Many of us may be working in isolation, yet lone geniuses never seemed less relevant to solving messy problems (like, for example, how to deal with a global pandemic). In times of accelerated transformation, a lot is uncertain, but one thing we know for sure: it will take our best collaborative efforts to make it all work. Teams are not only the smallest unit of performance – in recent times, we also noticed how much we need and miss our team colleagues when they aren’t nearby.

Whether you’re physically sharing a space or connected via screens, Kokoro believes there is immense power in self-directed and distributed teams. And self-organisation is crucial to unleash that power, particularly in times of extraordinary and unprecedented challenges. So, how do you organise  yourself as a – maybe newly remote – team beyond collaborative whiteboards and slack groups?

There are three essential dimensions that can be found in high performing (and happy) teams:

The first dimension is called Psychological Safety. Amy C. Edmondson, Professor of Leadership and Management at HBS, defines Psychological Safety in high-performance teams as „a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up“. According to her research, it is the number one indicator of successful teams. When teams experience a sense of safety, it becomes easier to build trust, collaborate and innovate. Individual team members feel heard, recognised and appreciated.

Psychological Safety allows us to navigate unfamiliar waters, because we don’t need to be afraid we will be made to walk the plank when things go wrong.

The second ingredient is Belonging. When people feel they are included and are confident in their sense of belonging, it is much easier to find direction and integrate diversity of thought. Yet belonging is hard to grasp – you only feel it when it is lacking, and then your brain is desperately trying to work out how to fit in and be safe.

For some people, the pain felt when they are excluded manifests as actual, physical pain; it blocks out everything else. So in order to mitigate these risks and pains of an exclusive, monolithic culture, we need to be watchful for signs of exclusion as they happen. Once we’ve become better at identifying the roadblocks created by an exclusive environment, we can move them out of the way.

Which gets us ready for the third dimension: Collective Flow. Here’s a good description of what this is all about:

„Surgeons say that during a difficult operation they have the sensation that the entire operating team is a single organism, moved by the same purpose; they describe it as a ‚ballet‘ in which the individual is subordinated to the group performance and all involved share in a feeling of harmony and power.“

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

When we reach a state of flow, we lose all sense of time passing and are completely immersed in what we are doing. This doesn’t just happen to individuals; teams can also find their perfect, collective flow thanks to one simple feature: it is contagious! Just like you can ‚catch‘ somebody’s mood, you can also feed off another person’s focus and energy. In the right environment, experiencing collective flow happens often and intensifies that all-essential sense of belonging and safety mentioned earlier.

Getting those three dimensions right may not be the easiest thing to achieve, especially on a regular, sustainable basis. How could it be? After all, it involves all the idiosyncrasies, peculiarities, contradictions and general messiness of human beings. Yet since we are going to have to do hard things in order to transform our workplaces and organisations successfully, we better make sure we do the right hard things and build environments for people to thrive.

About the authors:

Imran Rehman is an organisation and performance specialist, with an expertise in measuring and developing high performance. Based in Vienna, Imran is a leadership coach as well as co-founder of Kokoro, a realtime SaaS tool to measure teams and organisations in transformation.