Team Cohesion and Motivation. Title image with venn diagram of personal, interpersonal, and organizational excellence. Strategies to help you increase team effectiveness, identify threats to morale, and increase motivation.


Social Psychology is one of the most under-utilized bodies of research for organizational change. While the number of variables that impact team effectiveness can be overwhelming, this page will remind you of some fundamental principles that drive team cohesion, motivation, and the effectiveness of groups.


Group Think

PROBLEM: This psychological phenomenon occurs when a team seeks consensus and is so conflict avoidant that they are not able to engage in critical decision-making. New ideas are less likely to be shared and are quickly tossed aside if the other team members do not immediately support them.

STRATEGY: The team leader needs to set the tone by actively seeking out new ideas. This approach requires allowing the space for people to voice ideas without an immediate scrutiny about the validity or viability of the idea. When people voice ideas but receive only a polite nod or a fast shut-down, they are less likely to use their energy to share opinions in the future. The additional value of respecting different ideas is that it teaches the team that differing perspectives are accepted and lays the groundwork for successfully engaging conflict.

Social Loafing

PROBLEM: This psychological phenomenon can be readily seen if one sends a group email. The knowledge that twenty other people may solve the problem or share an opinion lowers the sense of responsibility for each person receiving the email.

STRATEGY: Allow each member of the team to choose the tasks that align with his/her interest and skills. This strategy increases a person’s sense of ownership and pride in the goal at hand. Ensure that team members understand how their part is critical in the overall outcome. Understanding that their contribution matters not only boosts performance but also increases morale. One of the biggest complaints I hear from team members is that they are just putting in time and do not feel that their contributions matter. A solid coordination of skills, tasks and goals is more likely to produce a high-functioning AND happy team.

Low Team Cohesion

PROBLEM: Sometimes the physical environment or nature of the project does not facilitate adequate opportunities for team members to connect with each other. Connection and bonding is crucial as it increases members’ trust in each other. Increased trust speeds decision-making and decreases distracting social factors such as gossip, hurt feelings, and competition.

STRATEGY: The strongest team cohesion occurs when team members feel they all have something in common—“we’re all in this together.” This concept is called “universality” and is the groundwork for the most effective group processes. Working at the same place or on the same project is not enough commonality to create the sense of universality. It necessitates a feeling. If everyone on a team hates a project, one of the best strategies is to first acknowledge that everyone hates the project. The shared feeling allows everyone to feel on the same page, even if it is a negative one. From there, the leader can help the team strategize on how to navigate the project successfully.

“Remember, teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.”
–Patrick Lencioni

Building Great Teams

Healthy Group Norms

The team leader sets the tone for the group and begins the creation of a social norm. If the team leader respects others and “calls out” disrespect, the team will form a norm that automatically neutralizes potentially negative people. Toxic people need to be fed in order to thrive. Setting  the social norm you want for the team requires one to be aware of the precedent you set while the group is still forming. Praise the behaviors you want, in front of other team members. Thoughtful attention to precedents can help the group establish positive norms related to communication, punctuality, courteousness, innovation, collaboration, respect, and all other factors that are influenced by social dynamics. Note: It is unrealistic for a leader to expect the group to rise above his/her own weaknesses in these areas.

Developing Trust

People trust each other based on perceptions of similarity and experiences of vulnerability. Bonding occurs when people know each other at a personal level. Feeling that “we have this in common” or “I understand where she’s coming from” helps people form a group identity and navigate differences more easily. The sharing of life challenges and good news is more than just “water cooler time wasting”; it forms the foundation for the loyalty and trust that enables team members to run fast together. When team members support each other on a personal level, they invariably are more effective at a professional level.

Communication Process

Team members never complain that they receive too much clarity on expectations, roles, and tasks. On the contrary, the most common complaint is the amount of time and efficiency lost because of unclear communication. At the other end of the spectrum is a team culture of fear or carelessness that causes everyone to “reply all,” which creates an equal amount of overwhelm and confusion. Formulating an effective communication process requires much more than the use of the medium (email, phone, face-to-face). Rather, an effective process requires that each team member understand what information should be communicated to which team members, and the expected time-frames for responses. Establishing a clear flow of communication allows team members to work at a faster rate and with more synergism.

A Unified Goal

When teams formulate their own goals, they develop a culture of ownership and collaboration to reach them. It is important that the goals are not simply those stated by the organization. Organizational leadership may set forth a goal, but this evokes a different psychology than a goal that is developed and owned by the team. When teams do not have a goal that they all buy into, each team member will tend toward the default behavior of spending more effort on his/her own interests rather than the collective goal.

Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

-Albert Einstein


Motivation Killers

Equally Rewarded Behavior

“He just does the bare minimum. We all get the same compensation and the same raises. Sometimes it’s hard for me to stay motivated.  Those of us who are busting our butts are treated the same as the people who just show up for a paycheck.” This person was an ideal worker. He was intelligent, competent, continuously learning, easy-going, and a great team player. After several years at the company with no real cultural shift, he moved to an organization that optimized his skills and rewarded him accordingly.

No one wants to feel used, even hard-working, easy-going employees. Yet, that is exactly what organizations do if they do reward greatness. Praise in front of the team, increased perks such as schedule flexibility or leave time, title changes, and financial compensation all work. Companies who strive to keep everyone at an equal level inherently create an unfair situation that will erode performance to the lowest common denominator.

Broken Promises

Ryan was a hard-working, dedicated counselor. He worked with children who had been traumatized. Every day, for 8 hours, he worked with kids and families who were troubled by sexual abuse, drugs or violence. Ryan’s work week was highly unusual in the counseling world. Due to the amount of emotional energy and paperwork demands, many counselors do 20-25 counseling hours. Ryan did 40. Why? Because the company had an ongoing push for high productivity and promised a huge bonus for employees who met those standards. Self-care was discussed in meetings, but there was no implementation of it in operations. Still, Ryan pushed through, despite the fatigue, trying to get the bonus for his family. At the year-end party, when bonuses were usually announced, the company said that they believed employees were already being adequately compensated and would not be receiving bonuses.

Ryan left, and the organization loss a great counselor, potential leader, AND a high producer.

Vague Expectations

Dr. Tricia: “What is your primary role? What are the expectations?”

Employee: “I don’t know. I never received a job description, and it feels like I have two different bosses. It’s frustrating because I want to do well, but I keep getting mixed messages about what I am supposed to be doing.”

Many people WANT to succeed. They want to know that they are contributing value and meeting the expectations of their supervisors. Clear expectations means measurable objectives and project prioritization. This clarity helps both the employee and the organization. The employee know what s/he needs to do to “win,” and the organization is better equipped to deal with under-performing employees.

Goals without Tools

When organizations set goals without assessing the resources available, they create a lose-lose situation. Employees will quickly recognize the gap between desired and actual outcomes. They feel the performance expectation, but they know that they are unlikely to reach the goal, regardless of their efforts.

The way to achieve stretch goals while maintaining motivation and morale is to ask, “what resources do we need to achieve this goal?” Employees will feel included and take ownership in the process, further prompting a positive outcome.

Perceived Hypocrisy

“They say ____; they do ____.”

Example: The company’s mission statement comments on integrity and honesty with customers, but the the daily operations show the opposite. It is better for a company not to espouse moral values than to verbalize them and behaviorally dismiss them. Doing so creates a loss of respect for the leaders and lowers employee buy-in.

What increases motivation?


People are more motivated when they pursue goals that are relevant, meaningful, and perceived as possible. A bit of uncertainty about the outcome keeps one’s attention and adds challenge, thus increasing motivation.


Internal motivation increases when we are introduced to somewhat surprising information that catches our need to learn and understand.


People want control over themselves and their environments. Giving choices that are tied to significant and meaningful outcomes increases a person’s sense of control.


Intrinsic motivation can be increased in situations where people see themselves as valuable to others and where group efforts help them to achieve their individual goals.


People need to see visible outcomes. They also enjoy having their accomplishment recognized by others.

Source: Malone, T. W. & Lepper, M. R. (1987). Making learning fun: A taxonomy of intrinsic motivations for learning.

How to Maintain Morale in Times of Change

Give Specific Information on the Changes as Soon as Possible

Speaking vaguely about impending changes will only heighten anxiety. Sometimes people mistakenly think that any type of “heads-up” is helpful. “There will be some changes in the next several months” is the organizational equivalent of ‘honey, we need to talk.” Providing facts at the beginning of change conversations minimizes the fear of the unknown. Even communicating that ” we don’t have all of the information on the matter yet, but we will keep you informed” builds trust in the process.

Invite Concerns and Address Them

Many well-meaning organizations address change by emphasizing only the potentially positive outcomes. They do not want employees to be fearful, and they want everyone to get on board. The approach is “rah-rah, we can do it! This is going to be a great new chapter in the company.” The problem with this approach is that it short-circuits the communication and buy-in that can occur when people know the pros, cons and rationale behind impending changes. Even in circumstances that prevent complete disclosure on changes, acknowledging concerns and unknown variables increases the credibility of those leading the change.

People are concerned about change because of the potential loss. Research shows that people try harder to avoid the loss of what they have rather than risking loss to acquire more. Thus, the natural response, from the best and most optimistic employees in the organization will still be a hesitancy. Providing as much information as possible without glossing over the potential downsides increases the sense that “we’re in this together.” Additionally, imagined loss-risks are often more negative than the actual loss that may occur, so information can help reduce unnecessary anxiety among employees.

Remind Employees of Past Successes

People tend to forget previous successful changes in the face of new ambiguity. Remind them of past periods of change within the organization. If previous changes went smoothly, the reminder can build confidence. If previous changes were tumultuous, employees can reminded that “we survived that, and we are going to be able to get through this.” Additionally, comment on the personal qualities of the team. Perhaps they are especially creative, collaborative or hard-working. Acknowledging these qualities increases individuals’ sense of being valued as well as their confidence in navigating the next transition.

Give People a Voice, Even if It is a Small One

Having a voice makes people feel respected. Having a voice increases buy-in. Even if 90% of the change is not available for discussion, inviting people into the remaining 10% makes them feel that they matter. From a strategic standpoint, inviting stakeholders into the conversation may bring new options to light. Except for those employees who have adversarial personalities to begin with, most employees will understand that organizational change can’t rely on complete democracy and will appreciate the attempt to include them in the process.