The “Chemistry” Factor in Teams

Published: October 31, 2017

What’s the secret sauce? On paper, it’s easy to assemble the right mix of talent to predict team success. Just stock the team with leadership, deep skills in the specialization area of the project, a diligent group of worker bees, and reliable administrative support. The rest will take care of itself, right? Unfortunately, not. Once you blend in the human element, most teams find ways to struggle as conflict, mistrust, fear, and resistance to change impact the group’s direction. So, where does positive team “chemistry” come from?

Scientists have been studying exchanges of energy for centuries. Actions cause reactions. When you add mass to speed you get force. Some ecosystems morph and evolve while others seek sameness. In the laboratory, chemical reactions have predictable consequences. Human exchange, however, is harder to measure. Psychology is a soft science.

Begin by defining three key elements of team dynamics:

  • The health or sickness of interpersonal relationships on the team.
  • The patterns of unique energy exchange between constantly changing members of the team.
  • The resilience of the group’s coping skills when the team is faced with adversity.

Health or sickness of interpersonal relationships

The larger team is made up many smaller teams where each dyad shares distinctive norms, connection, and power differential. Regardless of how many of these smaller teams are healthy and strong, it only takes one dysfunctional relationship to poison the larger group. Take ownership of relationship quality by intervening anytime words or actions violate respect, trust, health, or safety. Stewardship is a key ingredient to team chemistry.

Patterns of unique energy exchange

As teams seek to create norms and rhythms, each member is growing and changing in ways influenced by events both inside and outside the team. While anchoring exchanges in the mission, values, and vision of team culture is essential, the group must also adjust to every teammate’s unique growth trajectory. Some may be lagging behind while others are forging ahead. Check in regularly to assess pace and direction. Adaptability is a key ingredient of team chemistry.

Resilience of the group’s coping skills

Most people cope effectively under normal conditions. Coping skills deteriorate when prolonged stress undermines the team’s wellness. There are countless forms of adversity from personal tragedy to breaches in trust to unexpected market shifts. Humans are wired to respond to crisis with fight-flight reactions that empower problem-solving. When stress becomes oppressive, however, some teammates are likely to regress. Effective team leaders step up at moments like these and model poise and clarity under pressure. The rest of the team will eventually adapt to the new circumstances or find an exit. Change management skills are key ingredients to team chemistry.

Organizations that win top workplace awards are populated by teams that embrace stewardship, adaptability, and change management. Perennial winners boast teams that embrace these principles year after year because of (not in spite of) their response to a constantly changing environment. They create their own secret sauce.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst College where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.