Team Relationships: How to Understand & Improve Them

By Mark Samuel –

We’ve all experienced team relationship breakdowns, especially at work in our teams and organizations. We try to address those team relationship breakdowns by implementing teamwork and trust-building exercises, style assessments and communication processes. But so often, those relationship breakdowns don’t experience any permanent shift. Why is that?

This article will address everything about team relationships and help you figure out exactly where and how obstacles surface for your organization through a powerful diagnostic model that has helped thousands of teams diagnose the root cause of their issues so that their conflicts can be solved for good.

What is a Team Relationship?

Organizations are made up of departments, which are made up of teams, and teams are made up of individuals. Team relationships are the relationships between individuals on a team. A team relationship could include how team members communicate with one another, how they get along interpersonally, and how well they execute on their team goals.

How Do You Improve Team Relationships?

Typically, teams have one of two goals with their team relationships: to strengthen the relationships or to fix broken relationships. 

How to Fix a Broken Work Relationship

Fixing a broken work relationship requires you to know the cause of the breakdown. Keep reading to learn how to diagnose team relationship breakdowns. If the relationship is broken because of personality differences, you have two options for how to fix it.

  1. Try to get along better. While this doesn’t always fix the work relationship, sometimes two people just need to get on the same page interpersonally. Try going out for a drink or having lunch together one day. Share about your families, hobbies, or things you struggle with. The more we learn about others, the more compassion we can have toward them.
  2.  Focus on desired outcomes of the job. Most of the time, work relationships malfunction because of lack of work malfunctions, not relationship malfunctions. This could be error in communication, lack of clarity about desired outcomes, or lack of consistency when it comes to execution. To fix work relationships, focus on what you’re trying to accomplish and how you’re going to accomplish it. Oftentimes, when those things become clear, the relationship gets better automatically. Read below for more detail.

How to Strengthen Team Relationships

Related Article: The Best Virtual Team Building Activities

  1. Spend time together outside of the office. Escape rooms, improv classes, or just going out to a meal together can be a great way to get more comfortable with each other and strengthen those relationships.
  2. Create a Picture of Success for the team. Having the whole team create a picture of success together can be a great way to build team relationships. Have the team imagine where they want to be 6 months to a year from now and write down everything you would have to do differently (including mindset & behaviors) to get there. The document doesn’t have to be flashy or sound good; it’s just for the team to know whether or not they are on track or off track.
  3. Agree upon new habits of collective execution and hold yourself and each other accountable for them. Oftentimes, individuals go into teams with their own habits, just hoping that everyone’s habits match up and work well together. Unfortunately, this is oftentimes not the case. When a team creates team habits that they agree on mutually, it can be a total game changer.  These habits should be execution focused and based on your desired outcomes as a team.
  4. Communicate well. This is often easier said than done, but one of the keys to making this easy is to communicate more than you assume. Ask clarifying questions, assume positive intent, and be clear about desired outcomes when you need something to get done.
  5. Assume positive intent. So often we get caught in defensiveness and egoic power battles with our team mates, assuming they don’t trust us or don’t have our best interest at heart. Making the decision to trust our teammates and assume positive intent can create a pleasant and positive atmosphere where people feel comfortable to share openly, ask questions, and admit mistakes.
  6. Follow through with commitments. Doing what we say we’re going to do can work wonders when building trust with a team. Make this a priority, and if you aren’t able to accomplish what you promised, surface this early so the team can problem-solve and help you out. There’s no shame in realizing you over-committed, as long as you give ample notice with time to course-correct.
  7. Recognize each individual team member’s strengths and weaknesses. Part of being on a team is sharing diverse skills, talents, and ways of thinking. The more each individual can utilize their unique strengths, the better the team will operate as a whole. 

How To Diagnose Team Relationship Breakdowns

There are four areas in which team relationship breakdowns can occur: the ends, the means, the coordination and relationships. Let’s take a look at each one in detail.

The Ends

When team relationship breakdowns happen because of misalignment on the ends, the team isn’t on the same page about where they’re going. “The ends” refers to your desired business outcomes. These are the results you want to achieve for your organization, including the level of growth desired, the level of profitability and any ways in which you want to change your business model. Ideally, this would include breakthrough business results or breakthrough business outcomes, but it could simply be whatever the next level of desired outcomes is for your business. Once you’re clear on the ends, you can move on to the means.

The Means

 The means refers to your business strategy as well as your priorities. At a high level, you can ask yourself, “Where do we get the leverage for accomplishing our business outcomes? What’s the strategy we’re going to use to get there? What does that mean in terms of all our different roles and responsibilities for accomplishing your business outcomes?”

Coordination

Coordination refers to implementation or execution, including things like planning, decision-making and problem-solving.

How do you make decisions in your organization? Are they made in a decisive, timely manner? Do you include the right people or do you make decisions in silos that cause problems down the line? How do you address problems that show up in the organization? Are they hidden or are they surfaced immediately and addressed? Do you get the right people engaged in helping to solve those problems? Do you get innovative solutions or do you just go back to the old way of doing things?

Coordination also involves accountability. Can you count on each other, regardless of functional area or level in the organization to do your parts, keep your commitments and move things forward in a timely manner? In my experience, a good number of team relationship breakdowns happen at the level of coordination.

Relationships

The last place in which team relationship breakdowns can occur are in the actual relationships, including things like style and communication differences.

The truth is, if you’re not aligned on your ends, by definition, you won’t be aligned on your means, coordination or relationships either. If you don’t agree on what you’re trying to accomplish, how can you agree on priority and strategy? How do you set up how you’re going to plan and make decisions? When you’re not aligned on where you’re going, you can’t do any of that and those areas of implementation will inevitably suffer, including relationships. You won’t be able to build trust or have effective communication if you’re not even talking about the same end goals to begin with.

If you are in alignment about your ends, then the next place a breakdown can occur is your means. If you’re not aligned on your strategy and priorities, the coordination about how to implement that strategy and make progress on those priorities won’t work. So how do you make sure you’re including the right people in planning and that you’re clear on your strategy? Once you are aligned on those, the next place the breakdown can occur is in coordination.

There are a lot of areas of coordination in which team relationship breakdowns can occur: Are you including the right people in planning and decision-making? Are you surfacing and solving problems creatively and holding each other accountable for business outcomes? If you’re not coordinating well, your relationships will also suffer. Frustrations will build and trust will be broken.

No matter where a breakdown occurs, it will always show up in relationships, but like we’ve discussed, the root cause is often somewhere further up the line. This is why focusing on team building and relationship building activities, styles inventories and communication improvement might make things better for a short time but will inevitably devolve as old issues resurface. Understanding each other’s styles and communication preferences is important, but if you try to solve the problem at a relationship level when it’s really a coordination- or means-level breakdown, the relationship-focused solution will only go so far. 

What is your team’s root cause of breakdown?t

This article was first published as a Forbes Coaches Council Post