How Communication Changes in Team Settings

Published: May 5, 2016

The ability to collaborate effectively within teams is one of the greatest tests of communication. Growing up, most of our education is skewed toward individual success. We learn to set goals, take initiative, and budget our time based on our own pace and work ethic. We assume that applying the same rubric will lead to success in team settings. We believe the contribution of strong individual performance along with respect for others constitutes teamwork. Not always. In fact, it might even be a detriment.

Exceptional individual performers frequently struggle in teams. Even seasoned leaders often cite the management of teams as the most challenging part of their job. For many, climbing over the back of your colleague is the most direct path to success. Game theory breaks down when you realize the greater good may have costs in your own career trajectory. Models of effective cooperation and productive conflict between rational decision makers require an unusual blend of sacrifice and delay of gratification. Utilitarian goals (the greatest good for the greatest number) run contrary to the standard recipe for individual gain.

Communication in teams begins with a different rule book. It starts with the understanding that teams are messy. Conflict is unavoidable. Dynamics flow with the unique circumstances, mindsets, and emotions of the members involved. Graduate programs routinely teach the Tuckman (1965) model of “forming-storming-norming-performing,” yet teams often skip key stages and regress under pressure.

The human element drives the culture of the team more powerfully than theory. It only takes a couple of actively disengaged teammates to start a mutiny. One distracted collaborator is capable of hijacking the agenda of a meeting. Selfishness disguised as altruism can undermine a mission.

Communication in team settings is cyclical. As the team evolves, communication domains shift to accommodate ever-changing circumstances. The cycle is anchored in the following principles:



  • Take stewardship of team norms by owning the way teammates are treated.
  • Achieve alignment with the team’s mission, vision, values, and goals.
  • Sponsor mature, constructive conflict to elevate the strength of diversity.


  • Demand respect in all interactions, especially during stressful interchange.
  • Own accountability to agreed-upon norms, mission, and goals.
  • Nurture connection between teammates as collaboration fuels a greater good.


  • Empower the fuel of differences to spark creativity.
  • Take the smart risks that support change and growth.


  • Let go of the urge to keep things the same in honor of comfort.
  • Embrace the re-energizing nature of new challenges.

Communication rules change when we move from a “me” to a “we.” Goals are co-owned. Trust is a fragile yet non-negotiable requirement. The stakes are raised by virtue of the precious cargo on board in the form of teammates. Change impacts the whole. Like a family, all transactions are exchanged with a clear understanding of the effect on each member. Together, we move forward.

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 University 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.