Anna Russell: Tips for team cohesion

Anna Russell’s passion is to inspire and energise those people around her - to reach their potential and become true high performers
To become a high performing team, you must first work on developing a cohesion. Photo / Getty Images
To become a high performing team, you must first work on developing a cohesion. Photo / Getty Images

I recently talked with an investment bank about how to develop high performing teams (based off this article). What I realised when preparing for the presentation was that before you can become a high performing team, you must first work on developing a cohesive team.

This sounds far less exciting, but it is fundamental. Research in the realm of Sport Psychology has identified four key factors that build team cohesion.

1. Environmental

Individuals who are in closer proximity to each other have a greater tendency to bond together. This is due to more opportunities for communication and interaction, newly formed teams should be located near each other to speed up group development.

2. Leadership

This one is interesting because it can go either way, in cases of mutiny the cohesion is extremely strong within the group, but at the exclusion of the leader.

This makes it a very short-term state of cohesion that usually will fall apart when the end goal is reached. What develops long term cohesion, where those in the team work harder, for a sustained period of time, is when they have the opportunity to participate in decision making.

A great example of this is the All Blacks leadership team, made up of key players that participate and are active in decision making both on and off the field.

3. Personal

This is related to the characteristics, beliefs, or behaviours of group members.

The major factor that impacts team cohesiveness is the level of satisfaction team members have in their roles, and their relationships within the team. The more satisfied team members are, the more cohesive they are, it becomes a reinforcing cycle.

This works the other way too, and is something I see all too often in teams I work with. When even just one person in the team isn't satisfied it can bring down morale, motivation, and have a negative impact on cohesiveness.

You just have to look at the 'lay-down Sally' incident at the 2004 Olympics. Sally Robbins, unsatisfied with her role in the 8-person rowing crew, dropped her oar with 400m to go, the team fell apart and ended up last.

4. Norms and Roles

Norms are the standard of behaviour that is expected of the group, with a larger group or organisation these would be referred to as the Values.

In a study done on very cohesive sports teams there were found to be two clear norms: put in maximum effort and support the each other.

Roles are the expected set of behaviours related to someone's position within the group. Aligned to role satisfaction, each role in the team must be very clear, what success looks like should be outlined, along with how performance is evaluated and what the consequences of non-performance are.

When a team becomes cohesive then it can start on the path to high performance.

A mistake many leaders make is to jump to quickly to high performance before getting the fundamentals right. This develops pressure and internal competition that can be detrimental to team development.

Start with the four factors above and get the basics right first.

Three years ago, while working full-time, Anna left the corporate world to pursue her dream of becoming a professional athlete, competing around the world in Ironman triathlons. Anna now writes about her experience as a professional athlete and how her learnings can be applied to drive high performance in both individuals and teams. For further information visit:

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