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Activating the power of hidden teams

84 % of employees ‘just come to work’. Only 16 % are ‘fully engaged’. How can we change this balance in order to get more engagement? It turns out that working in teams is the ideal way of making employees more engaged. Teamwork almost doubles the feeling of engagement. And the good news is: often, people work together without their managers even realizing.

However, an important question remains unanswered: how do you build up such strong teams? As is described in this blog, building strong teams is a step-by-step process.

As a study by Buckingham and Goodall reveals, 84% of all employees ‘just come to work’, confirming a large lack of engagement. The culture of an organization should put more emphasis on this engagement, on a sane work-life balance, providing regular feedback.

But most of all, they say, ‘it turns out that the most effective way to improve… is to focus not on culture or on individuals as though they work in isolation but, rather, on what makes them shine: the team.’ Engagement in teams is double as high as when working individually.

In one of our previous blogpost ‘the underestimated power of hidden teams’ we discussed why teamwork is often invisible in organizations, why it is so important to change that and where to real power of teams can be find. Yet, it remains unclear how to build such a powerful team?

Within the framework of working agile, really strong teams are teams that are semi-autonomous, working in a self-organizing way. They are entrepreneurial by nature, integer and capable of continuously improving themselves.

Yet, it takes several steps to develop strong teams. Needless to say, the architecture must be in place. Also, we have to be specific when considering leadership roles. But also, we must break the traditional organizational charts and rethink them fundamentally. According to the Human Reef model, the development of cross-functional, customer-focused teams happens in stages, rather than in one movement.

We can distinguish 4 stages:

  • In a first stage, you build the team. Individuals should be brought together on the basis of their competencies and talents. The different roles they will take will strengthen each other.
  • In a second stage, a group is formed and the team is starting up the teamwork. The team is striving for its own regulatory environment, based on its internal competence and self-organizing skills.
  • During stage three the team develops more and more autonomy. The team becomes self-organizing, with people working together on an integer basis, with the courage to both learn and take up responsibility.
  • After that the team comes the final stage: the semi-autonomous cross-functional team. Team members have full end-to-end responsibility, and the team is independently defining its goals, making appointments and reaching out to clients and suppliers. Of course, a cross-functional team still has to consider the rules of the whole organization, as well as its values and rules. This is why we call them semi-autonomous, rather than fully autonomous. They have to find the right balance between the values and rules of both the organization and the team.

Building the team

Even if a team already is operational, it is important to (re)build it from scratch, starting from the existing situation, roles and team members. These must be compared with the goals of the team. Existing responsibilities must be mapped as well. When doing so, we distinguish between performing responsibilities and managerial responsibilities. It is a safe approach by having all team members filling in a matrix exemplifying these roles and responsibilities.

In the Human Reef model, we work with different types of roles: team links, team experts, team coaches and team members.

Filling out these roles should be done through a team role meeting.

Starting up teamwork and development of autonomy

Next, the team members can start their actual work and take their first steps towards self-organization, guided by the team link. This role will also be the spokesperson towards the organization as a whole. The team coach has to ensure all team members take up their roles: not only performing but also managing responsibilities.

So as to develop self-organization/autonomy, the team should be autonomous both on the operational and on the decision-making level by developing a management framework on team level. This team framework is essential to self-organization and decision making. Just as we believe it to be normal to respect the purpose and follow the policies of the whole organization, the team should do the same on the team level. It is the team coach’s responsibility to make sure this is happening. That is: the team should work out on what levels it can assume autonomy, what the strategy will be and what the rules are to be followed. This should be worked out during the first team meeting.

Think of issues such as: how can we translate the organizational ambitions into a team ambitions? How to translate the company’s values into working principles for the team? The outcome of this brainstorming meeting has to be put on a team homepage.

From self-organizing to semi self-steering

Not only should the overall team ambitions must be defined, these ambitions should also be translated into initiatives and actions to be taken. It is important to have so-called ‘practices’ on a weekly and monthly basis, to safeguard execution of those initiatives and actions, on order to realize the team ambitions. During short weekly meetings, team members discuss passed, current and near future actions, and the challenges they encounter while fulfilling their actions.

Next, monthly team meetings should be organized to discuss the work done in the past month, what team ambitions and initiatives have been achieved, what the new ones are. Also, the team decides on the priorities for the month ahead.

Being self-organizing as a team is one thing, being semi-self-steering is the next step. The self-organizing team is becoming a semi-self-steering team taking full responsibility for the team domain, formulating team ambitions, realizing all the work and conducting improvements where needed. So as to support the evolution toward semi-self-steering, the framework already in place will be further elaborated during the first team meeting. Defining and redefining the roles, to support continuous adaptation will be done during the role meetings.

Activating the inner power

The inner power of teams, can be measured by asking specific questions to team members. Think of: I am enthusiastic about the mission of my company, my teammates have my back, I am surrounded by people who share my values, and more.

So far, we have been concentrating on the setup and evolution of strong teams. Yet, their power is strongly connected to the development of the individuals being part of these strong cross-functional teams. Self-organization and semi-autonomy are fully depending on the intrinsic motivation of the individuals in the teams. To what extent do the individual’s values fit to the ones of the team? And how can we motivate the individual to realize his/her personal ambitions? Either way, the individual contribution is essential to make a team successful. Obviously, it is the task of the team coach to find the right balance between individual and team motivation. For instance, it is important to show appreciation towards the individual team members, both internally between team members and from the team coach to the individuals. And this should be done day after day.

When it comes to the individual motivation. It is important to realize what your personal drivers and fears are when taking up certain responsibilities within a team. Make sure you can discuss these with the other members of the team. Taking it that talents are innate and competencies can be developed, we must not forget how difficult it sometimes is to accurately judge your own talents.

Finally, let’s turn back to the Buckinghal and Goodall study. These writers distinguish a number of key elements that make teams to ‘the best teams’. The best teams have a constant focus on trust, they design teams for human attention, focus on learning together, put team experiences above team location, and make all work feel more like gig work. The later is a proof of the fact that gig work is in itself more engaging than traditional work.


P. Van Amelsvoort and Scholtes: ‘Zelfsturende teams – ontwerpen, invoeren en begeleiden’,


Digital article: Marcus Buckingham, A. Goodall: ‘the Power of hidden teams. The most-

engaged employees work together in ways copmpanies don’t even realize.’