The Neuroscience and Practice of Deep Teaming

Building the Foundations of Authentic Connection

“Team” is one of those casually brandished words that, like “porn” and “bad art”, defies tidy definition. We know that teams involve multiple people doing a thing, but how much they do that thing together and the degree to which they depend upon one another range widely.

At one extreme, you have loose confederations all nominally aiming for the same victory, but in practice rarely working together. And no matter how often a politician or CEO claims “We’re all on the same team! ” these "teams" don't feel very teamy.

This is shallow teaming.

At the other end, you have tight-knit teams that finish each other's tasks and sentences instinctively. They operate with resonant awareness of each other, their shared objectives, and the next step. And no matter how much you try to pin down what makes the A-Team special or a great marriage sing, you can only be certain that you are a part of one when it feels like you are.

I call this deep teaming.

In our interview series looking at Team Agreements and adaptive teaming, we've focused on identifying and aligning the individual differences that might impede collaboration. For teams that aspire to work in resonant harmony, this practice fine tunes points of discordance.

Before we continue that series, I want to step back and look at the available research about that deep team feeling so we can decide when or if our current teams warrant the effort.

What Makes a Team Feel Like a Deep Team

In business literature, you'll find answers ranging from the esoteric—like "meaningful work" and "acting like a family"—to the prescriptive, such as "every team member uses the same Zoom background."

I've come to a simpler definition. I believe deep teams have a narrative quality. I feel like I'm part of a deep team when we have:

  1. Shared Identity: I can easily recognize the boundaries of our team, the other team members, and the roles each of us plays in this story.

  2. Common Cause: I know our intentions align and we're rooting for similar results. We are companions on our hero’s journey.

  3. Active Collaboration: I'm regularly working with others to achieve those results.

  4. Mutual Trust: I trust that my teammates are and will continue to act with integrity on behalf of the team.

You'll recognize these qualities from stories you've heard about great teams in sports and the military. You’ll also see that some teams get a few of these qualities for free. Consider a rugby team. Those first three criteria are nearly automatic. The uniform makes your team easily identifiable (1), they all want to win the match (2), and when you're on the field, you and your team members are in it to win it (3).

When it comes to trust on any team, you extend it provisionally at the outset, and then monitor everyone's actions to see if that trust was warranted. On deep teams, it is.

The Neuroscience of Teaming

These criteria formed for me when I saw this presentation by Dr. Michael Platt.

He explained how our brains light up differently when we perceive other people as part of our team.

Here's a one-minute clip from the presentation.
Quick background: he’s talking about a study in which researchers showed videos of women getting a needle injected into their cheeks. While all observers said they felt bad for these women, their brains lit up with empathetic concern only when looking at faces that looked like the folks they grew up with. This is implicit bias in action.

Remarkably, the brain patterns changed once the women in the videos were identified as members of the observer's "team".

So this study reinforces criteria 1. When you can easily identify the other people in your team, you become automatically more empathetic towards them.

It’s pretty simple. You're a red shirt and I'm a red shirt too? I feel for you!

Toe Dipping: Adopting a New Team Identity

Uniforms, mascots, and shared Zoom backgrounds can all signal team belonging. When your group embraces an outwardly visible team identity, it does more than show group affiliation.

Embracing a team identity allows individuals to temporarily step fully into their role as a team members.

When wearing their team member hat (either literally or figuratively), individuals can set aside other roles they fulfill throughout the day. When the goalkeeper is on the field, they concentrate on guarding the net, not on raising children, growing their brand, or deepening their worship. In that moment, they only have to be the goalie.

We saw this play out in a small way during the NR4W experiment.

To preserve anonymity, we asked participants to select new names composed of a food and an animal. In-person participants picked their names from our fabulous fruit + animal sticker collection.

We were surprised later when people told us how liberating it was to spend an hour as a fruit animal.

Fruit and animal stickers used in our experiment. If you drop by, I’ll give you some. I have lots!

Participants said that when they were Mango Bunny or Strawberry Lion or Papaya Bear, they felt free to be creative and to genuinely listen to ideas from others without having to worry about advancing all their usual causes or demonstrating their expertise. They could let their professional shoulders drop and focus on collaborating with the group.

The experimental setting and the adoption of new names created a special temporary world that opened new possibilities.

Workshops and games can do the same. In the short run, we can accomplish amazing things and experience great joy by stepping together into a new team identity.

Listen to this conversation between Preston Cline, the Co-founder and Director of Research and Education at the Mission Critical Team Institute, and Chris Warner, a mountaineer, entrepreneur, and the second American to summit every 8,000-meter peak. Starting at around 3:30, they discuss the importance of this stage-setting for moving past our barriers and opening teams to growth and learning.

Wading In: Integrating Personal and Team Identity

Adopting a team identity and a role can provide a focusing lens and a pathway to belonging. Team T-shirts only go so far, though, and we don't get to set aside our complicated selves for long.

If you want a stronger team, you need to create a team identity and then recognize and welcome each individual into the team.

This experiment at Wipro shows the impact of taking this deeper step.

The Wipro call center had a problem with rapid turnover. When the next batch of new hires arrived, they split them into two groups.

Group 1 went through standard onboarding, learning about the company and their job, then received a standard company sweatshirt.

Group 2 also went through the standard onboarding lectures. Then, they also were asked

"What is unique about you that leads to your happiest times and best performances at work?"

Group 2 employees joined small groups to share their unique skills and discuss how they might use them if they were lost at sea. Finally, they too received a company sweatshirt. These sweatshirts were personalized with their embroidered name.

The result? Group 2 employees were 250% more likely to stick around. 

Sources: Daniel Coyle shares this story in chapter 3 of The Culture Code. Academics can access the original study here:

The extra step told the new employees:
I see you. I appreciate what you're bringing to the team. You belong.

Here's Michael again with a clip about a different experiment that used short, deep conversations to build connections and strong relationships.

Are you ready to invest an hour going deeper with your team?

Try this! One Hour to Know Your Team Better

Get a set of the No Small Talk cards he mentions or one of the sets highlighted in this article. Set aside one hour for your discussion.

Gather the team. Pick a question card, then take turns answering it.

Diving Deep: Rituals, Synchrony, and Trust

At the surface level, we create a unified team identity. At first, this might simply be a team name. Then, we can connect more deeply through conversations designed to integrate individual team members and build interpersonal bonds.

Both are great starts, but still insufficient for creating truly deep teams.

There's a lot that has to go right for a team to get deep. They must work towards something they care about, be individually competent, persist as a team over time, and keep their bonds strong through disagreement, challenge, and failure.

To support ongoing bond-building and bond-mending, teams adopt rituals that get them in synch - literally.

Dr. Platt describes the power of mirrored movement for creating physiological synchrony and building trust.

Unlike the kind of synchrony created by conversation, movement and breathing-based synchrony can spread across large groups simultaneously.

A new study (published yesterday, I kid you not!) expands our understanding of the power of synchrony, showing that groups experiencing greater heart rate synchrony reached correct consensus decisions more reliably than out-of-sync teams. (Here’s the preprint)

I find this fascinating.
Now I'm curious: are your teams doing anything today to help them get in sync?

Ritual Practice in the Business World

You can easily find examples of physical mirroring and synchrony-enhancing group rituals in sports, the performing arts, the military, and religious groups.

They're harder to spot in the business world - to our detriment.

When they do surface, it's in stories of initial resistance followed by transformation. Take a moment to listen to this one:

More often, the business definition of a ritual involves specialized language (e.g., insider names for meetings, buildings, and teams) and repeated activities (e.g., a check-in moment at the beginning of team calls or the farewell lunch for a departing colleague). While these pale shadows of tribal rituals don't induce physical mirroring, they still reinforce team identity.

As an example, Kim Shepard extolls the value of "Tribal Speak" in her company. Start at 14:10 in this recording.

If you watch the full presentation, you’ll also see one of the coolest examples of custom meeting names out there. Cockroaches, Ostriches, Tigers, and Tsunamis, oh my!

The Function of Team Agreements in Deep Teams

I wanted to share Dr. Platt's presentation with you because a few of the comments in our interviews with Team Agreement experts got me thinking.

Lisette said:

"I have a lot of teams saying we don't need this. So they'll say, we're, you know, we're a close knit team. We've worked together forever. We know how each other works."

If you have forever to get to know how each other works, then – fair enough! – you can ignore the neuroscience and skip the team agreement!

After all, the research isn’t creating new phenomena. It’s identifying something that was already happening for some of those special teams, and then explaining why some team behaviors lead to stronger team relationships.

The Team Agreement practice brings focus to these behaviors, providing an efficient way to go deeper, but it’s certainly not the only way.

So Lisette shared why some teams don’t feel like they need team agreements. Gustavo explained why they may not want them. He said:

"If someone doesn't quit in the next few weeks or so, then we didn't do our job."

The truth is, most people won't be a fit for a deeply bonded, high-performing team. Beyond qualifications, these teams create a distinct culture that will rub many folks backward.

Most businesses lack the will and/or the need to address these mismatches. Rather than deal with a cantankerous colleague or establish standards, they'll ignore the problem. They know their teams are playing discordantly, but as long as folks keep paying to hear the music, they aren’t going to bother with tuning. No wonder modern capitalism feels like such a god-awful jangly mess right now!

You can hear Chris and Preston lament this reality in their MCTI interview. As Chris says:

"Profits solve problems. ... In really big companies, there are problems that have been there for decades and decades and decades that nobody will need to address because they have enough profit to gloss over them."

Team agreements are a practice where you notice a problem with your collaboration, solve it once, and then build on that improvement to perform at a higher level. Your team tunes your operation, and then as you play and drift out of tune, you refresh your agreement to get back in tune again.

Teams that don’t have collaboration problems or a need to address performance issues don't need a team agreement.

But - wow. After listening to Michael talk about several ways to rapidly improve teamwork, it hurts my heart to think of all the teams who prefer to play it safe and let things be sucky.

Finally, Bud said:

We focus a lot on rituals, because I fundamentally believe rituals will hold you and make up for a lot of other shortcomings. (...)
It seems so obvious, but it's so important, especially the world we live in now, to have time just for collaboration.

Time for Collaboration: What will you do?

The best teams I've seen and been a part of had:

  1. Shared Identity

  2. Common Cause

  3. Active Collaboration

  4. Mutual Trust

We have research findings and practices to guide us in creating these conditions.

Now I’d love to hear from you!

  • Do you have a deep teaming story? What happened to get that team in synch?

  • What are you already doing today to help your current teams go deep?

Looking forward to your stories,


This week’s article is sponsored by The Rundown AI.
Interested in sponsoring future articles? Get in touch.

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