By Tyler Reimschisel, MD
Happy New Year!
As we start a new year, I would like to take this opportunity to encourage you and your team to devote the time to building professional relationships with each other. In a recent article, Ron Friedman wrote that interpersonal connections between teammates provides a sense of belonging and can lead to improved job satisfaction, decreased burnout, improved productivity and creativity, better collaboration and less likelihood of leaving the organization. In my experience as a team coach, I find that teams rarely dedicate time to professional relationship building. Some consider it to be a superfluous waste of time and efficiency. While other team leaders regard it as a useless distraction from effective teamwork. However, like many non-task-oriented team activities, building connections among team members can lead to better team performance and higher impact teamwork.
Friedman offers three simple—yet helpful—strategies for fostering professional relationships within a team:
- Use commonalities to spark friendships,
- Highlight shared goals, and
- Turn tension into connection.
Though Friedman targets his article for leaders, I believe that each and every team member can apply these simple steps in their teams in order to build better interpersonal connections.
The first strategy— using commonalities to spark friendships—is based on the premise that friendships are initially built on similarities between individuals. He suggests that onboarding could be more valuable if personal interests were shared between new and established team members. I also think team check-ins can be a useful mechanism for implementing this strategy. Leaders and team members can create check-in prompts that allow team members to share information that may identify commonalities, such as their favorite authors or restaurants, preferred hobbies and recent travel destinations. As team members learn more about each other, commonalities across team members can become the nidus for broadening and deepening team connections and friendships.
The second strategy that Friedman offers is highlighting shared goals. This includes taking the time to ensure that everyone on the team is working toward a common objective. This step also involves highlighting the interdependence of the team members and how each member of the team is providing a critical element in the overall success of the team. This strategy reminds me of what Tannenbaum and Salas refer to as “shared team cognition” and what I prefer to call “shared mental models” (Tannenbaum and Salas, 2021). The literature is replete with studies that confirm how important shared mental models are for effective teamwork. For example, in a meta-analysis of 65 studies on team cognition, DeChurch and Mesmer-Magnus showed that teams with more robust shared team cognitions had more motivated team members, demonstrated better teamwork behaviors, and had stronger team performance than other teams (DeChurch and Mesmer-Magnus, 2010).
I think that Friedman’s first two strategies can be combined into a single construct—team cohesion. Typically, team cohesion is divided into two components: social cohesion and task cohesion. Social cohesion is the interpersonal connections between team members, and it can be enhanced by using commonalities to spark friendships. Task cohesion is the belief that the team’s work is important, so team members are committed to the work. This aligns closely to Friedman’s strategy of ensuring that everyone is working toward a common goal and understands the importance of the work. The literature supports Friedman’s approach. Beal and colleagues found through a meta-analysis of studies on team cohesion that both social cohesion and task cohesion were positively related to team performance, with task cohesion demonstrating a slightly stronger influence than social cohesion (Beal, 2003).
I would like to reiterate how impactful it can be for team members to pause and reflect on their interdependence between each other. Chiocchio and Essiembre showed that interdependence is closely related to team cohesion (Chiocchio and Essiembre, 2009). In fact, as the level of interdependence increases, the more the team members are dependent on strong team cohesion. In other words, interdependence and team cohesion can be mutually reinforcing when a team highlights shared goals and reflects on the importance of the team’s purpose.
Furthermore, I believe improving team cohesion can also lead to improved psychological safety. Edmondson has shown that psychological safety can be fostered within healthcare teams by reminding the team members that their work is extremely important and that the team members are highly interdependent (Edmondson, 2017). As I have written in previous articles in this series, psychological safety is a core attribute of high-impact teams. Devoting time to building team cohesion and emphasizing the team’s purpose and interdependence will help the team achieve higher impact as the team’s psychological safety is deepened.
Friedman’s final strategy is to turn tension into connection. I find this step particularly compelling as tension or conflict within a team can interfere with team member interactions and undermine team functionality and performance. He offers a practical suggestion to help mitigate these situations. When team members find themselves facing tension or conflict within the team, he encourages them to use relationship-building statements, including “I bet we can figure this out” and “I’ve always appreciated your insight into clients like this.” These comments defuse the conflict by unlinking the challenge itself from the team relationships. He writes:
“The trick is to quickly reassure your colleague that your disagreement has nothing to do with your relationship, [sic] and everything to do with finding the best solution. Used correctly, relationship-building statements can do much more than put out relationship fires. They are a vital conversational tool for fostering collaboration, expressing appreciation, and ensuring that contributors feel valued.”
As we begin the new year, I hope that you will commit time within your team to building more robust connections and professional relationships. As you identify commonalities among team members, highlight shared goals and the purpose of your work, and turn tension into connection through the ongoing use of relationship-building statements, I am confident that your team will deepen its interpersonal relationships, improve everyone’s job satisfaction and achieve higher impact.
Beal DJ et al. Cohesion and performance in groups: a meta-analytic clarification of construct relations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 2003;88(6): 989-1104.
Chiocchio F and Essiembre H. Cohesion and performance: a meta-analytic review of disparities between project teams, production teams, and service teams. Small Group Research, 2009;40(4): 382-420.
DeChurch LA and Mesmer-Magnus JR. The cognitive underpinnings of effective teamwork: a meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 2010:95(1): 32-53.
Edmondson A. Three Ways to Create Psychological Safety in Health Care. YouTube. Institute for Healthcare Improvement. August 2, 2017.
Friedman R. High-Performing Teams Don’t Leave relationships to chance. Harvard Business Review, September 14, 2022.
Tannenbaum S and Salas E. Teams that Work: The Seven Drivers of Team Effectiveness. Oxford University Press, 2021: 119-127.