We sometimes hear about teams that have "chemistry." Team chemistry is special. Most people have a difficult time defining team chemistry, but they know it when they are a part of it. It's really just a special connection between team members that makes teamwork natural and instinctive.

Team chemistry doesn't happen very often because of the complex differences in team members. It's difficult to find that special "fit" because of differences in team members':

  • skill sets
  • experience in solving the practical problems/challenges
  • personal aspirations for development and advancement
  • personal lives - family, values and interests
  • instinctive personality and behaviors

It's no wonder that most teams don't have a feeling of chemistry. It's no wonder that most teams don't act the way we think an effective team should act. It's no wonder that team conflict, lack of trust, ego/status, unclear direction and low standards are pretty common in many teams. It's no wonder that most successful teams expend a lot of effort to become better at working together.

In my observations of teams, those with chemistry just seem to go about their business and get things done. These team members:

  • don't complain about each other
  • listen to each other since they naturally respect other team members
  • don't feel threatened by each other
  • like being on a team together
  • laugh and have fun together in the course of a normal or challenging day
  • feel a responsibility to each other to contribute as much as they can

What's different about a team with chemistry is that teamwork seems to happen naturally without a lot of intervention. Teams without chemistry can become effective but hard work is often required to build trust, improve communication behaviors, get to a common goal, etc. Team chemistry doesn't guarantee a team's success and there are many successful teams that don't have team chemistry.

We often hear of sports teams that have chemistry. Tim Purpura, the General Manager of the Houston Astros was recently describing the team chemistry for this team that has improved from 15-30 to currently 67-59. He described the team's chemistry, "The makeup of this team is tremendous. The way these guys go about their business is exceptional. They talk about having one heartbeat, and to me, that's what they really have. There's confidence but not overconfidence."

Case Study - Team Chemistry

I once had a consulting assignment to help facilitate a process for a design team to study and consider implementation of self directed work teams in a plant environment with heavy machinery. The project was being led by a senior operations manager in the company who, based on his study, had become a champion of the team concept.

My role was not necessarily to be an advocate of self directed teams but rather to facilitate the team's steps for learning about self directed teams and analysis of options so they could make recommendations for design/implementation. I was selected for the project because of knowledge of how teams work effectively so I could challenge the group with the difficult questions they would be faced with answering.

This team was composed of a diverse mix of knowledgeable, experienced people in the company that included senior operations management, operations maintenance, sales, and operations process supervisors. Some of these were knowledgeable of different management approaches while others were just highly knowledgeable in their own operational process. In the beginning, some were not very committed or motivated to be part of the team while others saw this as potential for solving some long term challenges involving cycle time for certain operations processes.

Part of the learning process was for the team to conduct site visits at other manufacturing plants where self directed teams were being used successfully. Our visit to one plant became the turning point for this team and became the catalyst for the team's chemistry. They met with people on this site visit with similar backgrounds who had similar challenges in previous years. They learned about how self directed teams had solved some challenges they had and what the struggles were in designing and implementing this type of concept. The light bulb went on for them. They began to accept that a self directed team approach might help them to prevent customer complaints, increase plant efficiency and create a market advantage. More importantly, the team became committed to studying whether it would work at their company.

The team then analyzed a number of options, design challenges and pitfalls. They considered the potential advantages and disadvantages including the significant cost of plant reconfiguration. There was a lot of debate and a lot of concerns but the discussions were generally productive. Although the process took some time, it was surprisingly easy. There was a lot of listening and respect for people's opinions even if there was disagreement. There was a common goal - about making the right recommendation. There was very little protection of turf, resistance of uncharted territory, etc. People followed through on their assignments due for the next meeting. This team felt totally in charge of their goal and their deliverable.

This team had chemistry. They had one heartbeat. Like most teams with chemistry, they became very protective of each other and saw each person providing an equal but different contribution. When the time came to present their recommendations to the CEO and CFO, they practiced and prepared because they knew they were part of something special. Their presentation was received very positively and they felt like they had just won the World Series. Not because the CEO liked the recommendation but because they had a special experience as a team.

Unfortunately, not all ended well for this team's work. As the CEO analyzed the proposed design and implementation, he began to have concerns about the cost of plant reconfiguration especially with signs of a downturn in their cyclical industry. The CEO decided to postpone any consideration of the proposal until the business environment improved. The team members were devastated because they were convinced that this proposal made good business sense (producing a net gain financially) for the long term. They had a special connection with each other that very few people could even understand. These were people they would go to war with. Their recommendation never was implemented. It took some of them awhile to let the experience go. They learned that team chemistry is a powerful thing -- one that is special and unique. They learned what team chemistry felt like. They also learned that people who weren't a part of that chemistry had a difficult time relating to their special experience.

The 4 C's of Chemistry in Teams

The word chemistry is defined in Merriam Webster's Dictionary as "a science that deals with the composition, structure, and properties of substances and with the transformations that they undergo." Because human beings are much more complex than a physical substance, I don't believe it's realistic to expect to be able to form a team with chemistry. However, I believe a leader/executive can increase the chances of team chemistry by focusing on:

  • Composition (special combination of team members) - Build a team with people who see teamwork as part of everyday business not extra work. Find team members that complement each other and that have similar values. Avoid team members that have difficulty trusting others.
  • Commitment (believing in the purpose of the team) - Have the team agree on their goal. One significant barrier to team chemistry is a goal that the team members don't own or don't care about. Chemistry is more likely to develop when team members become committed to a team's purpose - like the accountant who feels his life has order when he records a transaction accurately (accuracy being part of the team purpose) or the executive who feels like she is helping all the kids in her employees' families when she makes decisions that will help the company increase their profit
  • Confidence (believing in the team's ability to succeed) - There is no greater catalyst to chemistry than confidence as a team. Real success, no matter how significant, leads to confidence. For chemistry to develop, a team needs to gain confidence in how the elements (team members, processes, etc.) interact.
  • Control (focusing as a team on what they can control) - Chemistry is more likely to develop if they are clear about what they can control to achieve a successful outcome. One focus of control is around decisions. The team's leaders should "negotiate" an agreement between team and leader on the decisions that the team is expected to make (within its decision boundaries) and what decisions the leader (or other functions which support the team) will make. The team should also discuss what they can NOT control. These are usually business outcomes that are dependent on others outside the team or are determined by external factors. A team focused on exploring new oil and gas opportunities cannot control how profitable exploration efforts will be since it is dependent on the price of oil at the time the oil flows to the refinery. However, they can control the decisions they make about where to explore and can increase their chances of success over a portfolio of opportunities.
*      *      *

When most of us think of that ideal team, we're thinking about a team that has chemistry. We're not thinking about the more common activities to improve teamwork - the hard work it takes to understand each other, communicate openly to resolve team member conflict/differences, achieve true commitment to a common goal and overcome barriers to trust. Team chemistry is special. If you're part of a team with chemistry, enjoy it. It's an experience that no one can take away from you.

© Michael R. Goodfriend, Goodfriend & Associates, Inc., 2005

Sign Up for new Insights

From Our Readers

“I loved your article about Team Offsites. I have been to many offsite meetings that failed because one or more of the items you mentioned was missing."

“I thought the insights you provided were thought provoking and on target. You have a gift at taking these "common life" situations and drawing strong parallels with the business world. Thank you!”

"Mike, thanks for sharing, some good learnings and enjoyed the correlation. I will have to use this on my British colleagues."

"Awesome news letter! It made me smile and refresh some great memories I had as a kid.   Greatest lessons in life I ever learned were on a baseball diamond as a kid. Thanks." 

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  A clever way to explain and consider the Birkman Method. I appreciate you sending this to me!

"Well done.  Your best Goodfriend Insights yet."