You’d never expect a soccer team to win a championship with athletes only running drills on their own. Yet that’s how most companies today treat professional development.
As managers embrace putting L&D budgets in the hands of their individual reports, demand has skyrocketed for coaches, training, and skill-based courses. Seemingly hundreds of new companies have popped up to capitalize on the trend to help people grow their careers.
Skill development is more accessible than ever before. But, even if your direct reports are ambitious and working hard to uplevel on their own, your team may still not be performing exceptionally well.
It’s misguided and ineffective to assume a team will magically transform by each person growing in isolation. To get your team to perform better as a unit regardless of your current level of efficacy, you need to focus on team development, too.
Team development isn’t easy, but those that do it successfully will gain a competitive edge. Teams will adapt more effectively to inevitable changes, create stronger sense of belonging and progress, and more easily scaffold individual goals to collective commitments.
In this piece, we’ll discuss what team development is and why it’s critical to both talent strategy and business outcomes. We then share why individual development alone doesn’t suffice, and offer a guide to help you bring more team development to your organization.
About the Authors
Natalie Rothfels is an Operator in Residence at Reforge and runs a leadership coaching practice. She has held product leadership roles at Quizlet and Khan Academy and was a classroom teacher before that.Learn More
Karen Sun is an advisory CTO, executive coach, and educator focused on building equity and access to technical opportunities. She was previously the CTO of Dwelo and has built education platforms in Latin America.Learn More
What is Team Development?
Team development is the practice of bringing together a group with a shared goal (that cannot be achieved by one individual) to identify and commit to growing in an area that limits their ability to effectively achieve that goal. Even if you are absolutely crushing your goals, there’s still room for improvement.
You may be used to coaching your direct reports one-on-one, but it’s rare for most managers to create explicit space to help their team develop together, in a shared space. One-on-one coaching is functionally equivalent to a soccer coach doing customized, individual drills with each team member on their own soccer fields. This is a big loss.
“The team is the connective tissue that drives what’s happening behaviorally for individuals,” says Kim Welsch, who has over 20 years of experience coaching both individuals and teams. “Individuals can go through serious change, but ultimately they have to enroll other people they work with in that change. And it’s usually beyond most human capacity for any one individual to take on the project of collective change on their own.”
Because work doesn’t happen in a vacuum, rarely can one individual alone ameliorate the interpersonal, intercultural, or relational issues that surface within teams. If you’ve ever tried to improve collaboration on your own, you know how hard it is to transform a disgruntled relationship unless both people value the other and are willing to make a personal change.
Team development is a forum for relationship-building, commitment, and accountability. It’s a practice of supplanting the impulse to let issues fester. It’s a method of getting to Bruce Tuckman’s Performing stage quickly, rather than wallowing in Storming.
“Every team is susceptible to a thousand and one paper cuts: the misunderstandings, communication breakdowns, and conflicts that add up over time to slow everything down,” says Agata Celmerowski, EIR at Reforge and former VP of Marketing at Kaviyo. “You want to go through team development to understand the source of some of those papercuts and ideally be able to mitigate them before they happen.”
Why Team Building & Development is an Important Competitive Edge
The default state for almost all teams is chaos and dysfunction. It’s just what happens when you bring lots of people together to achieve something hard (this is similar to Brooks Law, which asserts that adding an additional node to a network counterintuitively increases complexity).
Team development is the work required to move against this natural tendency. It’s a critical input to employee satisfaction, strong retention, and optimal business performance. When you invest in team development, you get a culture of “learning teams,” teams that can adapt faster, easier scaffolding for individual goals, and a greater sense of belonging and progress.
Let’s walk through each...
It develops a culture of strong teams, not just ambitious individuals.
A strong team is made of individuals who are accountable to each other and hold shared responsibility. Yet in some ineffective organizations, “teams” may be groups masquerading behind one star player. And when those key leaders or contributors leave the group or organization, both team culture and performance will suffer.
In order to operate like a strong team, leaders must build a culture of team development, instead of over-emphasizing individual development, which can so easily lead to single points of failure. Getting there requires becoming a learning team that cares deeply about improving how the group is functioning together.
From the research of Kegan, Lahey et al, these learning-focused teams are “organized around the simple but radical conviction that organizations will best prosper when they are deeply aligned with people’s strongest motive, which is to grow. [...] Deep alignment with people’s motive to grow means fashioning an organizational culture in which support to people’s ongoing development is won into the daily fabric of working life, visible in the company’s regular operations, day-to-day routines, and conversations.”
Teams that can anticipate, adapt to, and navigate through these types of changes with less turmoil will be more successful and resilient.
Kate Purmal, an executive coach and the author of Composure and The Moonshot Effect, argues that working together to move through team dysfunction is critical for building aligned teams that can then drive business outcomes.
“Team dysfunction is almost always about misalignment,” says Kate. “And interpersonal and team conflicts almost always come down to accountability and ownership. When people don’t feel accountable to each other or they fear criticism and judgment from each other, they’re unlikely to have honest conversations about what’s working and what’s not.”
When honest conversations do follow, Kate argues, your team can begin to use a shared vocabulary to call out the interpersonal dynamics that stand in the way of shared progress.
It makes teams able to adapt faster.
Learning to ride a bike requires two foundational skills: mechanical operation (how to use the bike), and balance. Each is difficult at first because there are many moving parts for the brain to track. But as you gain competence, these individual skills move into the background. Soon, you can ride the bike unconsciously, without much cognitive load.
The same is true of team development. In high-growth environments, change is the only constant. Every week, you have a new teammate, new strategy, new technical hurdle, or new dependency to navigate.
Dysfunctional teams get stuck learning how to “ride the bike” of change. It takes them too long to recognize, name, and respond to these shifts.
Teams that have built a culture of team development, on the other hand, have learned to “ride the bike” unconsciously. They know the mechanics of navigating change, and trust that they’ll find their balance no matter the roadblock in front of them.
They know some of the signs of moving into dysfunction:
- They’re moving too fast and spinning out
- They’re moving too slowly, unable to gain enough momentum
- They’re hitting roadblocks that continually knock them off balance
- They don’t know where they’re steering in the first place
Then, they create space to move out of that state as quickly as possible.
The faster teams can move through the adaptation cycle, the less wasted energy in the system and the more teams can focus on hitting their goals.
It builds a foundation that makes individual development goals more successful.
Just as it’s easier for one PM to develop their own roadmap when there’s an overarching product strategy, it’s easier for an individual to create their own development plan when there’s a co-created team development strategy, too.
For example, if my team is working on sharing more regular, candid feedback to avoid late-stage disagreements, I can focus on sharing my work earlier on in the process even if it’s not yet to my own quality standards.
This simple change allows others to engage with my work earlier, but also makes it clear how my individual growth is tied to my team’s collective development.
When individuals can link up their own effort with team success, they’ll have higher job satisfaction and retain better.
It creates belonging, meaning, and a sense of progress.
People navigate hurdles better when they trust and are held accountable to each other. Without it, teams will be rife with territorialism, self-protection, and fear. Team development — regardless of the skill-building at the center — can help build that foundation of trust.
“We’re such attuned beings,” says Kim Welsch, the executive coach. “Most of us have a felt sense of meaning and of being valued. In this brave new world of the future of work, leaders who create time for their teams to develop together will generate meaningful experiences that make connection and collaboration easier, and thus make achieving collective goals more likely and more satisfying.”
Our efficacy is often a function of our environment just as much as our skill. The safer and less alone we feel, the easier it is to make changes and learn. Plus, crucible moments where teams go through hard things together for the sake of a shared goal are often meaningful and give folks a visceral sense of progress.
We tend to over index on hard or "technical" skills when it comes to development, especially in tech. But when you really ask why your team may not be performing optimally, it often comes down to collaboration and therefore interpersonal skills. That’s why team development is so important.
Why Individual Development Alone Won’t Suffice
We see a strong need for both individual and team development. There are a few big reasons why investing in individual development will eventually hit a wall.
First, most team dysfunction is relational, not individual. Second, self-reporting is unreliable, leading people to work on skills that aren’t particularly high-leverage for your team. Lastly, without deep discipline and external accountability, individuals struggle to commit.
Let’s explore the tradeoffs…
The nature of most team dysfunction is highly relational.
The nature of many triggering events that lead people to seek development support are usually interpersonal, intercultural, and relational. If you’re letting others down in some way, struggling to collaborate with others, or taking up all the air time in team discussion, other people are inherently impacted by how you’re showing up.
Similarly, in the case of leadership, effectively rallying and guiding others is not a task you can magically do on your own, in isolation.
Even if you are working on these interpersonal skills 1:1 with a coach or your manager, you eventually need to integrate them in the broader context you’re working in. That often means with other people, whose own biases and skills may limit or accelerate your ability to grow.
For example, if your engineering and product teams are consistently having trouble collaborating, it’s rarely one individual’s development alone that will make the difference. Making progress here requires a full map of the dynamics across the teams.
One of Agata Cemerowski’s most formative learning moments happened when her boss brought in a coach to improve her team’s collaboration:
“The coach helped us understand our individual working styles, personal motivations, and how we process information. That information was useful, but it only became impactful when we came together as a team so we could understand the context of how those preferences influenced our working relationships as a group.
One of my favorite collaborators at the time was incredibly detail-oriented. I am always looking at the end vision and asking if we’re moving quickly enough to get to it. This caused a decent amount of friction between us. At times, this colleague was worried I was going to steamroll things, trying to get them to move faster or forget about the details that I didn’t think mattered. We only found common ground once we had a framework to understand why both our perspectives were uniquely valuable to the team. But we would never have gotten there had we not had a third person facilitating it and helping us understand our dynamic so acutely.”
In Agata’s case, is it better to be detail-oriented, or to focus on the big picture? Neither is inherently better. They only take on pejorative connotations in the context of competing rather than collaborative perspectives.
Without a map of how thisdynamic plays out across the broader team (e.g, people aren’t aligned on quality and velocity so are butting heads and missing deadline commitments), individuals are likely to reinforce their existing views and create unhealthy tension.
Self-reporting often misses critical context.
Whether they’re coached directly or working with an external coach, your direct reports are self-reporting their development goals. But let’s be honest, all of us are unreliable narrators.
Individuals usually come to a coaching discussion with one topic in mind. For example: “I need to improve my communication skills in meetings to make them more effective.”
But they are often missing two things. They may not have meaningful data that suggests their current behavior is actually negatively impacting the team. And they may not have evidence that their stated area of focus is actually high leverage for the team.
For example, improving my communication skills may be less valuable to my team compared to generating a clearer strategy or improving the quality of my execution.
Grace Michel, a Learning and Development leader with a background in conflict resolution and team facilitation, warns that unequal power dynamics can also make it difficult to develop new skills in isolation.
“There have been times where I worked really hard to improve my communication skills to work with a very direct and demanding manager, but because they were not also doing the work to meet me there, nothing changed in our dynamic,” says Grace. “I was the only one bridging to meet them where they were, so ultimately I burned out and quit.”
Individuals struggle to commit on their own.
Look no further than New Year's resolutions to highlight how hard it is to achieve things on your own without structured commitment and accountability.
Most of us have a much easier time showing up to the gym when we know a friend is showing up, too. Letting someone down who is reliant on you is a very strong motivator.
Team development enables this accountability forcing-function that’s hard to create on your own.
A Guide to Bringing More Team Development to Your Group
Team development that is guided by a third-party coach, with the humble presence of a team leader, is most effective.
This is optimal because skilled coaches can see and name the dynamics existing between teammates rather than getting mired in the day-to-day details that hold back the team. A leader’s role in this kind of environment is to condone the value of this kind of collective work, believing in its value and participating with a learning mindset.
If you’re a manager who has already established strong rapport and leadership with your reports, you could facilitate this type of development on your own.
There are seven steps we recommend you include in your playbook:
- Establish psychological safety.
- Get your team on board.
- Do a baseline intake.
- Set explicit goals.
- Adopt a common language for interpersonal dynamics.
- Ask for individual commitments and accountability.
- Measure progress, and treat it as an experiment.
Here’s what’s required at each step…
1. Establish psychological safety.
We recognize that many environments, especially in the workplace, aren’t safe enough for people to openly share their struggles with others.That’s why establishing psychological safety is the first step you must take before diving deep into team development.
With the right mindset, humility, a collective desire to opt-in, and a competent facilitator, establishing psychological safety shouldn’t require months of work.
Kate Purmal is a big advocate of co-creating goals within a team to help develop this psychological safety. She focuses on ensuring voices around the room are heard by having folks note their perspective on sticky notes and then share one-at-a-time around the room until everyone has gone.“Every single thing needs to get on the table,” says Kate. “Usually people have some pet issue they’re worried about, but once they understand the big challenges across the room, they are able to see their pet issue put in perspective and align on the most critical things for the group to focus on.”
2. Get your team on board.
Explain your intentions with these sessions, why you think it’s beneficial to your reports, and what’s going to be required of them. Also address any potential concerns that may impact psychological safety.
“We’ve all had many tastes of things like DISC profiles or StrengthsFinder, but then nothing really comes of it,” explains Ada. “Anything related to team-specific problems has to be opt-in from all parties, otherwise it’s a bit like dragging a partner to couples therapy or financial planning when they don’t want to go.”
Connecting everything back to a single “why” helps create shared understanding and team buy-in.
3. Do a baseline intake.
Before jumping headfirst into team development, you need to diagnose the highest leverage areas. These are the focus areas that you believe will have the greatest impact on your team’s ability to hit their goals.
You can do this by identifying points of misalignment and friction on your team, or using a list of common skills below.
- Communication (listening, facilitation, empathy, clarifying boundaries, influencing, storytelling, writing)
- Commitment (making decisions, sticking to them, knowing how to effectively re-negotiate commitments that no longer make sense)
- Accountability (doing what we say we’re going to do, honoring team values)
- Focus (problem identification, time management, strategic prioritization)
- Impact (results-orientation, awareness of metrics that matter)
- Collaboration (handling difficult situations, giving and receiving feedback, fostering trust, team-building)
- Problem-solving and creativity (decision-making, creating novel solutions, developing craft, connecting dots, adopting new mindsets or perspectives)
- Critical thinking (understanding data, crafting plans, analyzing causal relationships)
- Technical skills (do we know how to solve the problems in front of us)
- Adaptability (taking in new information, seeking to understand, responding based on context)
- Curiosity (learning mindset, willingness to try new things, situational humility)
- Compassion (EQ, team values, empathy, space-holding)
- Metacognition (awareness of your impact on others, your own patterns and beliefs, where you are in your learning process, etc)
4. Set explicit goals.
Clarify why you’re doing this work, and what the goal is at the end of it. It also helps to clarify the criteria you’re using to guide team development.
The most important thing is diagnosing the highest leverage area for your team that everyone can buy into.
Working on something that ultimately doesn't matter is a great way to deflate the power of the process. Working on something that only half the team disagrees with is a great way to unnecessary friction.
Some examples of team-level goals include:
- Saying yes to other teams only after we have properly scoped and estimated the work
- Developing risk mitigation plans in advance of starting a project
- Sharing more frequent and more impactful feedback in the early stages of a project
- Taking a moment to recognize work that’s done really well, and celebrating it
- Identifying the sabotaging behaviors our team engages in during weekly meetings
- Encouraging more productive conflict instead of being too nice
- Bringing external stakeholders into our process earlier to avoid late-stage blowups
5. Adopt a common language for interpersonal dynamics.
Given the natural state of teams is chaos and dysfunction, you need to establish new vocabulary so teams can easily identify and diagnose when those dysfunctions are occurring, as well as what forum exists to move through those dysfunctions.
In our own coaching work, we’ve found that shared shorthand can be effective to signal to the other party: “I trust you, and I’d like us to discuss the dynamic going on and how it’s preventing us from effectively hitting our goals.”
Kate Purmal’s work often centers around creating vocabulary with people about the psychological experiences underlying their behavior.
“Everyone experiences difficulties at some level,” says Kate. “it may be lack of confidence, perfectionism, imposter syndrome, rejection sensitivity, or depressed entitlement.”
Kate encourages teams to speak openly about how widespread and relatable those things can be: “If multiple people on a team fear criticism or judgment, that’s going to play a big role in the types of conversations they can have, and how accountable they feel towards each other,” says Kate. “So you need to bring these things out into the open.”
6. Ask for individual commitments and accountability.
Team development cannot happen without individual development. When facilitating discussions with a group, it’s important that everyone on the team is able to identify and share the individual development goals they’re working on that will impact or ladder up to the team goals.
For example, let’s assume our team’s goal is to improve our decision-making skills by focusing less on the decisions that don’t matter.
- Natalie may make a commitment to clearly articulate what decisions she thinks need to be made, why they matter, and how long she plans to spend on that decision.
- On the other hand, Karen may commit to helping facilitate meetings by asking whether a decision needs to be made and who should own that decision.
It’s really empowering to hear everyone on a team voice their individual commitments. If it’s your first time doing this, we encourage you to create space for reflection so members of the team can share how the process felt.
7. Measure progress, and treat it as an experiment.
We’ve found that most people respond better to process changes when they’re framed as experiments rather than large-scale culture shifts.
Implement teamwide development processes in a similar way. At the end of the day, you’re testing the hypothesis that team development will improve your team’s overall efficacy.
Run the experiment for a quarter so you have a large enough sample-size, do a retrospective, and iterate. If you get that far, you’re well on your way to becoming a team-development-focused organization.
What to Keep In Mind as You Make the Shift
You’re about to embark on something a bit radical. Helping your team talk openly about growth areas they may have never expressed in shared space is a big deal.
While everyone’s team development journey is unique and non-linear, improving performance across any skill requires:
- The belief that change is possible
- The ability to withstand the ambiguity and discomfort you’ll face
- Persistence, accountability, and motivation to keep moving through something difficult
In other words, team development is hard.
Onno Koelman is an executive coach who works with both individuals and teams. He says that, despite the growing volume of research suggesting the importance of team development, still few teams do it.
“The biggest obstacle to team development work is vulnerability,” explains Onno. “We spend a lot of our time at work trying to look good. We put our best foot forward, we talk about our strengths, we get ourselves in line for the next promotion. The hardest part of truly developing together is sitting with your team and saying candidly, ‘Okay, this is my weakness, and I want to work on this. I need everyone’s help.’ We are so programmed to only show each other our good side that it’s scary and we have to work uphill to subvert that tendency.”
Here are two tips about what to expect as you make the shift towards more explicit team development…
Remember dysfunctional is a state, not a trait.
Teams operate along a continuum, from dysfunctional to integrated to transformational.
Dysfunctional teams equate to 1+1 = 1. They lack trust with each other and don’t know how to engage interpersonally towards a common goal. In these teams, the sum of the parts is not yet obvious, and people may hold resentment or frustration for having to work with people they feel don’t bring additional value to the team.
Integrated teams equate to 1+1 = 2. They have both interpersonal cohesion and functional delivery. On the road from dysfunction, many teams lack one or the other. In these teams, the sum is often equal to the parts. These types of teams don’t collapse if one person leaves, but there is a hole to be filled.
Transformational equate to 1+1 ≥ 3. These teams take things one step further by intentionally focusing on both individual and team development. Few teams end up here because the work can feel intimidating, especially if there’s a leadership vacuum that makes it unclear who is ultimately responsible for team performance. In these teams, the sum is noticeably greater than the parts.
The good news is that these are team states, not traits. We’re always moving along the continuum depending on context and changes.
“Most teams are dramatically underinvesting working on the team versus working in the team,” says Onno Koelman. “As a manager, your job is to create effective teams which generate results, and superior team development (i.e. working on the team) will help you achieve that faster. How? Great managers enhance team performance by being self aware, creating safety, and challenging people to rise to the better performance they know is possible.”
As a manager, your job is to help the team recognize, name, and move away from patterns of dysfunction.
Be ready for backlash.
Despite our stated desires to learn and grow, the natural tendency for individuals and groups is actually to remain in a stable state.
Making changes requires exerting energy in direct opposition to that natural tendency, and will be met with backlash as the system attempts to move back into a steady state. This is resistance in the opposite direction of the intended change.
Backlash inhibits desired change by:
- Reinforcing hidden patterns: Karen may be trying to delegate more to create space for other work, but she may also have a hidden commitment to being seen as technically competent, causing her to always end up helping others in the code weeds whenever she asks for support.
- Exacerbating bias: Existing bias against a certain demographic gets even stronger when members of that demographic are voicing needs louder
- Maintaining fixed expectations: We often have very cemented mental models of ourselves and others. When we try to change or relate to ourselves or others in a new way, we may be met with suspicion instead of an open mind.
- Hiding clashing development goals: One person's individual development goal may be unknowingly at odds with someone else's. For example, the entry-level engineer who is practicing overcoming insecurity and asking for help more could be receiving insufficient support from a very giving senior engineer who is trying to practice saying no more often to non-core work.
When team-development is part of the cultural vocabulary of an organization, we can reduce backlash and instead incentivize meaningful change from within.
Invest Today In Team Development
We’re happy that more attention is being placed on development. Learning, growth, and progress are massive motivators for people to stay in jobs and feel fulfilled.
The Western world is so obsessed with individuality that we put the onus on each person to develop their personal brand and skills to remain relevant. But performance development needs to happen at both the individual and team level. One without the other will get you to a local maximum.
If you’re a manager viewing development at the individual level, you should expect that your reports will hit some backlash as they try to grow. Your job is to pave the way for that development by normalizing, condoning, and creating spaces for the system to evolve as individuals grow too.
Leaders are the bridge that connects where the team is trying to go, how the team must develop to get there, and how each individual can shift to enable that team development. When both the individual and the system shift, magic can happen. Teams hit more meaningful business outcomes, enabling leaders to then sustain better talent outcomes, and the cycle continues.