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The Power of Team Belonging

The sense of belonging to a team increases an individual’s commitment to working towards a common goal in synergy with others.

Social belonging was recognized by Abraham Maslow as a critical human need, following physiological and safety needs in his hierarchy. This need and the need for esteem or recognition, combine in project teams to become important to optimizing team performance.

Belonging to a team takes different forms. Sometimes it means being in the center, part of decision making and implementation. Sometimes it is being on the periphery as a doer as opposed to the decision maker, or as part of a broader team (say, a department or organization) just looking on as others do their thing. in most situations, people are members of multiple teams simultaneously, for example, on multiple projects as a member of a functional group.

Belonging is a natural aspect of social relationships. It appears whenever groups form. In the workplace, particularly in projects, the sense of belonging fuels productivity because it contributes to open and meaningful conversation, the avoidance of unnecessary conflict, and maximizing the effective use of each members skills and knowledge.

Belonging is influenced by communication and clarity regarding expectations, roles and responsibilities within established work processes, mutual respect and caring, a sense of familiarity, and commitment to common goals and values. Belonging is a perception held by the members of the team based on a combination of concrete rules and boundaries as well as subjective feelings. The less formal the team’s definition the more subjective feelings drive the sense of belonging.

When subjectivity is in play, an individual may be perceived as a team member by the other members but not feel that he or she belongs. Another team member may feel as a member of the team while the rest of the team doesn’t.

Sleeping Beauty

In the fairy tale of the sleeping beauty, a princess is put into a lengthy sleep, only to be awakened by the kiss of a Prince. The curse of a 100-year sleep was a reprieve from the death curse imposed by a fairy who was overlooked by the princess’ parents when the child’s birth was celebrated. The moral of this story is “If you leave a stakeholder out of your team, he or she might curse your project.

Formal Definitions

A project team has core team stakeholders, those who are usually there for the duration and play key roles. Others play a variety of roles, each with a specific duration of involvement and impact on the project’s performance. When these roles and relationships are defined in a project charter, the understanding of who is on the team is more likely to be mutually understood. Hierarchies fade away when the team realizes that every role us needed too achieve objectives.

The players who are not on the core team are part of the project team. It is easy to understand that the team required to accomplish the project’s objectives is far larger and more complex than the core team.

When the peripheral stakeholders are formally engaged as team members and reminded of their belonging and ability to share in the project’s victory (or defeat), they are more likely to promote the welfare of the team. When they do not see themselves as team members, they may withhold information, fail to work optimally, withhold constructive criticism or to work against the team’s best interests. When a team does not recognize a peripheral player as a team member, it loses valuable input and may create unnecessary conflict.

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Case of the Left-Out Manager

In a business project to implement a sales campaign, the time constraint was tight and there were several technical, legal and procedural issues that had to be resolved in order to release the campaign across multiple media.

A functional manager, Chuck, was not engaged, though, a couple of members of his department were involved. The team, under time pressure, felt they would be more likely to be successful if they limited the team to the smallest number of players and limited the number of alternative views on how best to proceed. Chuck felt slighted and was of the opinion that the team was taking a less effective approach than the one he would have recommended. While not overtly addressing the issue, side comments, body language and other “tells” made Chuck’s feelings known.

The team met its deadline with an acceptable product, though the success was not fully celebrated, largely owing to Chuck’s feelings.

Improving the Process

Especially when there is a relatively informal portfolio and project management process, it is important for all team members to be sensitive to the needs of others as well as to the needs of the project and themselves.

In the case above, the team would have done better to take the time and effort to explain their decision to not engage Chuck in the project. The explanation shows the respect and caring that is fundamental to giving people a sense of belonging. It doesn’t take more than an hour.

The decision to eliminate a voice that might raise uncomfortable questions and alternative solutions is a judgement call by the project manager and the sponsor. While there are exceptions, most often, it is best to at least hear various voices up front before plunging ahead to hit a deadline. Taking the time to document the justification for key decisions avoids problems later on in the project. At the same time, there may be a need for speed.

The trade-offs between the perceived burden of communicating, managing relationships and doing due diligence in decision making, and the benefits of healthy long-term relationships, problem avoidance and optimal product quality should drive the decision makers. Small, isolated teams may very well be more efficient than large, open teams. However, the trade-offs must be assessed before deciding how best to proceed.

While a proactive project manager in a well-established process is responsible for promoting a sense of team membership across all stakeholders, it is also the responsibility of each stakeholder to assess his or her relationship to the team and speak up when feeling left out or feeling that another person is being left out. Chuck could have expressed his feelings and stimulated an explanation of why he was excluded.

Establish guidelines and values. Review projects and the process to continuously improve.

Above all, recognize that everyone has belonging and recognition as needs and be sensitive to how you candidly and sensitively communicate about membership and exclusion decisions.

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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