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Two secrets behind the happiest teams in your office

The first of a three-part series to help you team better.

Imagine a career where you experience two simple but important things: you’re inspired, and you feel like you belong. I’m talking the kind of inspired that makes you fly out of bed in the morning; and a sense of belonging that makes you feel like you’re part of a close-knit tribe working toward a common goal for the greater good. Sounds like a dream job, right?

According to our research, it definitely would be. This year, Microsoft – a company tasked with building communication technology for the world’s teams – partnered with IDEO to uncover what makes the best teams tick. Our researchers embedded with all kinds of teams, from astronauts and chefs, to search and rescue squads. We uncovered five attributes that set the best teams apart: they’re inspired by a common purpose; they find belonging in a collective identity; they build awareness and inclusion; they have trust and vulnerability; and harness constructive tension into positive outcomes. Whether you’re a manager or individual contributor, our research shows by practicing these team dynamics, anyone can create a successful team they love to be a part of.

This is article one of a three-part series that will shed a light on our research and provide simple things anyone can do to build these dynamics on their team. Today, I’ll start with the first two teamwork attributes: purpose and collective identity.

Purpose

Purpose is the heartbeat that guides discussions and decisions. It inspires your team to aspire to something greater than themselves. Fish mongers at Seattle’s Pike Place market taught us a valuable lesson about this. A fish thrower named Taho explained, their purpose may be as simple as selling fish. But to infuse every day with the kind of personal meaning that inspires his team, their purpose must be tied to the impact they hope to have on those touched by their work. Specifically, Taho told us, “yes, selling fish may be my job, but making people happy is my purpose.”

Defining purpose is powerful for teams because according to experts, it’s good for our psychological health. When a team is focused on a goal larger than themselves, individual challenges feel less significant. Purpose imbues a sense of hope that the team will achieve something that will change the lives of others for the better. In addition, research shows that people with more purpose achieve more flow – the more flow we have, the happier we feel.

We found that purpose works its magic when a team is able to work together to self-identify the impact they hope to have in the world, and then develop a purpose statement to guide their work. To do this on your team, jot down a few instances you were most proud of your team’s work. Then, share back with each other. For each instance, ask, ‘Who are we serving?’ and ‘What was the impact we had?’ From your answers, create a simple purpose statement, or two. For the purpose statement, have each teammate fill this out: Our team exists to {create this impact} for {intended audience}.

Collective Identity

Humans crave belonging. According to psychologists, a strong sense of belonging can improve everything from your motivation, to your overall health and happiness. Moreover, when you feel a connection to others, you find comfort in knowing you are not alone, which is important when challenges arise but also when you want someone to celebrate with.

So, it’s no surprise our research found that the best teams have a strong collective identity, or a shared sense of belonging that helps teams work as one. In other words, if purpose is the playbook, your collective identity is how you get there.

While belonging can feel like an obscure topic, we found that a team can create belonging by forging a collective identity or a set of values, rituals and shared agreements for your team to live by. If followed religiously, these things can fortify a team’s identity, laying a strong foundation the team can lean on when times are tough.

For example, ahead of their mission, the astronauts we studied spend hours getting to know each other and creating a set of shared agreements they will follow while living in a cramped aircraft for months or years at a time. For instance, one of the astronauts’ core agreements is to have a dinner conversation each night about the day’s highs and lows, and to always celebrate things like birthdays. They also discussed the best way to give and receive feedback, especially in such high-stress, high stakes environments.

Taking the time to explicitly craft these agreements creates clarity, ownership, and accountability to become the type of team you want to be. Perhaps just as importantly, it can also help your team create rituals that turn your working relationships into trusted friendships.

Technology Can Help

In a world where most of us work remotely at least some of the time, the way we use technology to communicate can also help us forge a collective identity. For example, emojis and memes may seem trivial, but they can be a valuable tool for relaying emotional context and forging team bonds. Video calling can improve how well you know your remote colleagues. An open team-chat environment allows teamwork to happen transparently. I also recommend creating an outlet, whether it’s the office kitchen or a team chat, just for celebrating birthdays and chatting about life outside of work.

When technology is designed this way, it helps build a better understanding of who I’m working with, what their point of view is and what our shared perspective is on how to achieve our goals. When people feel they are understood online, they’re more likely to share unique perspectives — the lightbulb mechanism that allows teammates to see things differently, possibly for the first time.

Think about your own team. What are the values you already demonstrate that you’d like to codify? Do you do a great job valuing diverse thinking, quick decision making? Conversely, what are the things the team could do better? Are you using technology to connect with remote colleagues in the best way? Could you do more smart risk taking? Do you take the time to celebrate personal and professional milestones? Once you’ve brainstormed these points individually, come together as a team to create a set of shared agreements and rituals that become the compass for how your team operates.

Check in next week for the second article in the series which will dive into the benefits of creating a sense of awareness and inclusion on your team. Or, if you’d like to practice building all five of these attributes on your team today, check out our Art of Teamwork toolkit. It provides thought starters and facilitator guides to get you started.

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