How to build effective teams at universities

Oct 10, 2019

Building effective university teams

Many work groups think they are team working, when in fact they are simply coordinating individual efforts and not getting the synergistic effects that a team brings. When a team has psychological significance, members will agree that they feel loyal and committed to the team, they identify with the team and feel they have a lot in common with the team.

Research from Sussex University by Will Thomas in 2017 found that a strong team identity causes a highly significant increase in both perceived and actual team performance.  Establishing a close working dynamic between colleagues is essential to high performance.

According to the research there are five key factors in this sense of team identity:

  • Continuity: When members believe that the team provides continuity from past, to present and into the future they are more likely to identify with the team
  • Distinctiveness: When members believe that the team is distinctive, different and stands out from other teams, they are more likely to identify with the team.
  • Meaning: When members believe that the team is meaningful beyond an aspiration to ‘win’, they are more likely to identify with the team.
  • Belonging: When team members believe that the team is cohesive and unified, without cliques or factions, they are more likely to identify with the team.
  • Efficacy: When members believe that the team is competent and capable of achieving its objective they are more likely to identify with the team.

We see how this plays out in our work with teams in universities which may be newly forming due to restructuring or be a team formed from different departments, a mix of academics and professional services, or researchers based in different universities and even countries.

Let’s take a look at the element of belonging.

For teams operating alongside one another at a single location such as an office or a research lab, forging connections can be a relatively simple process. Arranging social gatherings will often naturally become an intrinsic part of the working culture which exists between colleagues. Teambuilding activities can help delve into the key elements of team identity, using techniques such as perceptual positioning or archetypes work, to help members gain an understanding of each other and their identity together.

In the academic world however, staff often don’t work alongside each other and find themselves working in conjunction with other professionals who might be located anywhere in the world. Team building then becomes more challenging. While significant, the challenge this presents is by no means insurmountable.

The key to building a productive team dynamic within remote teams, such as transnational research groups, could be to take a lateral approach and ensure that any opportunity to enhance working relationships is realised fully.

Opportunities to engage with fellow team members might include attending conferences, joining working groups or participating in discussion seminars. University management can encourage academic staff to capitalise on these activities by encouraging them to invite their fellow research team members to participate. If this is not possible, take steps to identify similar events, groups, or activities which might be more viable for the research group as a whole. Once a mutually convenient activity has been identified, research team members can often build on this by arranging to meet on occasions when their shared involvement brings them all to the same place.

While face-to-face meetings are an invaluable component of any teambuilding strategy, for university staff working in remote groups today’s increasingly interconnected digital world also presents many excellent opportunities through online forums, social media groups (e.g. Facebook, WhatsApp) and Skype/Facetime calls.

Utilising digital technology in this manner is clearly beneficial to groups as it enables collaboration on a day-to-day basis in real time without the need for extensive international travel. It can strengthen working relationships across these geographic divides simply by facilitating regular contact that isn’t based solely on emails and based only on “project talk. “

Building in opportunities to develop a sense of belonging and social identity is a key part of university project management to ensure you have a high performing team and not simply a ‘nice to have’ that should be left to chance.

How do you make sure your team feels they belong?

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