There is an I in Team

Teamwork and trust are crucial in today’s business world. In this article, Dr. Arnie Dahlke, program director of industrial and organizational psychology at Touro University Worldwide, discusses how individual team members and managers can foster a strong, team-oriented workplace.

By: Jessica Blanchard

Teams are made up of individuals with different belief systems, outlooks, prejudices, expectations and experiences. Who we are and how we see the world is the result of a lifelong journey beginning at birth. According to Dr. Dahlke, “our beliefs about people and things act like ‘filters’ to our perceptions, which affect the way we communicate with others.”

When different individuals get together to form a team—be it a sports team, musical group or task force—they bring their backgrounds and worldviews with them. Differing perceptions and ideas about the mission at hand can cause problems when it comes to decision making, communication and problem solving. Dr. Dahlke said that “a diversity of mental filters [in a team] opens the door to new and innovative solutions—to ‘thinking outside the box.’”

If a range of mental filters is the best recipe for teamwork, how can diverse teams best achieve harmony and cooperation? Dr. Dahlke argues that, at the base level, it’s all about self-awareness and appreciating others’ individuality. In his article “Beliefs, Assumptions, Perceptions, and Teamwork,” (2010) Dr. Dahlke writes that it’s important to “be aware of the differences between our mental models and those of other team members. And, in the spirit of truly understanding different points of view in the midst of team discussions, we must be willing to look at the world through the mental filters of others.”

The effectiveness of a team is “further influenced by a number of group characteristics—the team culture, the reason for its existence, the interpersonal dynamics among team members, the task being pursued and various team processes, such as conflict resolution and decision-making.” This is where managers use their influence to make or break a team.

Dr. Dahlke outlines seven steps managers and industrial organizational psychologists should take to prepare a team for success. Essentially, the method comes down to giving the team a strong foundation and all the tools they need, then getting out of the way. A simplified version of Dr. Dahlke’s steps is as follows:

  1. Appoint a facilitator to help the team cultivate a trusting and uncritical environment.
  2. Demonstrate the importance of recognizing individual differences.
  3. Establish the mission of the team and provide measurable goals.
  4. Clarify expectations to team members.
  5. Establish ground rules for meeting etiquette.
  6. Provide team members with appropriate brainstorming tools.
  7. Allow the team to function in pursuit of its goals.

If all the individuals in the team align, you achieve “team culture.” At the other end of the spectrum, according to Dr. Dahlke, is a “survival culture,” where finger-pointing and self-interest predominate. Dr. Dahlke posits that older managers often possess “authoritative, bureaucratic attitudes and behaviors,” which can shape a survival culture rather than a team culture. Modern management styles that promote harmony and mutual respect help employees find the environment in which they best thrive.

Dr. Dahlke argues that each team member needs to feel like they bring something unique to the team and that they “own a piece of the action.” He goes on to say that “people who feel in control assume responsibility for what occurs, while people who do not feel in control assign responsibility to someone or something outside themselves.”

Managers must be mindful of the forces that drive a team. Dr. Dahlke provides a helpful table that contrasts survival culture with team culture and tips for managers on how to foster team culture.

Survival Culture

Team Culture


People are unaware of how their jobs fit into the organization’s mission.People know what each must do to achieve the organization’s mission.Involve everyone in shaping and owning the organization’s mission.
People promote their own agenda, and are out for themselves, which sidetracks team discussions.People are aware of their interdependence in solving problems and reaching decisions.Model, demonstrate and teach interdependence and team behavior.
People do only what their job descriptions say they should do.People go beyond their job descriptions to help others.Focus people on outcomes rather than on rigid job descriptions.
People self-protectively keep opinions and ideas to themselves, which weakens team member bonds.People are unafraid and openly express their opinions and ideas, which strengthens team member bonds.Support open discussions and never belittle those who disagree.
People reject diverse opinions and ideas, which deters others from offering their own opinions and ideas.People are open to diverse opinions and ideas, which invites others to offer their own opinions and ideas.Encourage sharing differing viewpoint, which leads to innovative ideas.
People are focused on finding fault, which impedes team accomplishments.People are focused on solving problems, which increases team accomplishments.Use mistakes as opportunities to learn and discourage finger-pointing and blaming.
People obediently follow procedures, no matter how ineffective they are.Together, people continuously strive to improve work processes.Foster and reinforce a customer-driven, problem-solving mindset.
People are critical and judgmental, which fosters defensiveness and sabotages teamwork.People are not critical or judgmental, making it safe to take risks, which strengthens teamwork.Model and cultivate objectivity and constructive decision-making.
People don’t respect and trust one another, which discourages greater team participation.People respect and trust one another, which encourages greater team participation.Gain the respect of team members and reinforce respectful behavior whenever it occurs.

Once you’ve assembled your team, Dr. Dahlke believes you should stop teambuilding and start “teambeing.” The best way to teach your team to trust each other is to trust them to do their task. You’ll know when your employees are teambeing. “You will find communication open and widespread, characterized by mutual respect and trust,” Dr. Dahlke said.

That’s not to say you can just set employees to a task and expect a well-oiled team overnight. “Learning team skills is like learning any other skills,” Dr. Dahlke said. It takes practice. But, if done right, teambuilding will motivate people to work harder toward their goals because of the satisfaction they feel from achieving a goal as part of a team that respects them. It is up to their managers to set an example and show them the way.

Dr. Arnie Dahlke is currently the director of I/OP at TUW. For more information on classes in this burgeoning field, visit TUW online.

You can read more of Dr. Dahlke’s tips and strategies for successful teambuilding at his website.

Touro University Worldwide (TUW) believes in the transformative power of continued education. TUW students are committed to social justice, intellectual pursuit and philanthropic duty and receive a well-rounded educational experience focused on the holistic development of the individual. An advanced degree from TUW can change your career trajectory and your future putting you on a path towards advancement and lifelong success.

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