“Who do you think you are?”

I reckon that’s a cracking question to ask a team. (Or, if you’re part of the team, you might ask: “who do we think we are?”)

I love this question because it goes to the heart of something that is key to team performance: team identity.

Strong team identity is one of just two things that bind the best teams together. The other is a shared endeavour.

Of those, the shared endeavour is perhaps the easier one to talk about.

  • What’s our purpose?
  • What are we shooting for?
  • What does success look like?

By contrast, team identity is a little harder to pin down, though. Less… concrete.

But that doesn’t make it any less important. In fact, research shows that the strength of a team’s shared identity is a big factor in predicting team performance.

Why? Because identity fuels a tribal sense of cohesion and belonging, which in turn drives higher levels of motivation, contribution and cooperation. Which in turn underpins high performance.

But hang on a moment, what do we mean by “team identity”?

I find it easiest to think of team identity by asking: if your team was a single person, what kind of person would they be? And, as a member of the team, is that identity one that you want to be associated with?

In practical terms, it’s useful to distil that down to four elements – which I’ve described through the types of questions you might ask to bring them to life:

1. Membership:

Who are the members of this team and what’s the story we wrap around that? Take for example the cross-functional team made up of a diverse mix of backgrounds. What’s the story that allows someone from, say, a software development background to identify with the team as much as they might with a team of other software developers?

2. Belief: 

What do we believe in, and how strongly do we protect or champion those beliefs in the way that we work? If we’re already talking about our values as a team, how do we ensure that conversation is anchored in what really matters to us, and truly defines who we are? (No room for tick-a-box values exercises here!)

3. Culture:

How do we roll as a team? What’s the lived experience of being in this team? Does it align with each team member’s own values? Is it a supportive culture – one that allows me to bring my full self to the table and do my best work?

4. Reputation:

Last but not least, how do others experience this team – regardless of who they are dealing with – and what’s our reputation as a result? Is that a reputation I want to be associated with?

These four elements provide the practical building blocks through which to build and strengthen a team’s identity. But of course, team identity isn’t something you forge through a single conversation. It’s something that you build slowly over time – first through the development of a shared aspiration and then, critically, through the iterative process of asking “how are we going with that?”. And making lots of small adjustments each time.

How might that journey begin for your team?

PS. I made a quick video just as I finished writing this article, as a way of talking through these ideas. You’re welcome to check it out here. 

About the Author

Simon Dowling is a former lawyer and is the author of Work with Me: How to get people to buy into your ideas (Wiley).  If you are looking for help with getting your team “humming” or you want more information on Simon’s popular online course Get Heard. Get Results go to www.simondowling.com.au.