The idea of “team spirit” is commonly used and taken to be an ingredient of great teams. But what exactly is this process called “team spirit”?
Researcher: Miguel Pina e Cunha
The idea of “team spirit” is commonly used and taken to be an ingredient of great teams. But what exactly is this process called “team spirit”? A team of authors from universities in Portugal, the UK and Australia, equipped with a strong spirit, followed one amateur Portuguese football team over a period of six months to know more about this intangible team sauce.
It’s all about contradiction
Team spirit, the authors conclude, can be viewed as an exercise in contradiction, the ability to maintain a healthy and difficult synthesis between tensions that can easily lose balance. In teams with a spirit, members have to accept some individualism and see it as a stimulus to reach a common, collective goal. They have to face losses as a necessary ingredient for winning: good teams celebrate victories and learn with defeats. Members need to discover that victories are the goal but that defeat is critical to test the bonds within a team. Losing will teach team members how to provide support and friendship. Inconsistent results may be a challenge for the team but it is very unlikely that most teams can avoid losing. They consent to performance confrontations in order that improvements occur, without letting them go too far. Conflicts are crucial for work improvement if focused on points of view and professional evaluations but potentially harmful when they damage the quality of interaction. And they encourage proximity – but avoid an excess of it.
Individual interests vs Collective action
When the balance is not right, teams do not maintain this state of fruitful tension. Individuals may come to dominate the team. When that happens, the team loses its potency as a collective because individual concerns can reduce care for the team as a whole, a tension familiar to most teams, including sports teams. When individual interests prevail over collective interests, the group succumbs to individualism. The same happens when the collective imposes itself: individual goals lose relevance and the team defines what the appropriate goals are for everybody. Groups may be at their best when their members are able to push forward both their individual goals and those of the team. Too much inclination to individual goals threatens a sense of shared identity; an excessive orientation to the collective may reduce vitality and the interest of their individual members.
Finding the optimal balance
Team spirit, in summary, characterizes the skill of keeping the team in the vital space between social forces that can neutralize each other but which, when articulated in a duality, enrich and empower one another. Other key findings of this study show that:
• Team spirit thus appears as a paradoxical and fragile state, a combination of attempts of syntheses that may be difficult to achieve and to prolong.
• In businesses, the role of professional coaches may not differ much from what happens in this amateur team: to find balances between different spheres of a team’s life.
Silva, T.; Stewart Clegg; Miguel Pina e Cunha; Pedro Neves; Arménio Rego and R. Rodrigues. 2014. "Smells Like Team Spirit: Opening a Paradoxical Black Box." Human Relations, 67(3), 287-310.