When your team spirit is in a rut

By Gale Mote / Guest Editorial

It is easy for a team to experience occasional down times where morale and team spirit is low. As a result, productivity and quality of work can easily suffer. Little tensions among team members can turn into bigger frustrations, leading to a downward spiral in relationships.

According to the Center for Creative Leadership, there are two foundational components to build team morale – an easily understood and routinely emphasized vision, mission and goals along with a clear set of operating standards and values to help team members understand what matters most. If your team does not have either one of these elements, start here.

I know from experience when teams are focused on something bigger than themselves, energy and commitment increases. It seems like human nature to focus on complaints and hassles. As an example, a team I worked with decided to focus on giving back to the community rather than agonize over pending departmental changes. The team established a goal for the number of hours members would spend volunteering. As they moved closer and closer to the goal, pride and spirit increased accordingly.

Giving a team a strong performance challenge is another way to motivate them to work effectively together. Of course, the challenge must be attainable and certainly not a sure thing. A suggestion is to gather the team together and provide lunch (food is a universal spirit builder). Next, engage in a team building activity where each team member shares strengths and weaknesses. In what activities do I excel? What activities do not come easily to me? It is important to document all team members’ strengths and weaknesses so they are visible to the group.

I invite the team to identify critical tasks associated with successfully accomplishing the defined challenge. Then, based on each team member’s strengths ask them to share where they feel they will contribute the most in moving the team forward. When a person understands that her work is valued and important to the team, she will be more engaged. It also helps to create positive peer pressure where team members hold one another accountable for fulfilling their role.

Recent research in positive psychology has discovered that in high-stress environments, team members usually make one critical mistake: they retreat from social connections and focus only on tasks, usually eating lunch alone at their desk with work piled up around them. While it may seem counterintuitive to spend time socializing and not working, it is an investment in the team.

A shared experience, both personal and professional, in which all team members are collectively involved causes them to identify with the team rather than themselves. Staff meetings do not qualify as a way to build morale and team spirit, unless you include some team building activities or time for members to share key accomplishments for the week.

Here are some ideas with high potential for getting your team out of a rut:

• A brainstorming session where team members demonstrate an attitude of gratitude, identifying all things positive they have going for them as a team. Next, focus on ideas to improve processes, practices and procedures categorizing them into “quick fixes – get ‘er done,” “take some time” and “back burner.” For the quick fixes, due dates and action owners need to be identified. Generating small wins and showing the team positive results is a huge momentum booster.

• A tradition of celebrating team member birthdays or anniversaries.

• Organizing field trips to an important customer, internal or external to the organization, where team members can see and feel how their work is relevant.

• Monthly professional development events on important topics suggested by the team.

• Gathering together to watch a team-related movie and then discussing how the lessons learned can apply to their own team. Some of my favorites include “Miracle,” “Remember the Titans,” “Apollo 13,” “Hoosiers” and “Facing the Giants.”

• Scheduling a monthly potluck where one team member is in the “hot seat.” This requires the team member to share information about himself, his background, strengths, interests, pet peeves and motivations. One of the foods must include a favorite of the team member being honored.

• Social outings or picnics that include a variety of activities where team members will feel comfortable joining in. For example, not everyone likes to golf. If you have a retreat at a golf course, bring board games for those who want to stay inside or provide an opportunity for others to walk a nearby hiking trail while others golf. It is important to have the entire team join together for snacks or dinner at the end of the outing to reflect and celebrate.

• Engaging in team-building simulations (desert survival, etc.) where team members experience how communicating and collaborating together results in more effective decision making. My favorite source for these simulations is human synergistics.

Of course, communication is equally important to improving morale and keeping things positive. Feedback should be ongoing and flowing up, down and across the team. Conflict and tensions need to be addressed with robust and real conversations. Meetings should be necessary and meaningful, not boring and irrelevant. Guidelines should be established for when and how to use various media including instant messaging, email and audio conferencing.

All teams will encounter periods where morale and team spirit is waning. By ensuring the vision is clear, the goals are visible and rewarded, that operating and communication guidelines are respected and that taking time to socialize is expected and encouraged, most teams will bounce back with increased vigor and determination.


Gale Mote is a trainer, organizational development catalyst and coach in Cedar Rapids. Contact her at galemote@galemoteassociates.com.