How to Cultivate Relationships for Effective Teamwork

A bench full of star players does not automatically produce a winning team. Use these exercises to build a sense of membership on your team.

Aaron Dignan
Apr 2, 2019 · 13 min read
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Once a year, about a hundred miles outside of Reno, the Burning Man festival descends upon the desert for a weeklong social experiment in community, art, transcendence, and bacchanalia. Seventy thousand people supported by two thousand volunteers appear out of nowhere and stand up a self-contained society founded on ten principles: radical inclusion, self-reliance, self-expression, community cooperation, civic responsibility, gifting, decommodification, participation, immediacy, and leaving no trace. Simply by being there, by stepping into the space, you’re making a commitment to those values. And if you’re more than just a tourist, if you truly embody them, you’re a “Burner.” You’re a member of the tribe.

The experience is so different from mainstream society that Burners refer to everything beyond their ephemeral city as the “default world.” “The Burn,” as they say, runs on a gift economy. You’ll rely on the kindness and generosity of strangers, and they’ll rely on you. Food and entertainment are not for sale, but there are plenty of both. People come together to form “theme camps”—subcultures and communal living spaces that host anywhere from a few to a few hundred residents. Joining a camp is like joining a team, and you’ll be taking on duties and contributing to the camp’s vision, whatever that might be. The experiences and entertainment that participants bring to life are almost beyond comprehension. Massive art installations, mutant vehicles, and elaborate parties celebrate the ideals and values of the community. You may find yourself. You may find God. You may run into Elon Musk (no relation). And the total cost to participate in this cashless economy where you’ll be totally reliant on the people around you? It could be $2,000 or more. Tickets for last year’s event sold out in just thirty-five minutes. This isn’t Lollapalooza. It’s not a few hours in the sun with your friends. This is a way of life.

Burning Man is a classic example of membership done well. When it comes to membership, it’s helpful to think of an organization as a set of membranes—cells within cells within cells. Each membrane, or team boundary, is made up of requirements and agreements, both spoken and unspoken. Honor them and you’re in. Dishonor them, and you’re out. The most traditional boundary and the one we talk about most is employment status. But there are other boundaries both within and beyond that. They exist around teams, functions, divisions, locations, social groups, interest groups, shareholders, customers, and even fans. Each one creates a communal space and identity for its members.

Legacy Organizations think about membership as binary—as a legal status or something that’s conferred upon you. But membership isn’t binary. Not every employee feels the same level of loyalty, or inclusion, or participation. No, membership is really a social status. It’s an identity. It’s a living agreement.

Boundaries can be clearly defined or purposefully blurry. Agreements within teams can be explicit or informal. Enforcement can be lenient or strict. What matters is that we are intentional. Evolutionary Organizations play with these continuums in an increasingly nonbinary way. Burning Man blurs the lines between attendee and host, customer and volunteer, and in so doing creates a richer and more participatory experience. Airbnb does the same. A host in one city is often a guest in another. Wikipedia does the same, as do countless open-source projects and peer-to-peer platforms. The future of membership may end up looking like many ways to play, clearly defined and held simultaneously.

As you may recall, in a complex system, the interactions matter more than the parts. A bench full of star players does not automatically produce a winning team. Relationships define our collective potential. And our approach to membership creates the foundation for relationships to flourish or flounder. Everything we do, from the moment we meet prospective candidates to the moment they depart as alumni, shapes their membership experience, and with it the very fabric of our network.

A member who is brought on board properly feels a sense of belonging and has a keen sense of how to move in and out of different membership spaces within the organization. A member who is thrust into a team or a role without that context may feel unwelcome and unclear. Do they belong? Are they safe? How should they navigate this system? Until resolved, a portion of their attention will always be dedicated to these questions. Recruiting, hiring, joining, onboarding, teaming, transitioning, disbanding, and departing — these are the domains of membership. These are mission critical. They are not the property of some faceless HR department on another floor in another building. Honoring and supporting these thresholds is our collective responsibility.

Thought Starters

In or Out

One of the reasons organizations end up rigid and risk-averse is fear. Employees worry that if they don’t perform well in their current role, they’ll lose their job. And they’re right: In the vast majority of cases, if your boss fires you from your role, you’re also fired from your company. Your membership in the team and your membership in the organization are one and the same. But this makes sense only when we view the organization as a machine and our people as cogs. In that view, we have a fixed number of roles that require a fixed set of skills. If you’re no longer the associate marketing manager, what the hell are you doing here? But if we view the organization as a living system and our people as multidimensional participants, then we can uncouple membership in teams from membership in the company. A member can hold one role, hold many roles, go find an open role, or even create a role. You can use an advice process or even elections to ensure that the people filling roles are competent. If the business enters a downturn, the organization might have to let people go. If a member’s reputation severely impedes their ability to join teams or make and keep commitments, they may have to go. But for the majority, who are sought after and have lots to give, the organization can be a jungle gym.

Teams Rule

W. L. Gore founder Bill Gore coined the notion of a “lattice organization” in which “each person in the Lattice interacts directly with every other person with no intermediary.” In his view, “every successful organization has a lattice organization that underlies the façade of authoritarian hierarchy.” In practice, this means that teams at Gore have to figure it out when it comes to teaming, and they attribute a lot of their success to the creativity and fluidity this enables. If you accept that each individual in your organization should choose their projects and their colleagues, something interesting happens. Teams become sovereign spaces and microenterprises. They have to generate their own resources, either through a budgeting process or through “charging” for their services. They have to cultivate their own membership, recruiting and removing members as needed. They have to develop their own norms and patterns of behavior. They have to create feedback loops, individually and collectively. They have to perform and add value to the broader ecosystem. This is the inherent tension between freedom and responsibility. Individuals and teams are free from hierarchical command but not free from constraints and accountability. They are in the roundabout, and everyone is counting on them.

Careful with Culture Fit

Organizational psychologist Adam Grant has some counterintuitive advice for those of us who hire for culture fit. While hiring for culture fit (even over skills or star potential) is a predictor of success early in a firm’s history, later on it actually causes firms to underperform. In his research, he came across IDEO’s approach to this issue. Instead of fit, IDEO hires for cultural contribution. It asks, What’s missing from our culture? and then goes and looks for that. Early on, we may need a handful of colleagues who see the world the same way in order to bring something new and disruptive into existence. But soon after, we’ll need to focus on increasing the cognitive and general diversity of the group in order to achieve our full potential. We want our organizations to get more interesting over time. That’s the kind of cultural complexity that helps us see around corners. In fact, a recent McKinsey study showed that companies in the top quartile for gender and ethnic diversity were 15 percent and 35 percent more likely to outperform those in the bottom quartile respectively.


One way that we recognize membership is through ritual. Rituals help us mark important thresholds and changes in our lives, in ways large and small. The martial artist bowing as she enters and exits the dojo, the surgeon scrubbing up before entering the operating theater, the coming-of-age ceremonies present in so many cultures—these are all rituals that honor and mark transition. Research shows that rituals can reduce anxiety or increase confidence and even help us assume contextual identities (think: soldier or firefighter). In the world of sports, LeBron James welcomes each of his teammates onto the basketball court with an elaborate personalized handshake just for them. The level of memorization and coordination involved is baffling, but the meaning behind it is not. As team captain, he is recognizing each of his teammates and marking the threshold of the game. We practice a wide variety of rituals at The Ready, but one of my favorites is how we recognize team members who are leaving the firm for a new chapter in their career. We gather our team to mark the occasion, and anyone who feels compelled can share their gratitude for their departing colleague. A week later, our alumnus receives a globe selected just for them—a token of our appreciation and a reminder that we hope they’ll change the way the world works wherever they go.

No Handcuffs

When you view the world as a zero-sum game in which there can be only a finite number of winners, you tend to view competition as something you want to eliminate. One way to do that is by restricting your employees with a legal instrument called a non-compete. Noncompete clauses prohibit employees from creating or joining competitive firms within a certain period of time after their departure from their current employer. Another way employers attempt to eliminate competition is through contracts and incentives that effectively bribe leaders to stay—until their contract expires or their stock options vest or their bonus is paid out. These moves illustrate confusion about human nature. Holding someone hostage does not create peak performance. It creates resentment and disengagement. What if you didn’t have these tools at your disposal? What would you do then? My guess is you’d focus on creating a workplace that people don’t want to leave. I want my colleagues to choose to work with me every day. Online retailer Zappos feels the same way. They famously offer new employees $1,000 to quit after their first week or so. Why? Because they want only team members who are passionate about being there. Amazon, which acquired Zappos in 2009, liked this program so much they made it an annual offer within their fulfillment centers, upping the ante to $5,000 for longtime employees. Buurtzorg founder Jos de Blok goes well beyond abandoning noncompetes. When competitors come to find out how his company is able to do what it does, he actively coaches them on how to adopt his methods. Today Buurtzorg collaborates with approximately 80 percent of all Dutch care providers. Why? Because its intent is to increase health and wellness overall, not just within its clientele.

Membership in Action

Team Charter

In our rush to deliver, we often forget to do the foundational work of standing up a new team. Management puts eight people in a room and calls one of them the leader, and we’re off to the races. This is a missed opportunity. By tackling a few important topics early on, we can avoid a lot of confusion and conflict later. That’s why I like to make the agreements that define a team explicit before we get started, by creating a team charter. Think of this a little bit like an OS for the team. A team charter forces the team to answer critical questions about why it exists and how its members want to show up for one another. To get started, gather a new (or existing) team and answer the following questions. Keep in mind, these are just a starting point. Real charters can go significantly deeper if the team is willing to do the work. When you’re done, use a consent process (see page 70) to ensure that what you produced is safe to try. Revisit it at any time, particularly when there’s disagreement or disruptive change that may impact the team.

  • Why does this team exist?
  • How do we contribute to the organization’s success? What are we accountable for?
  • What is our essential intent for the next days? How will we know if we’ve succeeded?
  • What principles will guide us?
  • What will we prioritize for the next days? What are the roles required to do this work?
  • What roles will we each play?
  • Are there any roles not yet claimed?
  • What do we expect of one another?
  • Who are our users or customers?
  • What decision rights do we have?
  • What can we do without asking permission?
  • Within what guardrails do we have autonomy?
  • Are we responsible for anything that we don’t control?
  • How will we make decisions?
  • What resources do we control?
  • What is our meeting rhythm?
  • How often will we conduct retrospectives?
  • What tools will we use to communicate and coordinate?
  • How will we share our work with one another and the organization? What are the learning metrics that will help us steer?
  • How will we know if we’re making progress?

User Manual to Me

While chartering creates clarity about a team’s overall purpose and context, it doesn’t do a ton to nurture deeper and more functional relationships within the group. That’s where the User Manual to Me, first introduced by Ivar Kroghrud in an interview with the New York Times, comes in and takes things to the next level. The idea is genius: what if we each wrote a user manual about how to work with us and shared it with our teams? Suddenly they’d know why we always seem skeptical or prefer to give feedback in person or get so excited about a good pun. How much time and confusion could we save? Adam Bryant, the former editor of Corner Office, who first interviewed Kroghrud, shared a list of questions that form the basis of a user manual at the New Work Summit in 2016. Ask your team to answer these questions in an easily accessible document that can be shared across your organization. Then bring everyone together, over drinks if you’re in the mood for real candor, and have them each share their unfiltered answers. If you’re the leader, go first. You’ll be able to hear a pin drop because you’re about to share the secret code that everyone in the room has been trying to crack for months or even years: what makes you tick.

Questions About You

  • What are some honest, unfiltered things about you?
  • What drives you nuts?
  • What are your quirks?
  • How can people earn an extra gold star with you?
  • What qualities do you particularly value in people who work with you?
  • What are some things that people might misunderstand about you that you should clarify?

Questions About How You Relate to Others

  • How do you coach people to do their best work and develop their talents
  • What’s the best way to communicate with you?
  • What’s the best way to convince you to do something?
  • How do you like to give feedback?
  • How do you like to get feedback?


One of the simplest ways to improve relationships within your community or team is to show appreciation for one another. Research shows that making time and space for gratitude improves well-being, reduces impatience, and boosts brain function. Here’s an easy way to get started: At the beginning or end of your next meeting, ask everyone to stop what they’re doing and think for a moment about something or someone they’re grateful for and wish to recognize within the team. Then go around one by one and share. No fanfare, just an honest acknowledgment that says, “Hey, I love the energy you bring” or “You were there for me when I needed support” or “You’re the best designer in the building and we’re lucky to have you.” A little touchy-feely? Sure. But you won’t believe the effect it has on morale. We forget to do this. We avoid it because it’s uncomfortable. Don’t let us. Make it happen.

Membership in Change

One of the most important steps The Ready takes in coaching teams through transformation is to define the boundary around who is actively working in new ways. This is critical because we are changing the requirements and agreements of that space in real time. That’s why, as you’ll see in the pages ahead, we focus on inviting (rather than forcing) people into a new way of working. We’re telling them, if you step into this space, you’re committing to try new things. That’s what it means to be ready. Our membership is a coalition of the willing, of the zealous, of those eager to reclaim their way of working.

Questions on Membership

The following questions can be applied to the organization as a whole or the teams within it. Use them to provoke a conversation about what is present and what is possible.

  • What kinds of membership exist in and around your organization?
  • How is membership gained? How is it relinquished? How is it revoked?
  • What do all members expect of one another?
  • How are prospective members discovered and recruited?
  • How are new members brought into the community?
  • What is the nature of the relationships within and across teams?
  • How do members move between teams and other boundaries?
  • How are departing members carried out of the community?
What does it mean to be People Positive about membership?Recognize that everyone needs to feel a sense of belonging,
both within the organization and within their team(s). Don’t build a walled garden that no one can escape. Ensure your boundaries are porous enough for the membership to continually renew itself. Celebrate generative difference and make space for people to bring their whole selves to work.
What does it mean to be Complexity Conscious about membership? Accept that a vibrant membership of commitment and participation is a prerequisite for self-organization. Don’t limit yourself to the structures and policies of the past. It’s unlikely that an adaptive and resilient system is going to look like a traditional employer filled with twenty-year veterans. Think about the movements that inspire you. Model your membership after them.

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This excerpt comes from the book, Brave New Work, by Aaron Dignan.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most…

Aaron Dignan

Written by

Founder @theready, investor, friend to misfit toys. Author of upcoming book on self-organization and transformation:

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

Aaron Dignan

Written by

Founder @theready, investor, friend to misfit toys. Author of upcoming book on self-organization and transformation:

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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