Doing It For The Team: The Importance of Team Identification

Updated: Sep 9, 2021

During the past year, a considerable number of work teams have been transformed globally into virtual teams; a trend that will likely persist with ongoing considerations of making hybrid work models the future norm. Despite the potential benefits such as greater flexibility, autonomy, and a better work-life balance for employees; work teams remain at risk of becoming more siloed, and losing coherence, cohesion, and collaborative habits.

Employees’ sense of belonging, membership, shared purpose, and collective identity can be hindered; and when this occurs, team practices deteriorate accordingly, leading to reduced job satisfaction, engagement, and eventually, performance.

Since group experience is a feature that exists in all organizations and in all work practices, what does it take for a team to thrive in today’s environment? More than two decades of research suggests that the likely answer is ‘team identification’.

What is team identification?

A lot of attention has been paid to the importance of individual team members for the effectiveness and performance of a team, but much less to the value of a team in the eyes of its team members. Team identification is defined by academics as the degree to which team members define themselves as being a part of the team, attaching a value to this membership, and investing emotionally in their belongingness to the team. Additionally, studies have constantly shown that team identification is vital in enabling team cohesion, collective trust, a positive team climate, job satisfaction, engagement, and individual work-related well-being.

Identification is a dynamic process, and team members construct their identities through the constant interaction with tacit norms and values, espoused beliefs and expectations, as well as the most basic assumptions that underpin work practices – the team and organizational culture.

Identification is also a storytelling process, and the construction of identity takes place through the formal and informal conversations team members have about their shared interests. The stories we tell of ourselves when we interact with our colleagues are the essence of identification, even if we are separated by a computer screen.

Studies have also shown that identification is in nature a leadership-followership process. When team members perceive themselves as having a shared identity with their leader, the leader earns strength in mobilizing their team towards collective goals, whereas the members are ready to go the extra mile for their team.

While the hybrid way of work promises great benefits for individual employees, teams, and organizations, it also reduces the visible, concrete, formal and informal dimensions of team life. For this reason, team leaders have the responsibility to foster and facilitate their team members identification with a virtual or hybrid team. But the key question is, how can they do that?

How can team identification be nurtured by leaders?

1. Catering for the individual

Virtual or hybrid team leaders can foster their team members' identification by being attentive and providing what members need (not only what they ask for). By offering guidance, advice, support, coaching sessions, and even a shoulder to cry on when needed, a leader can transform from a power symbol to a professional and emotional anchor that builds a sense of togetherness.

2. Giving positive feedback

Giving positive feedback plays an essential role in getting team members to commit themselves to the team. Positive feedback acknowledges team members’ accomplishments and strengths, and gives them a sense of appreciation, encouraging them to persist in the level of engagement they show. Gallup reports that leaders are responsible for an average of 70% of the variance in their team members engagement and employees who receive regular feedback from their leader are three times more engaged than those who do not.

Leaders should also encourage peer to peer recognition and feedback sharing and facilitate teams with multiple channels of formal and informal communication. When the team works in a virtual setting, different communication and engagement software can add value to the leaders’ efforts in nurturing members’ team identification. Studies have found that due to their flawless memory, the characteristics of the technology may facilitate virtual team members’ identification with the team; allowing team members to re-read conversations, re-evaluate feedback, or re-assess their colleagues’ shared moods or sentiments.

The impact of mood sharing in specific is one aspect of team dynamics that we have been working on as we develop Aion Teams, an emotional intelligence tool we created to help hybrid teams share vital information with each other, including their moods and work locations.

3. Aligning on goals

A third identification promoting tactic that leaders can use is to always highlight the ‘We’ as a ‘united entity’. Team members should feel that they are in the same boat with each other and their leader, and that they share the same interests. The first step into establishing a common goal is to define what that goal is. In Agile practices, this is referred to as the definition of done. Yet only 7% of employees have a full understanding of business goals, while 44% cannot name them, even if they are familiar with the organizational strategy.

Investing in training and discussing with your team members the team shared goals and workings, not only creates basic knowledge about the business strategy, but also reinforces the team identification through the simple act of creating inclusion and inviting participation.

4. Establishing team activities

In virtual settings, strengthening team spirit and creating a sense of belonging solely using electronic means of communication can also bring about its own challenges. This is why a fourth team identification enhancing method should include different types of training, workshops, and other types of collective activities as a regular part of teamwork.

In order for members to identify with their team, the whole team must have some shared activities that create familiarity and informal dynamics which in turn will reinforce the sense of ‘We’ and ‘Us’.

The tactics to create stronger team identification are simple, but require deliberate and intentional effort on the part of leaders to put these actions into practice. In short, creating collective identity is about nurturing both the individuals and the team as a whole, while seeing the team as ‘one entity’ rather than just a collection of individuals. Echoing the words of infamous NBA Coach Phil Jackson, “The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.”