Through our work with more than 26,000 teams from around the world, we’ve identified five significant factors that determine a team’s effectiveness. With help from the workplace proximity associates of the Pawnee Department of Parks and Recreation, we dig into the important role of a team’s psychological safety and cohesion.
I may not have read as many historical biographies as Leslie Knope; I may not have her passion for waffles or find Joe Biden as sexy as she does. But I have never identified more with a fictional character than when she talks about her prowess as a gift-giver. “Giving Christmas gifts is like a sport to me,” she says. “Finding or making the perfect something… It’s also like a sport to me because I always win.”
The insight comes at the end of the episode “Citizen Knope,” a holiday entry that sees Leslie on a two-week suspension from work and advised to quit her run for city council by her big-city campaign managers. She’s at a personal low, but true to her glass-half-full disposition, Leslie still manages to give all her co-workers and friends extremely thoughtful and personal gifts, including a leopard-print robe with pink feather cuffs and “You Can Get It” on the back in rhinestones for Donna and motorized office doors that close at the click of a button for Ron.
Leslie’s professional game may be suffering, but she is clearly winning at Christmas gift-giving.
It’s especially satisfying, then, when the team comes together to lift Leslie’s spirits and demonstrate what she means to them with a thoughtful gift of their own. Led by beautiful tropical fish Ann Perkins, the group builds Leslie a miniature replica of City Hall made of gingerbread. But that’s not all. After hearing that her campaign managers dropped her, the team rallies to give her a truly unexpected gift: volunteering to be her new campaign crew.
I’ve watched this episode (and, indeed, the whole of Parks and Recreation) approximately 900 times, and every time Leslie responds to their gesture with tears in her eyes and a hitch in her voice, saying, “I don’t know what to say, except… Let’s go win an election!” I get choked up right along with her. Why? Aside from being a saphead for wholesome Christmas storylines, I tear up because it’s a scene in which Leslie’s co-workers and friends come together to support her in the pursuit of her dreams. Even though we, in the audience, know that they are ill-equipped to do this and greatly anticipate the hilarious mishaps that will arise, in that moment, Leslie is safe to spread her wings, and that’s a feeling we all hope to experience.
Teams Work When They Work Together
The most effective teams create an environment where members feel safe to take personal risks and actively support one another. This is what’s happening when, as each member of the team outlines their new role in Leslie’s campaign, Donna offers rides in her Benz to special events, April offers to lead youth outreach and new media, and Ron simply offers, “Any other damn thing you might need.”
For teams to be productive and effective, members don’t need to be protected or shielded from the potential pain or discomfort of personal risk; they need to feel safe in spite of that potential pain, in spite of that risk. This is what we call psychological safety and cohesion.
Using Psychological Safety and Cohesion To Boost Team Effectiveness
Whether one of your team members is running for city council, giving a pitch to a potential new client, or tossing out a wild idea during a brainstorm session, they will be much more likely to share themselves authentically, to look for common ground, and to be resilient in the face of challenge or disappointment if they know the team has their back. If you’re looking to power up your team’s effectiveness, foster these generative factors to increase camaraderie and mitigate these disruptive factors to reduce siloed thinking:
- Welcoming Participation Structure: Teams with explicit group norms and expectations increase active participation. Team members who aren’t sure whether all opinions will be welcome or received without repercussions are much less likely to share ideas or provide constructive criticism.
- Interconnectedness: When team members get along and genuinely enjoy spending time together, they enjoy better collaboration, manage conflict more successfully, and are more likely to remain optimistic in the face of setbacks.
- Team Emotional Intelligence: Teams with high team EQ can handle difficult conversations and will seek feedback about their performance to work more effectively together.
- Distrust: When team members distrust the intentions or integrity of other members, they are less willing to be vulnerable or courageous in their interactions, resulting in decreased energy, poor processes, and lack of cohesion.
- Political/Pleasing Culture: A political or pleasing culture reduces the likelihood that team members will challenge ideas, even when there are issues or problems that need to be addressed.
- Destructive Dynamics: Team members who undermine the ideas of others or only interact with or support certain members feed into a “clique” or an “us vs. them” mentality, making it nearly impossible to achieve collective goals.
Camaraderie, Collaboration, and Resilience
In the world of Parks and Recreation, Leslie Knope is used to winning Christmas as the superior gift-giver in Pawnee. But, when her team steps up and makes it clear that she has their support, she concedes. “This year,” she says, “my friends won. In fact, I got my ass handed to me.”
Teams that prioritize establishing a welcoming and inviting culture, creating opportunities for connection, and building team EQ can achieve camaraderie, collaboration, and resilience—much like the crew of the Pawnee parks department. As you navigate your own team dynamics, remember that success often begins with the unwavering support and unity of your team members.