Table 1 in the appendices presents the 89 quotations selected from the team member interview reports or team member survey data, and Table 2 presents the 51 quotations selected form the team experts’ interviews, along with information about which team and/or organization the quote came from. The team members in this study work in a diverse array of organizations, including a childcare provider, a municipality, an engineering agency, a high school, a healthcare organization, a mental healthcare organization, and a consulting firm (which makes generalization across industries all the more feasible). Grouping the quotes makes it possible to conduct an analysis for the features of each of the prerequisites and characteristics. To that end, the quotes were grouped into 12 categories: one for general aspects concerning team flow theory, and eleven more for each of the elements of team flow.
In addition, we conducted 12 semi-structured interviews with established practitioners and researchers who have expertise in teamwork. These were people who have successfully coached or supervised teams in the field, including organizational consultants, business team coaches, business leaders, and business team leaders. Collectively, they represent a diverse group of professionals who could present a broad range of perspectives on the team flow phenomenon.
Below, we will describe the main patterns from our analyses of the quotations (see Table 1 in the Appendixes). While the appendix contains the full set of quotes, we selected a few illustrative quotes to highlight key points in the text. In order to answer the research questions for the study, we will split those results into general aspects concerning team flow theory, results that address the importance of the collective ambition to team flow, and important interrelations between the elements of team flow and assess how the relationships visible in the Team Flow Model are exemplified by the participants of study.
The results of the online survey (Tables 4 and 5) provided additional confirmation that the impediments and elements of team flow actually occur in a variety of business settings, with miscommunication being the most common impediment to team flow (~ 8% of respondents), and its inverse, open communication (~ 9%), being the most common reason why teams experience team flow. Open communication was also the second most common recommendation for promoting team flow (15% of respondents), second only to having a common goal (20%). As people are unaccustomed to thinking about flow experiences (given how rare they are [cf. Csikszentmihalyi, 1997]), and there are many categories into which a short free-response can fall, these lower numbers are not actually surprising. Interrater reliability (Fleiss’s Kappa) was at acceptable levels and statistically significant (i.e., the agreement was not due to chance) for all three questions. For the first question (impediments to team flow), there were three raters, 231 responses, and κ = 0.33 (95% CI 0.31–0.35; z = 33.81, p < < 0.001). For the second question (why teams tend to experience team flow), there were three raters, 235 responses, and κ = 0.21 (95% CI 0.19–0.23; z = 20.46, p < < 0.001). For the third question, there were three raters, 160 responses, and κ = 0.33 (95% CI 0.30–0.35; z = 25.95, p < < 0.001).
General Statements About Team Flow Theory
One of the major findings from our interviews is that it is easier for team flow to occur when teams have the freedom to decide on their own what is important to them in the moment, but also to enlist help and support from external stakeholders when needed. For instance, teams in a healthcare organization we interviewed can call on support from a regional coach, as described in the following quotation:
Within Buurtzorg Nederland, our teams can do exactly those things what they think are important. The leaders express in their vision statement what matters to them as a healthcare provider. To support their vision, they offer additional schooling and encourage us to call on a regional coach whenever we want to. Coaching is all a regional coach does. They don’t tell you what to do, but they do suggest options. You might try such and such, or maybe consider this, or I know of teams who handled it like this. (Employee quote 4, Buurtzorg Nederland)
By making clear to employees that the role of overseers is solely to provide support and advice when needed, the company is giving employees the autonomy not only to decide what to do, but when to ask for help, how to ask for help, and how to capitalize on the information provided. A further implication is that the teams retain responsibility for their team members’ decisions and that everyone is held mutually accountable. As such, the teams in this healthcare organization are considered self-managing, which is exactly what enables them to have more team flow experiences.
Elsewhere in the interviews are further indications that autonomy is essential for achieving team flow. Jos de Blok, founder of Buurtzorg Nederland, describes the principle like this: “There’s a lot of stuff you see in other organizations that you really don’t even need to talk about. You can just work very instrumentally, and all the stuff we don’t bother with is developing policy, policy strategies, mission statements, you name it. What we do is: there’s a problem to be solved, so you collect some good people with abilities that can contribute meaningfully to a solution, and you get on with it.” (Jos de Blok, founder and CEO of Buurtzorg Nederland).
What De Blok advises here is to give teams the freedom to deal with problems as they see fit without trying too hard to manage or control them. He sees management and control systems as distractions that can take away opportunities for employees/teams to apply their skills and use their best judgment. This also integrates the role of autonomy with the process of team creation—there is no reason to put someone on a team unless they have the autonomy to decide how best to do their work both independently and in the context of the team (cf. Katzenbach & Smith, 1993). It is important to recognize that the members of professional teams are perfectly capable of identifying the right moves and determining for themselves what they will work on together. Trying to regulate the teams with policies and procedures can serve only to undermine and inhibit their productivity.
This idea is further supported by the following statement: “Team flow is about a number of individuals who can authentically be themselves in the team” (Frank Heckman, organizational researcher, lecturer and coach in the performing arts; personal communication, 2009) The more team members have the freedom to be themselves while serving on the team, the easier it is for the team to achieve team flow. This personal authenticity allows them to act on their intrinsic motivations, bring forth their top skills, and be recognized and appreciated for who they are and what they can do. This interplay of bringing the authentic self and recognizing the positive attributes that others choose to bring allows the team to construct a collective ambition that is a deliberately-constructed synergy of the skills and motivations that each member chooses to contribute.
“Professionals focus better when they know why they’re doing something. For a professional what is never the issue because that’s what they’ve been trained for. [...] The real question is why.” (Expert quote 51, Harry Starren, organizational consultant and former CEO) The ‘why’ question is answered by agreeing on or determining a collective ambition, possibly paired with a team-level outcome agreement (e.g., common goal). As such, it becomes important for employers to communicate to their teams what they need to accomplish and why, then let the team do what they are good at to make it happen. Here we see that, when it comes to achieving focus, autonomy in working towards the agreed-upon personal goals is a recurring theme—decide on the “why,” and leave it to the individuals to determine the “what.”
Small Team Size
We also found that teams in the field should not be too large, as it can be hard it can be to blend so many authentic personalities, not to mention the potential for cognitive overload when trying to monitor the tasks of teammates and keeping the coordination in mind (see below). A healthcare organization we sampled for data reported to us that teams should be no larger than 12 people. They claim that is a hard cap, since cooperation starts to become challenging in teams with as few as 9 people (Employee quote 3, Buurtzorg Nederland; cf. Amason & Sapienza, 1997; Haleblian & Finkelstein, 1993; Katzenbach & Smith, 1992).
Reflection and Coordination as a Source of Focus
The desire to experience individual flow has potential downsides. It is possible to lose a sense of how one’s actions are fitting into a broader context and/or affecting the people who are not immediately involved in the activity at hand. In turn, this can cause people to overinvest in an activity, exhaust themselves, suffer tunnel vision, take excessive risks, or create social conflicts. Though empirical studies into the downsides of flow are scarce (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; Sato, 1988; Schüler, 2012), it is safe to say that there is probably an optimal way to experience flow, in which subjects retain awareness of and can reflect on their surroundings and the needs of their peers. Flow is, after all, a fleeting experience (cf. Hetland et al., 2018), and when finished one must return to a wider world that may have been impacted by the activity and the actions of the person in flow and, if the activity continues, renovate/reconstruct the flow experience in response. In a team, it is critical for every member to have awareness of the context to which they contribute, and thus coordination is essential for ensuring that everyone is moving in the same direction along the same path using the right skills and tools. This is reflected in the wisdom that came from an interview with one of the team experts: “For flow in teams, there probably exists some optimum of flow. Too much of it is bad because the team starts going to extremes, losing control. Too little flow leaves them nowhere. The optimum is where all the advantages are.” (Expert quote 1, Ad de Jong, organizational scholar). Similarly, another expert neatly summarizes the interplay of reflection, coordination, and focus: “Team members need to know who’s responsible for what, how to stay in touch with each other, when feedback can be exchanged and how to get help and support. When all of that is clear to them, team members can relax and get down to it. That gives them focus.” (Expert quote 49, Ineke Khalil, business team coach). Critically, the experts highlight the fact that the need for coordination among team members provides a lens for reflecting upon individual activities and likewise for ensuring an optimal focus on the individual activities that is tempered by knowing that these efforts need to integrate with those of others.
“When my star players hit flow, the rest follows” (Expert quote 2, Marc Lammers, sports and business team coach; from a 2015 interview). That statement from a sports and business team coach suggests two things: first, that the experience of team flow is born from individual flow experiences, which is consistent with our definition of team flow, and second, that once a certain number of team members achieve flow, a tipping point is reached that pulls the rest along for the ride and brings about team flow (albeit non-linearly; cf. Ceja & Navarro, 2011). As noted, in team flow the team members experience flow individually as well as collectively. This notion of building to a critical threshold (cf. Culbertson et al., 2015), of individuals starting to cooperate and coordinate and coalescing into a cohesive unit, appears to be a unifying thread through the concepts that were discussed both by employees and by team experts.
Increased Happiness as Outcome
Often the joint experience of happiness during a team flow experience occurs when everything appears to run extremely smoothly. Actions in the team each follow naturally from what came before, as there is a high-order alignment between: (a) individuals performing tasks at which they are skilled; (b) individuals coordinating their efforts with others in real time; (c) individuals acting to achieve goals that fit their personal values; (d) sub-teams performing coordinated tasks at which their skills complement each other to create a Gestalt-level skill to execute upon the task; (e) sub-teams coordinating their efforts with others in real time; (f) the team and sub-teams acting to achieve the audacious goal that the team adopted as its core nucleus. In describing the happiness experienced in the team flow that occurs when acting within this alignment, one teacher said, “We became a well-oiled machine. We cooperated, and the students had an amazing afternoon and worked on their learning objectives as well. That made me really happy for a while there” (Employee quote 5, AMO).
One characteristic of individual flow could be described as effortless action (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). “Concentration and talent may well be different words that mean the same thing. Talent is the ability to concentrate. You do that because you believe that what you’re doing is meaningful, so when you lose yourself in something, that’s when you’re really here” (Expert quote 43, Harry Starren, organizational consultant and former CEO). This point has a layer of subtlety in that having talent can make it easy to identify what to focus on and how to focus effectively in order to perform well. Past work on flow has found a similar effect when challenge and skill are optimally balanced to promote engagement (Abuhamdeh & Csikszentmihalyi, 2009; Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Similarly, autotelicity also has a role in the effortlessness of action, in that those who find a task important and enjoy performing it tend to experience little resistance and find the whole process effortless (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990, 1997). As such, deploying talent in support of a goal that one values can be effortless, and doing so in a team of people all striving for a common goal in a moment of team flow can promote effortless cooperation. Of course, the trick is still finding the right balance between coordination and autonomy. An excess of coordination will cause frustration, meaning more effort is required, whereas an excess of autonomy may cause individuals to lose sight of the common goal in pursuit of their own, leading to chaos.
And yet, autonomy is very important for professional teams to be able to reach team flow. As noted above, too much top-down meddling is a distraction that inhibits team flow. All that is needed from upper echelons is a clear overarching vision with a clear framework, protection from distracting elements, and ample support as needed. From there, the focus needs to be on professional autonomy, since that will allow team members the freedom to perform at their best and thus achieve flow in the performance of their tasks. Again, whether the right balance is struck between autonomy and coordination determines whether team members will enter flow together. Finding that balance is up to the team, and becomes more difficult as the team grows in size. If just a few people in key positions within the team enter flow while performing their tasks, there is a good chance they’ll pull the rest along with them, and once the whole team is in flow together, team flow occurs. That is when the team members perform at their best together and experience happiness together.
Collective Ambition as the Bedrock of Team Formation
The Keys to Forming a Collective Ambition: Openness, Generosity, and Meaning
We described the collective ambition of a team as the starting point of its formation and defined it as “the shared sense of intrinsic motivation to operate and to perform as a team based on shared values and recognition of complementary skills” (see above). Embedded in that definition is the notion that each team member should recognize and value the abilities of each other member, which is tantamount to granting them a place on the team and giving them permission to work together towards a common, meaningful goal. This collective ambition is beautifully described in the following quotation:
Leave your collective ambition open to some interpretation. Formulate the ambitions generously, so that team members can imbue it with meaning of their own. When I say open to interpretation, I mean leave some wiggle room, but make sure it provides enough guidance to keep people on board without excluding anyone from the process. They should also set ambitious goals with a social aspect. People are happier when they can be of value to others, contribute to something beautiful, something greater than themselves. (Expert quote 10, Harry Starren, organizational consultant and former CEO; italics added)
As above, it is notable that the interviewee emphasizes not only the imputation of meaning upon the collective ambition, but in the autonomy of each team member to align this meaning with personal goals so that they can apply their unique skillset to something larger than themselves.
Another quotation along the same lines says that high-performing teams are usually founded on shared values (Expert quote 11, Christian Dahmen, organizational consultant). This means members of organizations are not grouped together solely on the basis of their knowledge or skills, but on their collective values, which form the basis for collective ambition. With autonomy and team values established, the team is in a prime position to develop the collective ambition through open communication into a concrete goal, as illustrated beautifully by TV producer Victor Mids:
We handle things very professionally at MINDF*CK. When we’re creating a new season, we’ll rent a villa for a week. A team of five of us will sit by the pool and brainstorm. Everyone’s free to say what new illusion they might find interesting. ‘Shall we change water into wine,’ someone will say, ‘Or make the moon disappear?’ We generate a whole bunch of ideas that way. After that we’ll look for methods. Will we use a helicopter and a black screen? Do we build a complete replica? Do we hypnotize someone? From there, we look at what the best solution would be and whether we can make anything cool happen. It starts with a core idea. Something you can explain in just one sentence. If you can’t do that, the idea’s just not good enough.” (Expert quote 12, Victor Middelkoop, illusionist and TV producer)
As demonstrated the collective ambition gets developed by allowing each of the team members to highlight the foci they value and to build on the aspects of those foci that they can work on synergistically. With freewheeling, open discussion, the team can drill down to a specific set of deliverables and outline an action plan, both of which serve as a source of motivation for the team.
Collective Ambition as a Source of Satisfaction and Positive Energy
It is also worth mentioning that talking about the collective ambition engenders feelings of satisfaction, as reflected in the following quotation from a team member in education: “The first time we all sat together, we had some intense discussions and decided what was important to us. That felt pretty good” (Employee quote 6, Bossche Vakschool). As in this case, we saw across the interviews (e.g., Employee quotes 22, 32, 36) that team members’ being surrounded by highly motivated people led to flow experiences for them as well. The collective ambition becomes a touchstone for the team—by revisiting it frequently, the team members, both individually and collectively, can use it as a source of energy, reflection, and alignment, which keeps positive momentum flowing in the right direction (double entendre intended).
Moreover, knowing what you stand for as a team and what is important to the team can be viewed as an actual strength of the team, as indicated by this member of a team in education: “One of our team’s strengths is that the team knows what all of its members stand for, together” (Employee quote 11, Dimence). This sentiment is echoed by a healthcare team member:
It’s so important what the vision of one of these organizations is. I never knew just how important that is. Buurtzorg organises vision meetings for new employees to teach them about its vision. And it’s a vision we all support. In fact, their vision should be the entire reason you choose to work for Buurtzorg. We ask about it in job interviews. ”Why do you want to work for Buurtzorg and what do you think makes us different?” If the answer to that question gives us a bad feeling, we won’t continue with that applicant. (Employee quote 14, Buurtzorg Nederland)
That also suggests how important it is that the team’s values match the organization’s. The team’s collective ambition should contribute to the overarching mission/vision of the organization as a whole. If at any time the two fall out of sync, that will form an obstacle to team flow for any number of reasons, including a lack of cooperation, a refusal to share resources, and others.
Balance of Collective Challenge and Complementary Skills
Challenges are tackled together, at the team level. That means there ought to be a balance (or match) between the collective-level challenge and the levels of the team members’ complementary skills. To achieve a high level of skill integration, the division of labor should be performed in such a way that everyone is assigned a task or role they will find challenging and that matches their preferences, talents, knowledge, and skills (see our point about autonomy, above). A crucial part of this process is assigning people to tasks that fall within their respective zones of proximal development (cf. Obukhova & Korepanova, 2009), as one of the expert interviewees noted: “In role distribution, consider everyone’s talent and motivation to develop in any given area” (Expert quote 49, Ineke Khalil, business team coach). By using that framework, individual abilities are optimally directed and prone to being bundled in ways that generate both personal growth and cooperative synergies. This also increases the likelihood of everyone’s functioning at proportionally high levels of ability, uniquely contributing to the team’s meaningful goal in a way that is simultaneously autotelic to the individual. This also makes it easier to delegate tasks and coordinate efforts, both because the individuals are motivated and because they are likely to communicate the ways in which they want to contribute to the coordinated efforts. We found this effect reflected in multiple statements across the interviews:
“One of our team’s strengths is that you know about each other what your strengths are” (Employee quote 30, Dimence).
(“A clear distribution of roles and responsibilities where everyone complements everyone else by bundling strengths” (Employee quote 38, Mammoet).
“I get into this flow because my team and I are given full responsibility. Everyone on the team is well-trained and knows what they’re about. We’re free to divvy up the work. Everyone does what they’re good at, what they enjoy doing, so of course things go really well. And you get to be completely responsible for that, too” (Employee quote 36, Buurtzorg Nederland)
Though it is sufficient for the collective ambition of a specific team to be operationalized in a way that leaves room to maneuver, the best collective ambitions encourage teams to strive for something beautiful, meaningful, and socially relevant (a higher purpose, added value, or core belief). The collective ambition, then, reveals more of the common values that the team stands for. The personal goals that have been decided on are all carefully formulated, meaningful, and specific to the individual, directing the individual’s actions and encouraging growth and development in both the individual and the team as a whole (Locke & Latham, 2006). This higher level collective ambition serves to inspire team members to improve both themselves and the team as a whole, which reflects high motivation and effortless cooperation. When everyone on the team agrees fully on what the collective ambition is and everyone in the team has the autonomy to strive for that ambition as they think best, everyone involved will be highly motivated. As such, the formation of an effective team truly starts at the mutual recognition of each other’s overlapping and complementary values, and the common strength derived from those (cf. group potency; Guzzo et al., 1993). Building on this unifying team self-efficacy, the team’s collective ambition serves as its beating heart, energizing its members, as well as its backbone, ensuring that all the team’s efforts are coordinated. Because of the coherence, efficiency, and efficacy that follow from strategic team composition and development of a collective ambition, the collective ambition is the root from which all other team flow prerequisites develop.
Interconnected Elements of Team Flow
Common Goal and Aligned Personal Goals Drive a Sense of Unity
A common goal is integral to instilling a sense of unity in the team. Respondents repeated this point constantly, and it is visible throughout the quotes in Appendix 1. Some examples are: “The idea is for us all to get behind the goal” (Employee quote 19, Dimence).”; “Linking clear goals to ideals and living up to those” (Employee quote 21, M&O Groep); “Getting on with it together and making sure everyone’s on the same page” (Employee quote 63, De Bossche Vakschool).it is important for goals to be clear and supported by everyone involved, as this maximizes the chances for achieving team flow. Once a common goal has been agreed upon, team flow may be further encouraged by enabling each team member to develop a concrete plan for making a unique contribution (e.g., drafting a clear task flow with deadlines, integrating with other team members’ efforts). The aim is to give the team (including individual and collective subunits) the wherewithal to draw the team’s focus (collectively and/or individually) into the here and now without anyone losing sight of the long-term collective ambition and the goals derived from it.
The difference between a collective ambition and a long-term common goal is that the latter is much more concrete, like taking the cup at the World Championships, whereas the former is more like wanting to be the best football offensive side in the world by playing beautifully and with great technical proficiency. Our respondents describe the importance of this multi-level clarity as follows: “Clear goals and their associated tasks give me the feeling that I’m valuable to the team and allow me to fill my day with meaningful activity” (Employee quote 24, Zaanstad); “People want to express their passion by doing their jobs well. They want to take enjoyment from their work, and do it in a way that makes them feel like they’re doing something meaningful. Personal goals in the team are a part of that” (Expert quote 20, Jos de Blok, CEO Buurtzorg Nederland).”; As such, the individual brings their whole self to the team, which can mean that there will be egos in the group. This is fine, as long as the egos are able to blend and/or be put in the service of the team’s interests (cf. blending of egos; Sawyer, 2007). One of the team member respondents described that phenomenon in an interview:
If you want to work at Buurtzorg, you can’t have a large ego. Many other organizations demand one. At those places, one person usually steps forward wanting to be the manager. Here, everyone needs to carry themselves as equals. That creates trust, opens up communication, and eventually leads to flow in your team. (Employee quote 1, Buurtzorg Nederland).
Having a collective ambition, a common goal, and personal goals aligned to them both creates a sense of unity in everyone involved. Team members experience this in a very real way, as if they are acting as a single organism. Here is one example quotation from the interviews illustrating a sense of unity: “One of our team’s strengths is that there’s a strong sense of ‘togetherness’” (Employee quote 73, Dimence). In summary, we can say that the chance of experiencing team flow improves when team members get to make personal contributions to the common goal, and that it can be even further improved when that contribution stimulates personal development. Under those conditions, the aligned personal goals together stimulate the sense of belonging and of being valuable to the people they serve. Clearly, the prerequisites common goal and aligned personal goals and the characteristic sense of unity are strongly interconnected.
The Alignment of Personal Goals Should Be Interwoven with the Integration of High Skills
As discussed above, clear goals and aligned personal goals provides a foundation for open communication about task delegation, starting with developing an understanding of who is good at what and who enjoys doing what (mutual awareness), as well as what the team as a whole is good at (collective awareness). With those elements in place, team members engage in tasks on the basis of their talents and stay connected through the coordination of people’s unique contributions (mutual autonomy). Because everyone has some autonomy and feels free to get on with it, it becomes easier for everyone to experience flow in their performance of personal tasks supporting the team (cf. autotelic activity; Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2009). This is reflected well in the following statement:
If people assign me a role I’m happy to fill here [sic]. I can exercise my authentic qualities in a focused way here. The group knows what those qualities are and lets me make the most of them. I can stay true to my authentic self here in the way I interact with clients. I can be myself here in the way we work with clients. (Employee quote 28, Dimence)
By allowing team members to be themselves while also giving them a shared responsibility, they have a greater likelihood of experiencing team flow. This is summarized wonderfully in the following quotation:
I’ve been at this for a while now, and when I joined Buurtzorg and read on the company intranet that someone’s experience of working there was: ‘This is so great,’ I felt the same way. This is something else! This is a whole new approach to working and to teams. You can just be yourself. And they make the most of my skills and responsibilities, which makes me derive so much more joy from my work. I’m well aware how I hit flow at Buurtzorg. A lot would have to happen before I lose that ability. I get into this flow because my team and I are given full responsibility. Everyone on the team is well-trained and knows what they’re about. We’re free to divvy up the work. Everyone does what they’re good at, what they enjoy doing, so of course things go really well. And you get to be completely responsible for that, too. (Employee quote 36, Buurtzorg Nederland)
High Skill Integration and Open Communication Provide a Sense of Joint Progress
In this, it becomes clear that high skill integration couples with the mutual commitment of both team and personal goals to promote team flow, in large part due to a sense of joint progress. When the disparate skills of team members are integrated into a collective skill set and when there is constant coaching towards the next step along the path towards achieving the team’s collective ambition and/or common goal, that creates a feeling of joint progress (cf. moving forward; Sawyer, 2007). That feeling leads to the sense of effortlessness that is so strongly associated with individual flow (cf. effortless action; Csikszentmihalyi, 1990), only in the team context the experience is shared with the team. One respondent described how that happens: “When allocating tasks, you need to bear in mind what people enjoy doing. If you don’t, people start grumbling, feeling negative. That creates a negative atmosphere in the team. The thing to do is tell people to do the things they like to do and are good at. They’ll make it look effortless!” (Employee quote 34, Buurtzorg Nederland). When people get things done together with what seems like very little effort, they get more done overall, as two respondents noted: “I experience flow in this team when I get absorbed in the work, have the chance to really put some effort in, and get a lot done” (Employee quote 85, AMO); The team plays a crucial role. The team has to function well for me, as an employee, to be able to function well” (Employee quote 84, Dimence). When the entire team functions well, the team experiences the sense of joint progress aspect of team flow.
High Skill Integration, Mutual Commitment, and Open Communication as Foundations for Safety
Creating a safe environment that is tolerant of failure is essential, as only those who can commit fully to attacking challenges without fearing failure are in a position to experience flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990; cf. Sawyer, 2007). Safety creates mutual trust and allows people to make themselves vulnerable:
If there is ever a problem with a client, your colleagues are always right there for you. We start looking for solutions together. We help each other. That’s a thing: you can ask for help here. You can make yourself vulnerable in the team. That’s how much trust we have in each other, and that trust is never violated. (Employee quote 59, Buurtzorg Nederland)
That quotation indicates that the willingness to ask for help, to appeal to the team for support on one’s weak spots, and for them to give what they can and to do what they can (i.e., integration of high skills) is dependent on the sense of safety.
The team members support each other in working towards the challenging common goals they set, embracing failure as a source of growth and learning and acknowledging success through accountability and celebration. These open, constructive, and positive exchanges are considered essential for the creation of a shared safe environment. There were numerous quotations about safety and the prerequisites for team flow: “Our team’s strength is that I can just tell my colleagues how I’m doing. The team knows how I feel on any given work day” (Employee quote 44, Dimence); “An important measure of the support our team receives is that difficult situations are acknowledged within the team as well as by other teams, other departments and the management” (Employee quote 45, Dimence); “A common project on which everyone contributes within the deadline and there’s open communication about progress” (Employee quote 49, Mammoet).” Creating a safe space where the need for recognition and appreciation as well as feelings of disappointment can be acknowledged plays an important role in the process. Expressing mutual appreciation and celebrating successes together increases motivation and makes for a positive work environment (cf. Hackman & Wageman, 2005). The ability to manage, express, perceive and interpret emotions makes for more effective communication and is essential for the creation of a safe work environment (cf. Edmondson, 1999). There is a reciprocal interplay between open/effective communication, vulnerability, and safety, in that each of them promotes the others and joins with them to yield mutual trust.
Safety and Open, Positive, Constructive Communication Supports Mutual Trust
People need to feel safe to be vulnerable, express their feelings, and make mistakes, and from there they can develop a sense of confidence that they can get the job done together. A safe environment with open, constructive communication contributes to that trust. Trust, once achieved, reinforces all the other elements that make a team effective: “Trust affects the entire team process. If there’s no trust, friction will run rampant. Team members will lose focus, communication and harmony (Expert quote 35, Ineke Khalil, 2013).” This expert also pointed out that:
You can restore trust by investing in it, which you do by communicating openly with each other, ensuring that roles are clearly defined and assigned. Keep talking to each other about the work you’re doing. Take what time you need for that, and for acknowledging people’s accomplishments. Also learn how to communicate with each other meaningfully, so that people start sharing inspiration and revealing vulnerabilities. Discussing personal ups and downs in a team contributes to building trust. Talks like that could be about someone’s hobbies, their past, their family, anything. When talking about trust, bear in mind that it’s not stable. Trust can be damaged at any time, so it always requires maintenance or repair. (Expert quote 39, Ineke Khalil, 2013)
Because authentic and vulnerable communication is a two-way street, and necessarily involves both personal and professional aspects, open communication is one of the keys to building mutual trust and unity. As Ineke Kalil (2013) noted (Expert quote 31): “Unity comes from trust and trust comes from keeping in touch and knowing what’s going on with everyone.” Similarly, a respondent said: You have to be able to trust your colleagues implicitly, trust them to provide the kind of care we stand for. It’s about trust in their professional know-how, trust in their relationship with the client and their mutual trust in their fellow team members. If that’s not in place, the flow isn’t there” (Employee quote 77, Dimence).
But, people sometimes find themselves in teams with others they do not know and have not worked with before. It is important for the attainment of team flow that those people come to trust each other, but that can be challenging. Over time, as these people cooperate, invest in becoming better acquainted, and coordinate and succeed together, their mutual trust will grow, enhancing the team’s chances of experiencing team flow. Often, the idea that teams should have open, freewheeling communication can draw people away from the fact that communication still needs to be intentional, empathetic, and accepting, which requires significant emotional management in the early stages. That is not to say that people should be thinking so much that open-communication is impeded, but rather that the communication may be a bit slower, and there may be pauses that people will need to accept. Keeping irrelevant thoughts and non-accepting emotions in check is a challenge, but very much necessary, as one expert pointed out:
Open communication requires two things: that the core of your message is clear and that you are clear on what the core of your message is. What you often see is that people will just throw stuff out there, disturbing the team’s open communication. This happens because their messages hide all kinds of unexamined feelings, partially formed ideas, and confusion. It will take the other person in the conversation a lot of energy to work out what you’re trying to say. People need to think: what do I really want to say. Be clear about that, then start thinking about how to put that across as palatably as you can. When someone is trying to make a statement they’re very excited about, all that charge on the message can spook the audience and cause them to fire back. Making your message palatable means putting the core of the message across as inoffensively as possible. Open communication demands that people take a lot of care in how they express themselves and that takes a lot of self-discipline and self-awareness. (Expert quote 29, Ineke Khalil, business team coach)
That is, it is not just whether people communicate openly, but how they offer that communication in an open and accepting environment (and what they do to make the environment open and accepting) that matters. By handling this well in the early stages, the team builds mutual trust, which (as above) powers unity and holistic focus.
Mutual Commitment to Common and Personal Goals Provides Focus
Mutually committing to a common goal means becoming responsible for working towards that goal with diligence and dedication. Those involved know how the tasks have been distributed, are familiar with the process[es] that lead[s] to the goal, and stay informed about the current state of affairs. There is mutual support through task-oriented coaching and by holding each other accountable.
This was reflected in the interviews as well: “One of our team’s strengths is that we all stand together when it comes to handling and being able to handle specific situations” (Employee quote 66, Dimence); “Within the team, everyone’s very engaged with each other. Everyone knows how everyone else feels about things. That helps us function as a team” (Employee quote 67, Dimence). Study participants explained mutual commitment in terms of ‘being there’ for each other; being able to count on each other, keeping promises, going for the goal together (team spirit; cf. Employee quote 72, Mammoet), holding one another accountable for their performance and actions, making decisions together, and helping each other out when necessary. Making clear agreements, rules, and decisions together, taking a positive attitude to work, having mutual respect, and knowing each other well all contribute to the achievement of mutual commitment. When those conditions are met, it becomes much easier for the team as a whole to be in the moment. Everyone will be completely focused on the achievement of the common goal and maintaining a healthy team dynamic.
Even with a diverse team of different personalities and diverging opinions, it is important for everyone to be so invested in each other that remain willing to do the work for each other’s sake. The following quote provides another good summary of the importance of commitment, common goals, and the coordination of personal contributions:
When the distribution of roles is clear and it is clear how team members stay in touch with each other. It’s the interplay of owner and co-owner. I may be responsible for a given product, but my colleagues share in that responsibility because we are collectively responsible for our overall performance. Team members need to know who’s responsible for what, how to stay in touch with one another, when feedback can be exchanged, and how they can ask for help and support. When all that is clear, team members can relax and go for it. It provides focus. (Expert quote 49, Ineke Khalil, business team coach)