 100%? The answer is because these teams have chosen an inappropriate focus to their team building (normally developing social cohesion in the hope of achieving performance measures). There is a reciprocal relationship between cohesion and performance. The ideal approach to take with teams is to initially focus team building on social developments, with a move towards a task specific focus to enhance performance. The approach that is taken needs to meet the objectives of the team building program. It is also essential that team building strategies are implemented on a regular basis and not just seen as a one-off activity.