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Three Magic Principles to Level Up Your Team

Scott Henderson
The Startup
Published in
8 min readAug 26, 2020


“The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.”

– Babe Ruth

I have been a member of multiple teams and groups, some of which were high-performing and others that were dysfunctional. The leaders of those dysfunctional teams tried really hard to make things work well; however, due to combinations of leadership and followership expectations, work styles/preferences, and the dynamic nature of the task — the leaders of dysfunctional teams came up short and consequently felt like failures.

Their teams did not perform well, not because they were bad leaders, but rather because they did not have the tools or resources necessary to help their teams perform at their highest levels.

I’ve been studying team and organizational effectiveness at Columbia University in New York and I’ve had the unique opportunity of retroactively evaluating every team I can remember being on. This exercise combined with my graduate education has shaped my approach to leading groups and teams and I believe it will benefit you and the groups/teams you are a part of so your teams perform and win at higher levels.

Anxiety is the number one reason teams underperform and become dysfunctional and I’m going to reveal three principles you can leverage to successfully navigate it within your team.

The type of anxiety I’m addressing is illustrated by an experience you have likely had.

Think of a time when you were assigned to a new team or group for work or school. You, as well as every group member, asked yourself consciously or unconsciously questions like the following:

  • Who can I trust here?
  • What are we trying to accomplish?
  • Which people are already friends?
  • Who will I get along with?
  • Who is in charge?
  • How will we make decisions?
  • How do I need to behave to fit in/be accepted?
  • Do I fit in/am I accepted?
  • Are they going to dislike me if I…?
  • Will my thoughts/opinions be heard like other group members?

Questions like these illustrate how intimidating and confusing teamwork can be.

(Quick tip: if you are thinking to yourself, “teamwork is never intimidating or confusing”, it might be because you are the one intimidating and confusing others).

Individuals consciously and unconsciously worry about every aspect of teamwork and this distracts them from focusing on their primary task and doing their best work.

Team circumstances cause people to experience intense emotions. These feelings inform peoples’ thoughts about themselves and others. These thoughts determine behaviors. If you as a leader can improve the circumstances you will positively impact emotions, resulting in individuals thinking more clearly and behaving more effectively.

If leaders cannot successfully improve the team circumstances, then anxieties trigger thoughts and behaviors destined to cause dysfunctional group dynamics and hinder project/work progress.

You can change those circumstances and improve your team’s dynamics today by doing three things:

  1. Remove anxieties through fostering psychological safety
  2. Relieve anxieties by proactively including everyone
  3. Reframe anxieties when you constructively disrupt the group and individuals

Removing anxieties through PSYCHOLOGICAL SAFETY

“Teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.”

– Patrick Lencioni

Psychological Safety is arguably the most important thing a leader can establish within a team (Duhigg, 2016). It is characterized by people’s’ perceptions of consequences for taking interpersonal risks in a particular context.

Any intervention that offers greater clarity of why the team exists, what they are trying to accomplish, and how they are supposed to work together will improve the level of psychological safety within a group or team.

A helpful model you should use is called GRPI (Goals, Roles, Processes, Interactions/Interpersonal). Here is a great paper on it by Steve Raue, Suk-Han Tang, Christian Weiland, and Claas Wenzlik on how it works and how you can use it. In summary:

  • Make sure the goals are crystal clear and simple enough that team members can communicate them back to you. The extra clarity will be like a breath of fresh air for them when they feel anxious or worried about their work.
  • Roles and responsibilities should be defined. When individuals understand what is expected of them they spend less time worrying and more time executing.
  • Team processes need to be logical, systematic, and understood by everyone. People need to know how to communicate with each other. Individuals should be nudged to use an established conflict-resolution model so disagreements are leveraged to positively impact the group work; decision-making processes should be established to accelerate progress.
  • Opportunities for meaningful interactions and relationships need to be created. These opportunities may be an informal Zoom happy hour, personal feedback meetings, or a formal meeting to discuss the team’s GRPI or do an after-action review. A combination of formal, personal, and informal opportunities is best.

Relieving anxieties with PROACTIVE INCLUSION

“Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.”

– Henry Ford

Proactive inclusion is the act of making every current member feel like they belong while also ensuring that every future member will quickly feel as if they belong. It is about going out of one’s way to include everyone, rather than reactively including people because of social norms.

When a person goes out of their way to include someone new and treat them like they belong, especially someone from a different identity group (age, sexual orientation, disability, race, gender, etc.), the invitee’s anxiety about being part of the team is lessened.

Below summarizes some basic guidelines to leverage proactive inclusion:


  • Get curious about your team members. Get to know each of them personally.
  • Ask thoughtful questions (and follow up questions).
  • Share your personal life with them and model vulnerability.
  • Think about who you spend most of your time with and why. Mix it up.
  • Instead of asking “what does the group think” ask “what do each of you think?”
  • Observe who contributes to group conversations and who does not.
  • Ask individuals privately about why they did not contribute to a team conversation.
  • Seek feedback on your efforts to help people feel like they belong on the team.
  • Allow others to lead.
  • Include multiple perspectives when making decisions.


  • Ask someone else to be in charge of this work.
  • Get defensive about how you do or don’t include people.
  • Assume people feel like they belong.
  • Underestimate the importance of inclusion.
  • Believe that intent is all that matters — IMPACT is what matters.

The last thing worth mentioning is the 2x2 below. The purpose is to help you get curious about your social network.

The x-axis represents your race. The y-axis represents your gender. I have found most of my social network is made up of those who are similar to me, or with those I share either gender or race with.

What I have found extremely helpful is to make an extra effort to befriend and get to know people who land in different quadrants from myself. Especially diagonally from me (people who identify as something other than male and who are not white).

The fact of the matter is we will always surround ourselves with people who are similar to ourselves so we need to make a conscious effort to spend meaningful time with team members who are different from ourselves if we want to create an anxiety-free team culture.

I invite you to take out a piece of paper and draw a 2x2 like this one. Then plot out your team and then think about who on your team you are closest with and who you feel most distant from. If you’re the leader, I would be curious to know if those who are different from you are also feeling a lower sense of belonging.

When a person demonstrates their awareness about the team’s inclusiveness and then does something about it they are working to relieve anxieties which, like psychological safety, contribute to greater innovation and optimized teamwork.


“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

– Mark Twain

Constructive disruption is a deliberate attempt to challenge the status quo with the intent and impact of making things better. A constructive disruptor seeks to understand why things are the way they are.

  • They take the time to accurately identify problems through deep questioning
  • They ask questions to learn AND to help others better understand
  • They challenge people to level-up how they see and think about problems
  • They make the unspoken spoken as to eliminate anxiety revolving around certain topics

Constructive disruptors cause some anxiety within their relationships and teams but it is a different type of anxiety. This anxiety is instead the type of pressure experienced when we feel called to action. It is the experience of being both challenged and supported.

(Quick tip: Constructively disrupting people works best when they are both psychologically safe and included/feel like they belong.)

Constructive disruptors empower and enable their team in 7 ways:

  • They are honest with their teams and don’t sugar coat things.
  • They don’t lower the bar of excellence but rather clearly communicate the expectation and then support individuals from a distance.
  • They give individuals the autonomy to do their work so people feel trusted.
  • They hold people accountable for their work without making them feel small.
  • They help people transform themselves by inviting them to get out of their comfort zone.
  • They encourage experimentation and innovation without getting upset when things don’t work out.
  • They approach problem solving and teamwork with a growth mindset.

In Conclusion…

“Great things in business are never done by one person; they’re done by a team of people.”

– Steve Jobs

High-performing teams are made up of people who do and say things that mitigate individual and group anxiety and the more anxiety there is within the team the lower performing it will be. Effective leaders (and team members) take measures to:

  • Remove anxieties by fostering psychological safety
  • Relieve anxieties by proactively including others
  • Reframe anxiety through constructive disruption

If you as a leader can adopt these three principles and build them into your ways of working you will see your team reach higher levels, your followers will view you as a competent leader, and you will succeed in helping them accomplish great things.

Your team can enthusiastically perform at a higher level and you can get them there!

If you were to do one thing from this article this week — I recommend discussing GRPI with your team and capture those learnings in a team document/charter everyone can reference!