The large majority of companies rely on teams to deal with the complexity of today’s work. For instance, in the US 95% of people report working in teams, in the UK approximately 81% of people have a team-based job, and teamwork consistently ranks on the top three skills most screened by potential employers during selection processes.
While most companies structure work around teams, team failure rates are staggeringly high (up to 60% of teams fail) . Many teams never reach their full potential, plateauing at a performance level way below expectations; or are so dysfunctional that end up dismantled. Understanding which processes and states separate effective teams from those functioning sub-optimally, and learning how to improve teamwork, will help you make the most of your team, grow as a professional, and enjoy the time you spend working with your teammates.
With that in mind, we set out to share a straightforward and evidence-based framework on the processes and states that matter the most for team effectiveness. You can use this framework to boost your team’s effectiveness; to identify improvement opportunities in your team’s dynamics; to run a guided reflection and analysis of your team’s functioning; or simply to learn more about the team processes and states that keep your team moving forward.
Table of contents
- What are team processes, states and effectiveness?
- Types of team processes
- Transition processes of effective teams
- Action processes of effective teams
- Interpersonal processes of effective teams
- How do team processes function together to improve effectiveness?
- Types of team states
- Cognitive states of effective teams
- Affective states of effective teams
- Motivational states of effective teams
- How do team states function together to improve effectiveness?
- How do team processes and states work together to improve effectiveness?
- Are team processes and states enough to enhance team effectiveness?
- References and further reading
What are team processes, states and effectiveness?
Before we talk about the team processes and states that can propel or undermine your team effectiveness, it is important to be clear about the meaning of each concept.
In most cases, teams are assessed and rewarded based on how productive they are on assignments, tasks, or projects. Indicators such as quantity of work produced, quality of service, and client satisfaction, are a priority for most teams. As a consequence, we tend to be particularly aware of these aspects of team effectiveness. However, when we focus only on these elements we run the risk of ignoring other important factors, such as the experience team members have in the team. Such aspects are not only part of team effectiveness but also tend to have long term implications for the productivity of the team.
An effective team tends to fulfill, at least, three key aspects :
- Performance (for example, a team meets or surpasses quantity, quality, and service standards);
- Viability (for example, team members are willing to work together again in the future, and they operate better together at the end than at the beginning of the task);
- Team members’ growth and well-being (for example, team members learn new skills, grow professionally and personally, and see their psychological needs satisfied).
According to this view of team effectiveness, a highly productive team may or may not be an effective team. For instance, if team members are frustrated with each other, and do not have opportunities to grow professionally, it is likely a matter of time until productivity goes down and members start to leave. Sacrificing viability or growth for performance usually leads to team ineffectiveness in the long run.
However, not all aspects of effectiveness are equally relevant for all teams. For example, a team that is created exclusively for a project and that will be permanently dismantled afterwards may want to focus more on performance. In contrast, a team that is formed with the future in mind (for example, to form the permanent core of a department) may want to focus not only on performance but also on long-term viability or team members’ growth and well-being.
Team processes are the ways by which teammates work together to achieve common goals . Processes can take multiple forms:
- Interactions among team members (for example, exchanging ideas or setting goals);
- Interactions of team members with their surroundings (for instance, securing the materials or information that are necessary to complete a task);
- Actions of a single team member that have direct or indirect implications for the remaining members (for example, seeking to understand colleagues’ strengths and improvement opportunities, as well as the role of each person in the team).
Team processes are not about getting the work done, but rather about the interpersonal leverages teams can capitalize on to get the work done. You can look at team processes as the interpersonal context in which teams carry out their work. For instance, the act of coordinating your share of the work with your colleagues is a team process; whereas doing the actual work is not a process – it’s simply work being carried out.
Team states (also called team emergent states) refer to the feelings, cognitions, and motivations that team members have in common. You can think of team states as the beliefs that each and every member has while being involved with the team. States develop over time and tend to remain relatively stable; in a way, you could say that states embody the traits of the team. Due to their nature, team states tend to be largely invisible; but you can spot them indirectly if you learn to read and understand your teammates’ behaviors.
Team states emerge in four main ways. First, your team’s history of effectiveness and goal accomplishment makes some states pop up. For instance, past successes tend to boost states such as members’ commitment to the team, willingness to stick around, and the belief that the team will be successful in the future . Similarly, team processes also shape team states over time. For instance, distrust (a state) typically persists until team members start having open conversations (a process). Second, your colleagues’ or leader’s feelings, cognitions, and actions can be contagious. For instance, if you are a pessimist but work in a team with only optimistic people, it is likely that, over time, you start seeing things in a more positive light, just like them. Similarly, if you are unsure how to behave in a situation, you probably look around to see how your colleagues are behaving and follow along.
Third, we tend to be attracted to, selected by, and remain in teams with people similar to us. For instance, teams with extroverted members tend to attract and retain more extroverted than introverted members. Fourth, many teams have strong socialization processes in place, ensuring that everyone is on the same page in terms of feelings, motivations and cognitions. For instance, it might be the case that you would be able to correctly identify a caregiver and a Wall Street banker, just by looking at them. The reason for this is that, over time, our feelings and emotions end up engraved in the structures of our faces and others can easily pick them up.
How to distinguish a team process from a team state?
Processes and states are not always easily distinguishable. However, knowing how to differentiate between the two is important because it helps you to more accurately diagnose your team’s situation, as well as to formulate a better plan of action to improve your team’s effectiveness. With this in mind, let’s look at a couple of examples of team processes and states to see how to distinguish between the two.
For instance, the belief that your team can do whatever task comes its way is a state, whereas pumping up a colleague who is struggling to finish a task is a process. The first is a belief that all team members share (state), the second an interaction between team members (process). As another example, clashing with another team member is a team process, whereas the feeling of annoyance that you both probably have after the clash is a team state. The process may be over as soon as you leave the conversation, but the state may persist over time and even color future conversations.
An effective way to assess whether you are dealing with a process or a state is to look at the words you use to describe what you are thinking about. If you find yourself using action verbs, you are most likely talking about team processes. Take a look at this description: “We each thought about our past mistake, so that together we could find the best solution to fix it”. Since the italicized words are all action verbs, you have a strong indication that you are describing a team process. In this case, the team process involved individual actions with implications for other team members (thought), and interactions among team members (find and fix).
In contrast, if you find yourself using adjectives, you are probably thinking about team states. Look at this description of a team event: “Although we are aware of the project difficulty, we are confident in our ability to reach the goal.” Since all the italicized words are adjectives, you are looking at a team state. In this particular example, you have cognitive (aware) and motivational (confident) states that were shared by all team members.
Types of team processes
The list of team processes that can take place in any team is rather long. Goal setting, conflict management, information elaboration, coordination, planning, knowledge sharing, and mutual help are just a few examples. With such an extensive list, it can be a daunting task to pinpoint the specific process you need to improve, capitalize, or focus your attention on to boost effectiveness.
Thankfully, this large number of team processes can be understood in a simplified way, making your job as a team member or leader much smoother. Multiple studies show that the large majority of team processes fall into one of three major categories: transition, action, or interpersonal  . In turn, each category is composed by a few facets, and each facet encompasses specific processes. You can visualize this in the diagram below.
Large scale studies show that effective teams take good care of the three main categories of processes. Together, these broad categories of processes are the foundation of a well-oiled and functional team. For instance, your team enhances the likelihood of successfully achieving its goals when members develop a clear understanding of their goals (transition processes), help each other out when necessary (action processes), and encourage each other when things become frustrating or particularly difficult (interpersonal processes). With effective team processes in place, a team can achieve more with the same resources – the team is more than the sum of its parts. Ineffective team processes or a disregard for a category of processes lead teams to achieve less with the same resources – the team is less than the sum of its parts.
Transition processes of effective teams
During transition processes your team prepares for the work ahead. This preparation usually entails looking both forward (for example, understanding the purpose of future work and identifying viable methods to achieve that purpose) and backward (for example, understanding, reflecting on, and learning from previous successes and failures). It also entails considering both task aspects (the actual work to be done) and interpersonal aspects (the quality of the relationships between team members and the roles of each member, for instance).
There are three main facets to this category of processes that effective teams pay close attention to  :
- Analyzing teams’ mission and purpose (your team defines and understands its main job, identifies the resources available to do the work, speculates about potential challenges and roadblocks to the achievement of goals, and lists sources of support and attrition from the company or environment);
- Setting goals (your team identifies, specifies, and prioritizes goals and sub-goals to accomplish its mission and purpose);
- Coming up with an overall strategy and plan (your team comes up with an action plan, creates milestones to achieve its tasks, defines contingency plans in case something goes wrong, and strategically plans to surpass anticipated roadblocks or sources of attrition).
How to improve transition processes
This broad category of team processes seems simple to achieve, but is frequently the source of many issues down the road. For instance, it is surprisingly frequent to see teams with a well crafted list of goals lacking clarity on what exactly each goal means and showing signs of low commitment to those goals. Transition processes are also tricky in the sense that it can be though to determine the right amount of planning and strategizing. On the one hand, overthinking can delay or even harm performance. On the other hand, overlooking these processes can lead to excessive improvisation and reactive action. Reviewing the plan, articulating it in more than one way, and capitalizing on the most relevant information each team members has, are simple but effective methods to avoid these situations.
In addition, although teams that plan and strategize both how the team will work and what the team wants to achieve are the most effective ones, many teams end up focusing mainly on one or the other aspect. To improve how your team will work, building a team chart tends to function well (detailing vision, available resources, members’ strengths and weaknesses, roles, norms of functioning, approach to feedback, and a system to evaluate and reward work). To achieve a clear understanding of what your team wants to accomplish, a well-thought, but flexible, performance plan with a path to follow, goals to achieve, and output strategy, tends to function well.
Usually teams devote attention to these processes before starting to work on a new task or project. However, it is also a good idea to revisit transition processes and make any necessary adjustment while doing the work. Indeed, research shows that teams who make debriefs outperform those who do not make them. Keep in mind that structured debriefs, covering the three broad categories of team processes as well as team states and previous performance, tend to work better than unstructured debriefs. Depending on the type of work your team does, this may mean a weekly or monthly debrief meeting to check what worked well and what needs improvement. Also, keep in mind that a debrief is not a performance appraisal. Rather, it focuses on leaning from specific past events in a nonjudgmental and developmental way. Large scale studies show that, when done correctly, debriefs can enhance your team’s performance up to 25%.
Action processes of effective teams
Action processes happen at the same time your team is working, and largely define how effective its efforts are. Overall, during action processes your team seeks to create and maintain the conditions that are necessary to do its job effectively. Action processes, thus, relate to how well your team is working, not to what your team is working on.
Usually, effective teams have four facets of action processes functioning well . Those processes are:
- Assessing progress towards goals (your team checks whether its work is progressing according to the plan and whether the strategy still makes sense, identifies the factors that may put the team off-track, and makes the necessary adjustments);
- Checking how well the systems are functioning (your team ensures it has the necessary resources to work well and to achieve its goals, by looking internally – team members’ knowledge, time, etc. – and externally – company financial support, appropriate inflow of information or materials from other teams, changes in external regulations, etc.);
- Helping and backing teammates up (the members of your team openly share knowledge with one another and learn from each other, distribute the workload fairly but assist those who despite effort get behind in their work, encourage more silent members to share their perspectives, and give constructive feedback to each other when performance standards are below acceptable levels or when there are improvement opportunities);
- Coordinating efforts (your team ensures that there is no duplication of efforts, that everyone understands and commits to their role, that each part of the work is done on time, and that the work done on each sub-task is in harmony with the other sub-tasks).
How to improve action processes
Depending on the type of work your team performs, these four facets can manifest in different ways. In fast-paced contexts (such as sports, surgery, day-trading, and the military), effective teams end up engaging frequently, if not intensely, in these action processes. For instance, given that any fluctuation in a stock can mean a profit or a loss, day-trading teams need to be particularly attentive to any momentary change that occurs in a company where they are temporarily investing, and to ensure that any new piece of relevant information quickly flows through the team. Similarly, if you look at the work of a surgery team, you will notice members’ constant attention to these four facets, with adjustments happening at the second in some cases.
In contrast, if you work in less intensive contexts (for example, library, education, and agriculture) your engagement with these processes can be more periodic. For instance, a weekly check on whether things are running smoothly may suffice. However, just because you need to engage with these processes less frequently it does not mean that they are less relevant. Take the case of agriculture teams. Overlooking the weekly weather forecast can seriously harm the production of an entire year of work and cause severe losses. So, it is important for any team to engage in action processes at the level that better suits its work and context.
Action processes can also pose other challenges. For instance, helping others can become highly lopsided. A recent study shows that team performance can be driven more by the most helpful person in the team than by all the other members together. Similarly, in many companies a restrict group of people (3% to 5%) create most of the value in any collaborative work (up to 35%). These discrepancies have the potential to leave the most important members of a team overwhelmed and unhappy with the situation.
You can take a few actions to prevent these issues in action processes. For example, you can put together teams that are as small as possible – the smaller the team, the more visible the individual contribution of each member is, and the less likely contributions will get lopsided. Also, you can reward team performance instead of individual performance or a mixture of both – rewarding team performance tends to boost helping and monitoring behaviors in teams to the point that free riding becomes hard. It is also important to make sure that, during transition processes, everyone understands how important their role is for the task at hand. This not only eases the level of management required to coordinate efforts, but also tends to boost the motivation of all team members. Finally, you can build your team around people with the propensity to work collaboratively and to enjoy being in teams. This not only reduces coordination efforts but also boosts team performance.
Action processes can also make-or-break a team. Teams that track progress towards goals are more capable of having a real understanding of goal progression, keeping dysfunctions that may emerge under control, and boosting coordination and feedback in the team. In contrast, when teams do not monitor their goal progression, it is common to see them drifting away from their goals for extensive periods of time and engaging in dysfunctional behaviors, such as procrastination and overconfidence.
Interpersonal processes of effective teams
Interpersonal processes happen when the members of your team are managing the relationships among them. These processes are more about the personal and human side of teamwork (for example, managing personal relationships, and increasing and keeping team spirit). Keep in mind that interpersonal processes are the actions that may lead to high quality relationships, not the quality of teammates’ relationships per se.
There are three main facets to interpersonal processes that are particularly relevant for your team effectiveness :
- Anticipating and managing conflict and other tensions (members of your team work hard to understand and integrate different perspectives and ideas, show flexibility to compromise when necessary and to reinforce a point if beneficial, come up with and adjust norms to facilitate interaction and cooperation, and proactively identify and work on functional adjustments that can prevent clashes in terms of values, motivations, or personal preferences);
- Boosting motivation and confidence (members of your team recall and talk about past accomplishments, celebrate small steps toward big goals, encourage one another even when difficulties seem insurmountable, and remember each other of all the steeps already achieved when they get stuck on a challenging goal);
- Managing affect and emotions (members of your team turn fear of failure into commitment and enthusiasm using encouraging words and actions, help each other surpassing frustration and dealing with stressful times, and show that they are pursuing something together and that they really care about each other).
How to improve interpersonal processes
Interpersonal processes are, in one way or another, always present in teams. Whether your team is establishing goals (transition processes), managing work toward goals (action processes), or actually working, interpersonal processes are there propelling or hindering your team’s progress and effectiveness. For instance, when teammates fortify one another’s level of confidence (interpersonal processes), they end up creating the foundational conditions to openly share their perspectives on the best way to accomplish a goal (transition processes), and putting forward their knowledge on how to solve a particular problem (action processes). Further, interpersonal processes are particularly important for how you feel at work. For example, they are largely responsible for how satisfied, committed, and willing to go the extra mile you are at work.
Since interpersonal processes are so relevant for teamwork, team members and leaders tend to keep an eye on them. This focus on interpersonal processes is important, but overdoing it can be detrimental to your team. For instance, it can lead to inaccurate assessments of the source of the issue. While it is common to attribute the success or failure of a team to its interpersonal processes, transition and action processes are usually as, or even more, important for the performance of your team . Indeed, multiple studies show that team building programs focused on improving interpersonal processes do not enhance performance, while team building programs focused on transition and action processes do .
On top of that, transition and action processes, as well as past performance, can be the actual drivers of interpersonal processes, not the other way around. In a classic study, researchers gave false performance feedback to a task done by teams, and asked them to, as objectively as possible, recall their interactions. That is, regardless of their actual performance, teams randomly received positive or negative performance feedback. Those who received positive feedback recalled more positive and harmonious interactions than teams who were told that they performed poorly. Since that performance feedback shapes how members see their interactions and relationships, looking at interpersonal processes too much may mask the actual source of your team’s real problem. Teammates might truly appreciate each other, but poor performance paired with low quality transition and action processes may negatively color their relationships.
During our team building programs we have also noticed that this over-the-top focus on improving interpersonal processes can leave your team loosing track of its mission and purpose, as well as the nature of its work. Take the case of the open debates that are, in most cases, necessary and beneficial to evaluate the robustness of an idea before investing resources on it. Interpersonal norms that are too tight can hurt a team’s ability to have those debates (that is, to engage in effective action and transition processes). In contrast, healthy norms to prevent and resolve dysfunctional conflict give your team a head start to engage in effective action and transition processes. An example of a healthy norm is to keep debates focused on the task at hand and at a mild level of intensity. Research shows that intense work debates have the inherent risk of being interpreted as personal attacks, creating uneasiness and resentment in the team.
Given that interpersonal processes can be challenging to manage, here’s a video with some additional tips on how to manage the process of team conflict from Lindred Greer, a former Stanford Professor:
How do team processes function together to improve effectiveness?
Overall, in effective teams, transition processes precede action processes, and interpersonal processes are always present . In other words, before starting to work on something, your team benefits from understanding its past and the path ahead, setting goals, and coming up with a strategic plan to follow. Indeed, teams who engage in transition processes before engaging in action processes tend to outperform those who ignore transition processes.
There are, however, many nuances to consider in how these processes function together to improve effectiveness. First, in the real world, most teams deal with multiple tasks at the same time. In many cases, a team might be planning for one task (transition processes), coordinating work efforts for another one (action processes), and managing how team members get along (interpersonal processes). So, it is very likely that a fully functional team ends up engaging in all processes on a daily basis.
Second, it might be a good idea to revisit your team plans midway and close to the deadline . As we start to work on a task we gain new and useful insights on what it takes to finish it. Usually, it pays off to adjust our initial plans in light of our new understanding of the task.
Third, there are multiple factors affecting your team’s ability to engage in transition processes. For instance, if your team is about to deal with a completely new task or have previously failed in a similar task, a serious engagement in transition processes should take place. In contrast, if your team is about to replicate a task under similar circumstances, a more superficial engagement in transition processes might be more appropriate. Nonetheless, some attention to transition processes tends to be always advisable. One of the reasons for this is that transition processes (establishing goals, plans, deadlines, and milestones) have a motivational role that drives your team’s efforts and work. For example, our attention to time, care for team processes, and level of engagement with the work at hand tend to steadily increase as deadlines near.
Fourth, transition processes can be lengthy or abrupt, and even adopt different configurations. Take the case of a surgery team. Transition processes for a high risk surgery are usually time consuming, including things like planning the surgery, defining roles, assessing the risk, and preparing for multiple possible scenarios. However, if something unexpectedly goes wrong during the high-risk surgery, the team cannot engage in a lengthy new transition process, nor continue to follow the original plan. This would not be viable for the patient. In these cases, transition processes become more a question of ensuring that everyone is aware of the new situation, that no one is following the old plan, and that the team’s focus is now fully redirected to solve the unexpected situation. Having the flexibility to engage in different configurations of transition processes can make a massive difference in the end result of most teams.
Types of team states
The distinction between the different categories of team states is not as clear as the distinction between the categories of team processes. Although most states can be labeled as mainly cognitive, affective, or motivational, many are a mixture of all these aspects. Take the case of team trust – a motivational state that also reflects cognitive and affective aspects. When you trust your teammates you evaluate them as dependable, competent, and honest (cognitive), you feel they genuinely care about you (affective), and you invest resources in teamwork and feel comfortable raising potentially problematic issues with them (motivational). However, separating them into categories, according to the most salient aspect, can still be helpful to pinpoint specific issues with team states and enhance your team effectiveness.
Cognitive states of effective teams
Team cognitive states refer to the mental maps your team members hold on how knowledge is organized and distributed in the team. Well structured mental maps are not built around any knowledge. Rather, they pull together knowledge that is critical to the normal functioning of your team. This means that cognitive states of effective teams tend to have three important knowledge foundations: task-related (for example, duties, resources, and goals); team-related (for example, how to get along with other team members); and time-related (for example, pace, sequence, and deadlines for work) .
Effective teams tend to nurture three team cognitive states:
- Shared mental models (members of your team share a common understanding of the goals, resources, and responsibilities of the team; can anticipate what teammates are going to do and the resources they will need to accomplish it; know how to interact with one another at work; and understand the role of one another in the task at hand) ;
- Transactive memory systems (members of your team are aware of the expertise of one another, understanding who knows what, who knows whom, and how to access that knowledge; are conscious of who will learn new knowledge and who will share it with whom; and believe in the credibility of the knowledge each one holds);
- Strategic consensus (members of your team understand and agree with the strategic approaches and priorities of the team).
How to improve team cognitive states
While shared mental models are about the knowledge shared among members, transactive memory systems are about how the knowledge is distributed in the team, and strategic consensus is about keeping in mind the strategic plans of the team. Thus, cognitive states leave your teammates both “on the same page” (with regard to what to do, how to do it, and when to do it) and “on complementary pages” (with regard to who is best equipped to do what).
Cognitive states give your team a solid knowledge foundation on which the remaining blocks of teamwork will stand strong. For instance, having a clear and common understanding of goals, of the distribution of expertise, and of how to work, behave, and access knowledge in the team is the cognitive structure behind teams’ ability to achieve high levels of coordination even without any form of overt communication. You can see this in action in functional football teams (or in any other team sport). Without looking at each other and without communicating, teammates pass the ball around by simply knowing where other players are in the field.
Research indicates that there are four types of interventions that tend to improve the quality of teams’ cognitive states and, consequently, their effectiveness:
- Planning ahead – Teams who set goals, clarify roles and pacing, and plan for unexpected events (that is, teams who engage in effective transition processes) tend to develop accurate cognitive states;
- Reflecting on the past – Teams who reflect on their past effectiveness, think about potential avenues to improve what is sub-optimal, and outline implementation strategies tend to enhance the quality of their cognitive states;
- Leader briefings – Teams with leaders who help members clarify goals, prioritize actions, reflect on past effectiveness, and identify potential risks and opportunities are more prone to develop precise cognitive states;
- Team training – Multiple forms of training have been shown to improve teams’ cognitive states  . Among the most effective are cross-training (teammates learn the roles and tasks of one another, and how they mesh), team-interaction training (teammates learn how to coordinate their actions and how to get along with each other), and self-correction training (teammates follow an evidence-based model of teamwork, reflect on what they are doing right and what can be improved on each part of the model, and agree on goals for improvement).
Cognitive states tend to be particularly important when the work your team does is complex, the output uncertain, or when teammates depend heavily on one another to do their share of the work. So, before adopting an intervention to boost the accuracy of your team’s cognitive states, make sure it fits the type of work you do. For example, it might not be the best use of resources to engage in cross-training when teammates can do their work with minimum input from others.
Affective states of effective teams
Teammates working together tend to see their emotions and moods (called affective states) converging over time. This happens because emotions are contagious, people are selected and kept in teams that are aligned with their personal mood, and all teammates end up facing similar experiences at work that activate certain emotions.
Effective teams pay close attention to two main facets of affective states:
- Team affective tone (the mood in your team tends to be consistently positive – for example, members tend to be happy and at ease – or negative – for example, team members tend to be frustrated and sad);
- Team affective culture (the rules, values, and norms your team has on which emotions can be expressed, which should be kept for yourself, and which are appropriate and inappropriate).
How to improve team affective states
Positive and negative affect have different functions in teams. Positive affect improves and tightens up relationships, making teammates more cohesive, cooperative, identified with the team, and ultimately more effective. Negative affect signals threats and dangers that may be in a team’s way, enabling teammates to stick together, mobilize resources, and coordinate efforts to understand and face the threat. This signaling function makes the effects of negative affect highly sensitive to its source. When negative affect is triggered by an external threat (for example, a competing team), teammates tend to focus their attention on that particular threat, getting together to resolve it. In contrast, when triggered internally (for example, team members do not get along with one another), negative affect tends to leave the team in a bad light and teammates unsatisfied, unproductive and focused on the internal source of negative affect.
Overall, effective teams are able to capitalize and build up any source of positive affect (as it usually boosts effectiveness); to react to external sources of negative affect and to manage internal sources promptly; and to read and manage the moods and emotions (both positive and negative) that pop up in the team. Although it feels good to be in a team with a positive affective tone, ignoring the information signaled by negative affect can damage your team’s effectiveness and even sustainability. Also, when left unabridged, positive affect can impair your team’s effectiveness by, for example, leaving your team members complacent, overly happy without being able to calm down, and unable to focus because everyone is joking around.
Keep in mind, however, that teammates also experience unique emotions and moods. Personality traits, the reading each member makes of a situation, personal life occurrences, and even the role one has in the team can all leave teammates experiencing different emotions. This diversity of emotions in your team can be a double-edged sword, whereby it boosts the ability of your team to benefit from both positive and negative affect, yet puts an additional layer of complexity in managing team affect. For instance, if you do not have enough sleep and go to work cranky, you may be more prone to conduct a deep analysis of the threats and risks associated with your team’s new idea, but also to clash with your teammates (particularly if they are not expecting this behavior from you).
This example illustrates the importance of a well-articulated team affective culture, formal or informal, explicit or tacit. Regardless of your own emotions and emotional reactions, effective teams map out acceptable and unacceptable outlets for them. In the “cranky due to sleep deprivation” example, an effective team would have clear norms to not only accept an assertive risk analysis, but also to shut down disrespectful interactions among teammates and to productively manage conflict. In contrast, teams that develop a culture that shuts down all forms of negative affect threaten their own existence because they blind themselves to potential dangers.
A well-articulated map does not necessarily mean a formal document that is passed on to your team. Over time, many cultural norms on what can be expressed and how, emerge based on what we see others doing. In our years working in the field of team and leadership training we have come across a number of insightful events on how affective cultures unfold. A few years ago, the general manager of a factory gave us a guided tour so that we could better understand the culture of the company and prepare our training. During the tour, there was a card box out of place. The general manager kicked the box, demanded to know who was responsible, and yelled and cursed at the member of staff.
Although there was no internal document stating that problems could be solved by yelling and cursing at others, the dominant emotional reactions of top management were telling a different story. With time, aggressive emotional reactions became the norm and a perfectly acceptable way to deal with almost any event in the factory. The end result was our hiring to solve the high rate of team conflict and misbehavior in the factory. So, it is important to be very aware of the information you convey with your emotional reactions and of how others might role model those reactions. With time and after repeated events, emotional reactions crystallize into dysfunctional affective states and cultures that undermine your team effectiveness.
Motivational states of effective teams
Motivational states relate to the energetic forces that direct, stimulate, and sustain the efforts of your team. There are four core states that fuel the desire of teams to make an effort at work:
- Team empowerment (your team believes in itself, in the meaningfulness and impact of its work, and has autonomy to make relevant decisions and to choose how to work);
- Team trust (your teammates believe in the reliability, integrity, and trustworthiness of one another, and openly rely on each other because of this belief);
- Team cohesion (your teammates feel close to each other and enjoy spending time together, are committed to the goals of the team, and take pride on belonging to the team);
- Team psychological safety (your teammates believe that it is fine to speak up, grow, learn, and take risks in the team, and that no one will be punished or embarrassed for doing so).
How to improve team motivational states
Due to their energizing role, motivational states need to be carefully managed. Both too much and too little desire to make an effort at work can be detrimental. For instance, while unempowered teams doubt that they can be successful and give up in the face of difficulty, excessive empowerment can leave teams overconfident in their abilities and with compromised performance. Similarly, while distrust undermines information sharing in your team, too much trust can make your team reluctant to check if everything is going according to plan.
These motivational states rely heavily on each other to boost team effectiveness. For example, trusting relationships (team trust), goal commitment (team cohesion), and believing that a goal can be achieved (team empowerment), provide the psychological safety your team needs to be effective while exploring and implementing innovative ideas. This means that you cannot build sustainable effectiveness by focusing only on one motivational state. Similarly, it is hard to build up one of the motivational states without the remaining ones. For instance, to create a psychologically safe environment, where teammates listen to each other and articulate their concerns, people must trust each other, enjoy spending time together, and care about the impact of their work.
However, most experienced team leaders and members have probably noticed that motivational states work in paradoxical ways. When you create a safe environment in your team and you voice your ideas (psychological safety) you end up enjoying the time spent with your teammates and raising your commitment to the team goals (cohesion). However, if cohesion grows too much, conformity pressures and limited psychological safety to voice concerns may surface in things like premature consensus on decisions. Making sure that everyone participates in conversations, acknowledging the relevance of all points of view, learning to read teammates’ feelings and thoughts through their non-verbal expressions, and nurturing dissent are established ways to enhance both cohesion and psychological safety in a team  .
Here’s a video with some tips on how to build psychological safety in your team from Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson:
How do team states function together to improve effectiveness?
While team processes tend to work in sequence, team states tend to co-exist in your team’s background. This does not mean that team states are important at all times. In contrast, they tend to be activated by what your team is doing or facing. In other words, when your team or one of its members faces a situation, a set of states might be required for optimal effectiveness. If your team has those states crystallized, teammates can rely on them, otherwise effectiveness may suffer.
In 2015, Google released the results of their in depth research to uncover the keys to a high-performance team. Their conclusion was that, at least for teams at Google and probably for other tech teams, motivational and cognitive states were the most important factors for effectiveness. Psychological safety, dependability (trusting that teammates will do high quality work and finish it on time), and believing in the meaning and impact of the team’s work (team empowerment), were the motivational states that mattered the most. Clear goals, roles, and plans, were the cognitive states that most influenced the effectiveness of Google’s teams.
For teams at Google, motivational and cognitive states were the key to solve problems, innovate, generate more income, and grow members’ satisfaction. Nonetheless, for other work contexts, affective states may gain more prevalence. For instance, in service teams a negative affective tone may disrupt the team’s efforts to gain reputation for its work. Also, affective states may appear irrelevant because sometimes they do not boost performance right away. Rather, your team’s positive affective tone may enhance collaboration (a team process), which in turn raises performance.
Understanding which states are most relevant for your team effectiveness and keeping them at a healthy level is of the utmost importance if you want to build and sustain a high-performing team.
How do team processes and states work together to improve effectiveness?
As you probably already noticed, processes and states are systematically feeding each other. On the one hand, team states often stay in your team’s background, influencing the flow of interactions and work. Let’s look at some examples. The process of task conflict (teammates have different viewpoints and opinions about work) boosts performance only when it is safe to speak up and take risks in the team. When there is no psychological safety, task conflict undermines performance. Also, exchanging innovative ideas in a team (a process) tends to boost performance when members are clear about and committed to team goals (a cognitive state). When this cognitive state is not present, teams easily drift away from their purpose, come up with meaningless ideas, and innovation can even become a source of frustration. As yet another example, when team members share a common understanding of their work and relationships (a cognitive state), they coordinate better (an action process) because they know exactly how to operate in the team.
On the other hand, team processes also fuel team states. For instance, if the members of a team get along with each other (they anticipate and manage conflicts well – a process), all members will probably feel good when they are at work (they experience a state of shared positive affect). Also, if a team becomes overconfident in its ability to do high-quality work (too much empowerment), the process of regularly assessing progress towards goals helps to develop a more realistic confidence level. In such case, upon detecting no substantial progression in a task for a while, the shared over-the-top belief of “We are better than any other team in the field” may turn into a more realistic “We are good and we can pull this off, if we make a serious collective effort”.
Keep in mind, however, that team states tend to have substantial inertia in them. In most instances, you need time to build a stable team state. In more rare instances, one act can substantially change the team state. For example, if your teammates distrust one another (a team state), one knowledge sharing act (a team process) might increase the level of trust in your team a little bit. It will not solve the distrust issue, though. Multiple knowledge sharing acts, from multiple team members, would be required for distrust to disappear and trust to become ingrained in your team. However, a serious betrayal in the team would be all it takes to undermine, in a moment, months or years of trust building.
Overall, team processes bring forth crystallized states, which in turn influence how processes unfold. You cannot understand states without looking at processes and vice versa. You cannot build an effective team without attending to both processes and states.
Are team processes and states enough to enhance team effectiveness?
Large scale studies indicate that team processes and team states explain up to 20% of a team’s performance     . These studies also show that each process and state is responsible for a part of this slice. As such, each process and state we identified in this framework has a direct and important role in team effectiveness.
This value of 20% may not seem substantial at first glance. But given that processes and states refer only to the internal engines of a team, it is quite an impressive value. On top of processes and states, effectiveness also depends on what it is inputted into the team. For instance, your team’s effectiveness is also influenced by the composition of your team (for example, the knowledge each individual has), the resources available (for example, the time and budget your organization gives your team to achieve something), team leadership (for example, abusive leadership severely harms team performance), and the overall economic conditions of your sector or country.
The main reason why processes and states are so important for team effectiveness is that with the right knowledge and enough effort they can be improved. While teams have sizable control over their processes and states, their control over other aspects that are also important for team effectiveness can be rather limited. For instance, it is easier for your team to manage its level of cooperation (a process) than the economic climate of its sector or raise the project budget (inputs). What you get out of a team depends on what it is put into it, and on how well processes and states are managed.
Although processes and states are not a panacea for all problems in team effectiveness, effective teams take good care of their processes and states. A 20% performance boost might be that extra oxygen tank your team needs to reach the top of the mountain, or the difference between finishing a project on time and frustrating a client, an employer, or even yourself and your teammates.
We have seen this evidence-based framework on team processes and states of effective teams working over and over again in real teams. It is an in depth framework with a simple and memorable structure of the underlying engines of most teams, that you can easily follow to develop and sustain effective teamwork. The science of teams is also clear: the six key processes (transition, action, interpersonal) and states (cognitive, affective, motivational) of this framework are critical for all aspects of team effectiveness.
Reading about the processes and states of highly effective teams can help you learn how to lead or be a member of an effective team. However, to see results and for anything to happen, you have to act on what you know and learn about teamwork. Although powerful, these actions do not guarantee immediate results, nor is improving team processes and states something easy to do. These are good news. If it were easy, every team would be a high-performance one and learning about teamwork would not be a source of competitive advantage for your team.
As always, thank you for trusting your time with ManagingLifeAtWork.com. It has been a pleasure to share this information with you. See you all in the next post (do not forget to subscribe to our newsletter and/or to bookmark us). Until then, keep optimizing the processes and states of your, hopefully already, effective team.
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