In A Nutshell

Whenever we get a team together we have the opportunity to create something greater than any of us could achieve alone.

Too often though they disappoint and underperform because whenever we get humans together there are a set of dynamics that complicate things.  These happen whether we notice them or not.  This guide is to highlight the factors that have the potential to make or break your team.  

The Goal

Every team is formed with the hope that we will achieve some goal.  

By team we are talking about a group of people that create an output by their interactions.  Some teams, like golf, cycling or athletics teams, are an aggregate of individuals.  They go out and do their individual events and the team is the collective result of individuals.

These teams do not rely on their interaction in the same way teams like football or rugby teams.

A football or rugby team plays as a team.  It is here that team dynamics determine success and success is mostly the team with the most overall output.   For this reason a team with less quality players can outperform better players because the whole becomes worth more than the sum of its parts.

The sum of individual players is the potential the team has, the output is the level they actually perform to.

As we gather people into a team we are gathering resources that each person can bring.  Things like the…

…that the people in the group have.  

What we are looking to do, is to focus all these resources so narrowly on a specific goal that they becomes as tightly focused as a laser.  The power of a laser comes from the single point of focus.  As soon as that focus becomes diffused, the laser no longer has the concentration to cut through.

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Photo by Opt Lasers / Unsplash

The Most Laser Focused Team Wins

Teams ideally work in the exact same way.

The team that wins in any field is the one that can concentrate the most resources in the narrowest focus.  To beat a better or equally resourced competitor, we have to concentrate our resources in a narrower focus.  Often this means getting a team completely united in pursuit of the same goal.

This is how Jurgen Klopp was able to massively outperform Manchester United over the last decade despite spending a third of their net transfer spend and starting from a disadvantage.

The success of the team depends on how much focus we keep on making the goal, the goal.  Counterintuitively, this means we have to first focus on addressing human needs.  If we start with the goal to be achieved, we’ll get subverted by human needs that are unaligned with the goal.  

If we address the human needs, we thereby get access to the human resources and the focus can remain on the goal.  

The job of the people in the team is to do the job.  The job of the leader of the team is to give people what they need to do the job.  The highest priority task of the leader is to align the people with the goal.

The goal for teams is that all resources flow fluidly to wherever they can make the most impact.  

In other words, we communicate openly and information, money, skills and anything else needed flows wherever needed.  The key barrier to this is the amount of friction in the system.  Friction could be lack of communication, conflict, working in silos, power or personality clashes.  

The Challenge

The biggest challenge for organisations is that few leaders intuitively understand this frame because as a society we overlook it.  

We tend to focus on what we want to do.  We think about the strategy and tactics to get the job done.  But we often neglect the human element and so people get offended or confused and work against us.  

So we focus on what is important, but often not the basic assumptions that we often take for granted.

Throughout history, most of what we have done has been logistical.  It’s been moving stuff from here to here.   It’s how we get stuff done.  

It’s why we name the department dealing with people Human Resources, because we see people as our resources.

I took this shot to catch the reaction of fans of Logic: Everybody’s Tour expressing how they feel about his lyrical music. This photo means a lot to me because Logic is one of my favorite rappers and catching this reaction from the fan reflects on how I was feeling during the concert!
Photo by Nicholas Green / Unsplash

If we really examine the assumptions we operate on, it is that I have hired this person who has these resources so I can pay them to use them.  The problem is that the person with the resources has human needs.  They don’t want to feel like a piece of meat to be deployed without any regard for their humanity.

This is the foundational context that frames any problems we will encounter in teams.

Organisations hire people to gain access to the resources they possess.  Humans have a need to feel they belong and are valued for their individuality.  The degree to which the individual’s human needs are met is the degree to which the resources of the individual are available to the organisation.    

People problems in a workplace come because people aren’t aligned with the goal they are supposed to be focusing on.

The ‘human resources’ belong to the individual.  The organisation that wants access to them has to align the individual’s goal to theirs.  Human Resources departments would be more effectively and more accurately described as the Alignment Department.

The Problem With Teams

Teams are a network of individual relationships.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak / Unsplash

Teams break at the point where the relationship is weaker than the challenges we face.  We don’t need to be besties with everyone.  We just need a relationship that is strong enough to not end up in hostility and childish behaviour.

The amount of challenge in a relationship is dependent on how interrelated we are.

So if we meet now and then for a coffee and general chat, we don’t need a strong relationship.  If however, your decisions affect my future, then I’m going to be much more emotionally attached to what you think and do.  This is why romantic relationships tend to be the most challenging.  What you think of me, how you spend money, raise our child etc are topics I’m very invested in.

Likewise, we care a lot about our Boss or other people who can impact our future wellbeing.

While we don’t need to be best friends with everyone, the better we can get on, the better we will communicate and the easier it is to understand where someone is coming from.  Also, it makes interactions less stressful, which makes us happier, less guarded and more mature, intelligent and creative.

Relationships are the vehicle through which we frame all our interactions to create.  So the relationship is the sum of the positive and negative interactions we have had with someone.  Any future interactions will be shaped by the interactions of the past.

The Anatomy of A Relationship

Relationships follow a pattern.  

It goes like this.

You can see we start off on a high, which improves initially and then starts to dip.  It plateaus, then dips and follows the same pattern until it drops as low as it’ll go.  Most of the time somewhere on this downslide is where it ends, but sometimes it will pick up from there.

Let me explain what is going on through that graph.

Relationships start with excitement.

We meet someone new that we get on with.  We start to talk and build a connection.  After so many relationships that fizzled out or that ended in acrimony we are excited that we have met someone that might be different, we feel this could be our new buddy.

We work well together, we seem to be on the same page and we feel positive and so the graph goes up.

But sooner or later, we find a point of difference.  “I’m not so sure about this person we say”.  Either we don’t talk about it or we maybe have a conflict about it.  

It makes us think, “this person is different from me”.

This changes how we see the person.  Also we are both a little more guarded and less enthusiastic about our interactions.  And so we are less excited and the relationship is less enjoyable.

Every point where the relationship is challenged and we don’t fully process and embrace the differences is a point where our opinion of the other and satisfaction with the relationship dips.

There is a continual cycle in relationships.  As we talk openly and honestly we see depth to a person.  That depth taps into the universality of humanity and we see commonalities between us.

This is what builds connection.

Connection is based on “I understand this person, because I see something I can relate to and know is true”.  But, connection is broken when we see something that is different from us.  When someone thinks differently, acts differently or has different values and motives we feel threatened.

We feel threatened because we our nervous system has learned over millions of years of evolution that different means danger.

Our biology was built tens of thousands of years ago.  Different then meant, different species or different tribe.  Different therefore meant life threatening.  

In the world we evolved from, life was fragile and we needed to be able to run or avoid any threats, so we evolved the fight or flight response.

It makes sense to fight or run from a predator or rival group.  However, today our biology is operating in a  completely different social context.  It doesn’t make sense to avoid discussing the thing we’re really angry about or to get aggressive about an email.

The problem is that our environment has evolved way too fast for our nervous system and so we operate in an almost constant state of stress.  

150 odd years ago we would most likely have lived in a small village and know the same Butcher, Baker, Blacksmith and so on we always dealt with.  Whether we commute on a train full of people we studiously avoid eye contact with or on a road full of people we frequently question the parentage of.   Interactions are much more transactional, less relational and so more stressful.

The problem of burnout and the great resignation are a reflection of the stress levels people are operating under.  

The Construction of Self

Stress is less about level of work and more about the psychological and emotional discomfort we work in.  Conflict is rarely about the issue we are discussing.  It is about the ongoing narrative inside their heads.

To resolve conflict we have to understand how people make sense of the world.

People are a bit like phones.  They have genes that are like the hardware limitations of a phone.  They have skills that are like apps that enable them to do cool things.  

A Trailer of the Future
Photo by Rahul Chakraborty / Unsplash

The key part though that enables how well their phone functions is mostly hidden… the Operating System.

The human operating system is the collection of what you’ve been taught about the world from others.  The lessons you’ve learned from experience, observation and so on.  It is the rules, understanding, mental frameworks, models and assumptions that we use to operate in the world.

The first few times we do something, we lay down the neural pathways that we will use in the future.

Sometimes we’ll hit a problem or conflict.  This is where the circumstances and interactions in our world will clash with what we thought was true.  Resolving the problem means we have to identify the untruth, misunderstanding and bug in our operating system.  Reflection allows us to upgrade our O/S like an update.

However, until we see other people’s homes aren’t like ours and that not everything we learned was accurate, we operate on what we learned when the neural pathway was first laid.

What we think of as our ‘self’ is actually a collection of ideas, beliefs, experiences and dogma that was mostly fed to us when we were too young to question it.  So we tend to take on the same prejudices we were given by our parents and people around us in our younger years.  It is only later when we come across experiences that contradict our prejudices that we are able to overwrite those assumptions.

In other words how we are, is less ‘just us’ and more a reflection of the life experiences we have lived.

The Importance of Individual Narrative

Each of us has a unique O/S because we have each had a unique experience of life.

Even identical twins who have the most similar experience are unique.  Because even then you will have had different moments and even the perspective will be different depending on which side of the table or bedroom you were on.  Experiences affect us depending on the mood we are in.  Even if we have the same experience twice, we will view it differently depending on the mood we are in.  Our mood determines which aspects we pay attention to.

What we rarely appreciate is how unique our narrative is.

Every individual creates a narrative.  That is a way to make sense of all the experiences that we feel.  If a film lacks a strong, coherent narrative we struggle to make sense of all the individual scenes and we fail to identify with the characters and their predicament.

It’s the same with our life story.  

We need a narrative that puts all the interactions and events of our life into something that gives us meaning.  But there is even more than this to it.  Our narrative also has to make us feel good about ourself.

This means we slant the story we tell so that it shows us in a good light.

Serial killers and war criminals all tell their story in a way that makes them victims of circumstances.  Billionaires and Nobel Prize Winners tell a story of how they overcame the odds to succeed.  So do you and I.

Psychologists talk about the Fundamental Attribution Error.

Because we observe others from behaviour we judge them on what they do.  Our own experience is internal.  We know the feelings and logic that makes us do what we do.

In other words we blame others and excuse ourselves.

The Basis Of Conflict

Conflict is born when we have two people whose narratives clash.

It is probably easiest to see in a romantic relationship, but it happens in all kinds of relationships.   April is single and meets Ricky.  She is attracted, excited and immediately creates a narrative for how the relationship will pan out.  

She sees the wedding, the kids, the house and the happiness they have on holidays years into the future.

Five years later though she is unhappy.  Her and Ricky are fighting a lot.  She is subconsciously saying “we could be so happy if you would just…”.  If he would only be like the Ricky in her imagination, her dream would come true.

The problem is that Ricky also has his ongoing narrative that he held before they met.

Their narratives were similar in the broad strokes.  They both wanted a lifelong relationship, kids and a nice life.  The trouble is that when you get into the weeds of what that looks like, they find their different.

Probably not so different that they need to split, but different enough to fight about.

The fighting makes them stressed and breaks trust.  They stop talking.  And without a frame and way to bridge their differences they get into a vicious circle of blaming each other and deciding they aren’t the person they met.

They both think they share the same vision and don’t realise that they are working from different worlds.

The crux of the conflict is that April is the hero of her narrative and Ricky is a supporting actor.  Likewise Ricky’s story puts him at the centre and April is there to make him shine.  The reason why people are so difficult is because they are operating from different narratives that tell the tale that works best for them.

Conflict is inherently scary because it is dangerous to our survival, but also because it shakes our belief in our narrative that we are a good, valuable person that others value.  

It is very hard to have a narrative that can make us value someone who seems not to value or like us.  So we downgrade our judgement of others.  We also moderate our behaviour, feeling self conscious about why they dislike us.

It becomes very difficult to repair or rebuild a relationship from this position and while married couples might be prepared to undergo the work involved few people will at work.

So they just switch off and avoid each other or one leaves.  

But in the meantime they fight an ongoing war.  No-one shines in a war, all do things they regret and are ashamed of.  And decisions become less about the decisions themself and more about a position each has taken.  

Many workplaces are high stress environments with ongoing feuds, memories of past bruising interactions and scores to settle and lines drawn between tribal loyalties.

Teams Unite With A Common Purpose

Conflict is the fork in the road.

We either break apart.  Or we connect.  When we connect, it is because we have transcended our differences and individuality to bond like atoms.

A team can have great relationships, but it is the common purpose that unites them.

The job of the leader is not to sell people to their vision, but to listen and be shaped by their listening so they can articulate a vision that they can identify and believe in.

Allies On A Quest For High Performance

When a group is motivated by a purpose, trusts each other and is able to talk through their differences, they will demand accountability and higher performance from each other.

The Five Step Unite Process

So let’s summarise.

Each Layer Builds On The Last

Working back from what we want, we can see that each step adds a layer that in five steps takes us from a disparate group of individuals to a connected high performing team.

It all starts with nutritious relationships.

Relationships can be good or bad.  Bad ones drain us of life and energy.  Good ones support and enhance the quality of our life.

What distinguishes these is the amount of trust we have in the other person and the acceptance we feel.

When we feel safe, accepted and we trust and respect the other person, we have the grounding to be able to open up and share our psychological make-up.  This sharing is the key to bridging the inevitable differences we face.  It means we have the key to unlocking conflict.

Conflict Is The Pivotal Challenge

The ability to resolve conflict is the turning point.

Conflict is what makes or breaks relationships.  When we don’t feel safe enough to open up, we operate under stress and become less mature and less capable versions of ourself.  When we do, we can treat conflict as a problem to collaborate in solving.

Problems are just a reflection that our challenge has outgrown our level of thinking and the friction between different perspectives can help us to refine and upgrade our O/S.

Photo by Chris Ried / Unsplash

Problems Happen When Our O/S Clashes With Reality

The origin of these differences – and other problems we face – come from our O/S.  Our O/S is the set of beliefs and understandings we hold about the world, ourself and other people.  It is mostly made up from our first draft of the answers we were given (or made up ourself) when we first wondered how this works.

If we think about how we learn, it was by asking questions incessantly and watching life and coming to conclusions.

Life is way too busy to go back and question every assumption or belief.  It is only when we find something that jars with our understanding that we become aware of the problem.  So we are rarely conscious of what drives us… we just think, ‘that’s just me!’.

What We Think Is ‘Just Me’ Is Often Programmed Into Us

Yet what we thought was ‘me’ was either learned very young or put there by  someone else’s dogma or misunderstanding.

70% of our neural pathways are developed before the age of seven.  This is our first draft understanding about everything.  We only get to find out what we think and believe when we encounter a situation that challenges our belief.

Think about how we learned about relationships, money and careers.

We will have seen our parents struggles in work and paying bills and so will often either take on their views or often take the opposite viewpoint.  There are some cultural messages that most of us get.  For example, in romantic relationships we generally learn the fairytale model proposed by fairy tales and Disney.

The Medieval Relationship Mentality

This model creates an expectation that relationships should work out without any problems.

That model sets the basis for all of our other relationships too.  It means we think if there is a problem, the problem is the wrong person.  So wives, husbands, managers and employees all think the problem is the other person.

We don’t have any kind of mainstream solution to conflict.

There’s mediation, there’s warnings and disciplinary processes etc or there’s war and withdrawal.  In romantic or family relationships there’s counselling.  But as you might expect with a legal system built on blame, the presupposition is that someone is at fault.

And so interactions become very focused on blaming and shaming.

Knowledge Doesn’t Evolve Equally

It’s worth taking a moment to recognise that knowledge doesn’t evolve equally.  Just as we know much more about space than we do the bottom of the ocean, some subjects are much more evolved than others.  STEM subjects are the most funded, studied and so advanced.


It makes sense to focus on what will have the most impact on our survival and control over our environment.

300 years ago, medicine was less developed .  People thought superstitiously about sickness and believed it to be, as likely, a punishment from God or a witch’s curse as a medical issue.  Consequently, when treating it they were more likely to seek out a Priest or local witch than a Physician.

Developments in science meant we could prove germ theory and so now we look at sickness through a medical lens.

Psychology Is Like Medicine In The 17th Century

We laugh about the superstitious views of the past, yet every time we talk about meeting ‘the one’, the mystery of love or hoping to ‘live happily ever after’ together they are operating from a superstitious view of relationships.  It’s understandable because the focus has been much more on concrete things we can see and examine than human dynamics which are much harder to see.  Psychology is only 150 years old as an independent discipline and relationships have hardly been studied until the last couple of decades.

But now relationships, emotional intelligence and so on are becoming the barrier.

As science and technology increase our prosperity, our expectations rise and we seek not just economic survival, but emotional satisfaction.  Personal and professional relationships are becoming more and more demanding because we will no longer tolerate disappointing marriages or 10 hours working down a pit or serving our ‘betters’.  More and more workers are looking to turn their back on the corporate world and thanks to the internet, there’s never been more opportunity.

Until and unless you are in a business that can outsource labour to a less developed country or replace it with technology, you are going to be increasingly held back by human problems.

Conflict already costs £28.5 billion and 300 million working days a year in the UK.  Poor communication, politics, power struggles and personality clashes are costing more and more.  The resulting stress is losing days of productivity, engagement, presenteeism and increasing staff turnover.

Yet it doesn’t have to be this way.

If We Want Great Teams Meet These Four Challenges

If we can build relationships that are both nutritious and antifragile we stand together in the face of challenge.  While it is conflict that breaks relationships, when we use conflict as a starting point for collaborative problem solving, it strengthens the relationship.  The more conflict we face, the stronger the relationship we build.

These relationships develop us into higher performing teams and us into more capable individuals.

If we can resolve conflict, we can face challenges with more resilience.  It means that we don’t splinter off into factions and nurse personal grievances.  We stay together as a team.

If we can be aware of our personal narratives, we have less ego and attachment to our way of doing things.  Conflict becomes an opportuntiy to upgrade our O/S.

If we can articulate a shared vision that we all identify with, we become united in purpose.  Once united, we are a team joined by our mission.  We have given each person meaning to their work that is greater than their self-interest.  That is the energy and momentum that will power your team.

When we have achieved the first four steps, we become allies on the journey to high performance.  As we are committed and unafraid of conflict with safe and trusting relationships we hold each other accountable to behave with integrity and perform at the highest level.