Have you ever been part of a group or team that doesn’t gel?

As a team member, it can feel awkward and uninspiring. As a leader, it feel frustrating when team connection seems elusive.

Why does team connection matter? And what does research say leaders and orgs can do about it?

What the brain requires for connection

A team is a collection of people. And each person in the team has a brain and nervous system whose main job is to keep us alive.

In keeping us alive, the #1 priority of the brain is safety, both physical or psychological.

Especially in large, diverse groups, it’s common for the brain and nervous system to sense a lack of safety. So people may be on guard and hesitant to connect.

Research – primarily by Dr. Stephen Porges – shows that our autonomic nervous system is constantly regulating our interactions with others,

Neuroception (aka the Polyvagal Theory which refers to the vagus nerve that connects many organs to the brain), is a process in which we take in social cues from people, such as body language and tone of voice, that cause an automatic reaction in the body (e.g. heart beats faster, breath gets shallow).

That information is quickly sent to the brain to interpret and answer the question: “Am I safe?”

Bottom line: people in a team – and their brains and nervous systems – are constantly, automatically and reflexively assessing whether or not they feel safe in that team.

Why does safety matter?

Our brains use around 20% of the body’s energy to function. And creating new neural pathways, whether for new ideas, actions or social connections, requires the brain to use extra energy

But if the brain assesses, in that reflexive process of neuroception, that we are not safe, then it’s going to want to conserve our energy in case it needs to spend it on running or hiding from danger (e.g. fight, flight, freeze).

For real change to happen in a team, the team members (and their brains) need to feel safe in the team.

A simple way to build team connection

So how do teams or leaders create that safety needed for connection and change?

Do we need to go back to doing trust falls?

Actually, there’s a less painful way. One that I have experienced myself, and that I have used with teams. 

But you don’t have to take it from me. Recent research from the University of Colorado confirms it.

The study found that shared emotions can help unite diverse groups. Even among members of a larger group or organization that felt intellectually different (e.g., mathemeticians and artists), events that encouraged sharing positive emotions and empathy helped people to create a shared connection to each other, and to the industry or field they worked in.

So creating events or meetings that foster shared emotions can help to create that psychological safety our brains need for change. And in doing so, it can override or shift us out of the reflexive response.

When we share emotions with people, our brain and nervous system can recognize those people as safe (or safer) because we see they’re not that different.

I have seen this create cohesion even when the shared emotion is one that is not positive, such as grief and a shared compassion.

What will you do?

If you’re a leader or part of a team, what can you do to foster shared emotions at your next meeting or event?

It can be simple. It can be quick. It can be fun.

No trust falls required 😉

If you want some guidance, shoot me an email.

Happy team building!

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash