In-Depth: How Social Cohesion Shapes Teamwork And How To Improve It

Christiaan Verwijs
The Liberators
Published in
10 min readJun 17, 2024


Do you remember the best team you’ve been part of? What about that team made it the best team for you? Chances are, your list will include things like “There was a sense of pride in what we did,” “We really felt like a team,” and “We had each other’s back.” Those are certainly things I would say about the best team I’ve ever been part of. As psychologists, such statements are examples of social identification, one of the defining characteristics of high-quality teamwork.

In this post, I want to dig deeper into social cohesion. The background for this post is that Barry Overeem and I are on a mission to unleash teams through an evidence-based approach. So, I will first begin with a brief overview of the scientific consensus around this phenomenon. Then, I will dive into all the practical things you can do with your team to boost social cohesion. We hope it will create experiences similar to those we had with the best teams we’ve been part of.

Note: This post is agnostic to your team's type. It applies equally to Agile teams, non-Agile teams, and other workgroups. You can also self-diagnose your team's teamwork quality with our new tool (free for individual teams) and use our feedback to improve.

Overview of scientific research on social cohesion

Group cohesion is a key variable of effective work teams (Hackman, 1987, Carless & De Paola, 2000). It is often conceptualized as consisting of social cohesion, task cohesion, and individual attraction to the group (Carless & De Paola, 2000). We generally speak of teamwork when all three of these are clearly present. Otherwise, it is just a group of people occupying the same (virtual) space.

Social cohesion and individual attraction to the group are conceptually quite similar (Carless & De Paola, 2000). They reflect the social realities of a team. Do they identify with each other? Do they identify as members of that team? Do they like being part of the team? More simply put, it reflects to which extent the team fulfills people's social needs, such as being recognized by others and being part of something greater.

Task cohesion, on the other hand, is present when members acknowledge that the work they do is highly related (Carless & De Paola, 2000). This reflects the more informational, functional realities of teamwork. Do members rely on members to complete their own work? Do they need to collaborate on tasks because they can’t do them alone? Do they seek and offer task-related help to each other?

Most people intuitively pick task cohesion as the most important one for teamwork. It is indeed most closely linked to actual team performance (Mullen & Copper, 1994; Zaccaro, 1991). However, task cohesion probably follows social cohesion and individual attraction to the group (Zaccaro & Lowe, 1988). This suggests that if the members of a group achieve social cohesion, task cohesion is likely to follow.

Although this is only a cursory overview of the concept of social cohesion, I hope it shows how important the social realities of teams and teamwork are. One reason many teams struggle with teamwork is that there is no social tissue between the members. As psychologists, we know how vital this is and why it is worth the time and effort to invest in it (through teambuilding, social activities, and so on).

But let’s change gears from theory into practice and explore some super practical ways to work on social cohesion.

Strategy 1: Create a team identity

Simply putting a group of people together doesn’t make them a team. The scientific evidence I shared above supports that and explains why this is so. We need more for high-quality teamwork.

In my experience, creating a compelling team identity is a great first step toward social cohesion. If social cohesion concerns members wanting to be and remain part of a group, an attractive team identity is a good place to start. Fortunately, this is easier than you think. Because we evolved to be social animals, something as simple as a “team color” or a “team name” can already evoke pride — especially if there are other teams. This phenomenon is called “minimal group membership” in social psychology.

A shared team identity also clarifies why the work of a team matters and what goals it has.

We like to ask new teams to pick a team name and create at least a first version of their team purpose. We like to start with the latter, and this is one way to do it with your team (it’s called Nine Whys):

  1. (5 min) Invite everyone to silently and individually make a list of all the things they do in their work. These can be small or large activities.
  2. (5 min) Invite people into pairs. One of the members will become the interviewer, and the other will be the interviewee in the first round. The member who joined the company most recently starts as the interviewer. The interviewer asks the interviewee to share the activities on their list. The interviewer then channels a child's curiosity and asks: “Why are these things important to you?” or “What deeper need do they serve?”. After every response, the interviewer repeats the question gently and with a genuine interest in the answer. Repeat until you reach the deep purpose of why the interviewee does what they do.
  3. (5 min) In the pairs, the roles of interviewee and interviewer now switch, and the previous round repeats.
  4. (5 min) Pull everyone together. If it’s a large team, you can do an intermediate step with groups of two pairs each. Ask: “What did you notice about our individual purposes? What seems important to us and why?”
  5. (5 min) Finally, ask the whole team to reflect together on the question: “How do our individual purposes combine into a purpose for our team? Why do we need to exist in this organization?”. If the statement comes easily, capture it on a poster. Otherwise, you can run a 1–2–4-ALL to create the first version.

What we love about Nine Whys is that it always begins with the purposes of individual members and then creates a collective purpose from that. This is a hugely powerful step towards increased social cohesion, as it helps members to see how they contribute to the whole.

We’ve learned that it’s important not to aim for the perfect team purpose. It will evolve anyway. At the least, the first version of the purpose should clarify why this team exists. It doesn’t even need to be a sentence. A group of 3–5 keywords also suffices.

Once you have a team purpose, you can work together to pick a suitable name that conveys that purpose succinctly. A simple 1–2–4-ALL is a great way to do this. You can also run a poll and pick the one with the most votes. We’ve seen teams with all sorts of hilarious names, like “Team Cevitam”, and “Team Rubber Ducky”, but also more serious ones like “Laser Focus”. Always leave open the option to pick a new name later.

Once you have a team purpose and a team name, you can create all sorts of nice “artifacts” for the team. For example, how about a poster with member avatars, like the one below? You can also print the team name on mugs, and mouse mats, create a team poster, computer wallpapers, etc. Go crazy, and do it together.

A team picture we created for the Design Team that was responsible for a Liberating Structures Workshop. You can do something similar for your team. Let people draw their own faces, or even avatars, on a big sheet.

Strategy 2: Establish shared norms and values

Begin by helping a team to establish their identity. We like to do this by collaboratively defining the purpose of the team, its values, mission, and goals. Don’t go for perfection; a rough first version is enough to iterate one together later. Doing this often already creates a sense of belonging and unity. You can strengthen this further by encouraging all members to identify how they are part of the team, how the team can help them, and what they will contribute. By fostering a shared team identity, team members are more likely to identify and connect — the essence of social cohesion.

One example of “Worst Team, Best Team” (in Dutch). This group generates a ton of funny and realistic traits of their best and worst selves.

One exercise we like for this is “Worst Team, Best Team”, a mix of the Liberating Structures TRIZ and 1–2–4-ALL. It’s a fun, energetic way for teams to think about what they want to be. We do recommend first doing another exercise to clarify the purpose of the team (like Nine Whys). Here is how to do “Worst Team, Best Team”:

  1. Set the stage by asking the team to jump into a time machine and travel to a not-too-distant future where they encounter their dark variant (like in Back to the Future II).
  2. (3 min) First, individually, ask everyone to silently write down all the characteristics of their dark variant. What does the team do or not do? What do they believe? How do members act towards each other? Having fun with this one is okay, but encourage people to remain realistic.
  3. (6 min) Invite people to pair up and ask them to share their ideas and expand their lists.
  4. (12 min) Invite the pairs to share their lists. Work together to create one shared list on a shared surface. Group and deduplicate items, where possible, into themes.
  5. (20 min) Repeat the above steps for an alternate future where the team is incredibly successful. Again, collect as many characteristics as possible.
  6. (2 min) Individually, ask everyone to pick three characteristics from the “Best Team”-list that they think this team should invest in now to achieve that positive future.
  7. (4 min) Ask people to form pairs and ask them to share their ideas.
  8. (10 min) As a team, debrief together. What did the pairs come up with? Where is there overlap? Where are the differences? Make a third list together of the characteristics that the team should invest in now.
  9. You can follow up with 15% Solutions, WINFY, or 1–2–4-ALL to dig deeper into what is needed to invest in this now. You can also do this later.

Strategy 3: Promote shared experiences and rituals

Many people frown at team building. Granted, we’ve had our fair share of wonky teambuilding events that didn’t feel all that useful. But it is also a matter of setting expectations.

One of the reasons why teambuilding helps is because it creates shared social experiences for teams. That alone increases the sense of belonging and identification. It can also give reasons for members to be proud of their team. For example, we’ve experienced good times when we had to build a (real) catapult as a team and compete against other teams to see who could throw a ball the furthest. It can also be laser gaming, bowling, casual gaming on consoles, a treasure hunt in the park, or visiting a museum together.

Another aspect of this is the rituals that teams develop over time. Rituals are recurring actions, gestures, or procedures that have symbolic meaning to those who participate in them and convey values, norms, or beliefs. This can be as simple as “Friday drinks” to review the week together or just to blow off steam. Rituals are also relevant to how teams deal with failure and stress. For example, one team I worked in had a ritual where the developer who broke the build had to wear a funny hat for a while (which was me on more than one occasion). That company also created a picture wall of team building and other social events. Incidentally, you can also see me wearing an orange octopus in one of the pictures as I had broken the building that day.

The picture wall is from one of the earlier offices. In one of the pictures, I can be seen ‘wearing’ a fluffy orange octopus. This was the ‘octopus hat of shame’ for when someone broke the build — which I did on occasion.

However, rituals may be the most important in those areas where new members join or members leave. What happens in those situations? The point of the strategy is not to create rituals forcibly. However, you can encourage them through team building by gently encouraging their formation and by helping teams stick to them over time. We’ve always found it helpful to ask teams questions like the ones below to begin forming rituals:

  • Ask: “How do we want to celebrate when something happens that delights us as a team?”
  • Ask: “When a new member joins, how do we want to welcome them? What happens? Who does what? What should the experience of the new member be like?”
  • Ask: “When someone leaves our team, how do we say goodbye to them? What is important for the team and the person leaving?”
  • Ask: “When something goes wrong in our team, how do we want to reflect and deal with those situations? What happens next?”
  • Ask: “How do we want to pay attention to someone’s birthday?”

Closing Words

In this post, I discussed how social cohesion contributes to high-quality teamwork. Social cohesion is high when members identify with their team and want to be and remain part of it. This also contributes to other desirable team characteristics, like higher task cohesion and an increased sense of interdependency. In this post, I offered three practical and concrete strategies to improve social cohesion in your team. Give it a try and see what happens!

You can self-diagnose the quality of teamwork in your team with our new tool (free for individual teams) and use our feedback to improve. This tool also measures other areas of high-quality teamwork, such as task cohesion, psychological safety, task interdependency, etc. It’s really cool.

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Christiaan Verwijs
The Liberators

I liberate teams & organizations from de-humanizing, ineffective ways of organizing work. Developer, organizational psychologist, scientist, and Scrum Master.