Team Success Under Stress

At some point in time, we all find ourselves either working on a team or leading a team. Team success and team unity are constant water-cooler topics. Team leadership and dynamics are perennial workshop titles for conferences. After studying 30-50 organizations a year for more than a decade, I’ve noticed an intriguing yet commonly overlooked element of team success.

Looking from the inside out, do team members think of themselves as cogs in a machine? Obviously not. However, it is easy for a leader to default to thinking of teams as nothing more than an assembly of machine parts. As a result, whenever a team leader attempts to get people fully engaged in the team’s mission, this mindset proves to be as effective as playing classical music at a football game.

Don’t get me wrong; I believe that team dynamics and group think are important concepts to consider. Under certain circumstances, people in a crowd or on a team will act and think differently than they might when alone. In my experience, however, that’s more the exception than the rule. More often than not, people act the way they normally would regardless of whether they’re participating in a group or acting alone. This is especially true for team members who spend the bulk of their time working alone, such as occurs with virtual workers.

To put it simply, my premise is that teams are people too. In this article, I’ll discuss how to motivate teams of people by looking at what motivates individuals. Whether you’re leading a team, working in a team, or simply thinking about personal motivation, this approach will offer a dual perspective on motivation for both our teams and ourselves.

Over the past 12 years, I’ve researched organizations throughout the US, Asia, and Europe. Every time I go to visit organizations and study their employees, I find an interesting situation which I like to call “motivational amnesia.”

Consider the following question: Why don’t I want to do what I know I should do? Most of us know what we need to do to reach our goals. In the same way, most teams know their desired outcomes and key performance indicators and are driven to reach those goals. However, they are often not able to stay focused and motivated. This is what I mean by motivational amnesia; it’s a situation where motivation can be high for days or even weeks but then disappears mysteriously, only to reappear and then disappear yet again—all without significantly changing an individual’s life.

B.J. Fogg, a Stanford University professor and noted behavior change researcher, explains it like this. For any of us to behave in a specific way, we require motivation (M), ability (A) and triggers (T) to all be present at the same time. Fogg’s equation can be written as B=MAT and is a fantastic diagnostic tool for understanding why a person or team is not behaving or taking action at the best and most optimal level. However, I feel this formula is lacking one more key ingredient.

Even if we as individuals or in teams are motivated, able, and triggered consistently into positive action, we’ll eventually run out of steam and stop dead in our tracks. Most people who work in a high demand environment do not run out of opportunities to excel; rather, they simply run out of physical juice. For this reason, I would modify Fogg’s B=MAT formula by adding energy (E) to it. You may be quick to notice that this could generate the acronym B=TEAM, and I’m sure you might be groaning and rolling your eyes at this level of predictability. We could also adapt the acronym to spell META, a Greek preposition used to indicate a concept that completes or adds to another concept. This, however, might be too abstract for some, so I’ve decided instead that it would be best to add some MEAT to our teams and personal goal pursuits.

Behavior = Motivation + Energy + Ability + Triggers

Let’s look at each of these elements in turn from the perspective of both the individual and the team.

Motivation (M)

            The soul of our goal is our being motivated. It is what drives the hard work and sacrifice necessary to reach our goal, and it is what gives meaning to our work. I’ve researched groups of business leaders, judges, physicians, and many people whose jobs directly and dramatically benefit people, and I’ve discovered that although these people are never short of meaningful work, they often feel that they are. When I ask why they sacrifice so much to do their work, they usually respond by moving their chins up and slightly to the left. It’s as if they’ve stopped to ask  themselves, “Yeah, why am I working so hard?” To be fair, it takes only a couple of minutes for them to come up with a powerful and meaningful answer that seemingly justifies their efforts. The reality is that they are not short on motivation or meaning; they are simply short on clarity, and it is clarity that energizes.

If we asked ourselves why we work so hard, what would be our response? If we asked our teammates the same question, what would their response? Learning what these responses are will afford us valuable insight as well as a solid foundation to begin improving, focusing, and aligning our teams.

When I ask people to clarify what positively motivates them to do their work, they often find it surprisingly difficult to do. It’s as if I’ve asked them to define their core values or even the meaning of life itself. I’ve found that it is easier to approach this topic by asking them how they work with others in the service of something greater than themselves.

When applying this to teams, however, we must remember to be cautious. For example, we might ask someone how their being on a particular team serves something greater than themselves. Team members might think to themselves, “Settle down, weirdo.” I’ve found that clarifying a meaningful motivation (M) and thus gaining the energy (E) from that effort is better approached in a more indirect way. I might ask instead why someone is working so hard on a particular project and then keep reframing the question until clarity is achieved.

Though this approach might seem to require a lot of work, it’s definitely worthwhile. We need to remember that whenever we help to clarify the source of a team’s motivation, it can be incredibly energizing.

Energy (E)

            Workplace perks are making a comeback. I’ve visited many workplaces recently that are focused primarily on improving employee engagement and loyalty. They attempt to do this by instituting some type of “great place to work” program, which is a highly recommended approach.

One amenity often offered is a gift card for a coffee shop or coffee bar. Caffeine via coffee and tea can be a healthy and productive addition to most people’s diet. When timed correctly, a coffee/tea service can be a great addition to a team meeting. Of course, if caffeine is provided without limitation, it’s important to educate the team on how much caffeine is healthy and productive, which can be a very helpful team strategy. Another growing trend is to replace Danishes and doughnuts in team meetings with fruit, nuts and yogurt to avoid the dreaded post-lunch crash that comes from combining high sugar foods with caffeine. These newer food selections may cost more, but don’t forget that time is money and that teams cannot afford to lose hours of work due to “presenteeism,” which is basically when the body is present, but the mind is not.

Besides the fact that people with more energy are often more creative and productive, there is one big, often overlooked reason to help our teams with their well-being. According to Towers Watson and the Harvard School of Public Health Forces (2009), the number one driver of employee engagement is, “Senior management’s sincere interest in employee well-being.”1 How do we often contradict that approach? By saying that we care about people’s health and families outside of work and then expect them to work 14-hour days.

We must remember that personal energy and team motivation are absolutely intertwined. By showing that we sincerely care about our team’s well-being, we encourage our team to be fully engaged in what it is doing, even during times of stress and pressure.

Ability (A)

Are we and our teammates confident that we can do or learn to do whatever is necessary to accomplish our goal? One of the quickest ways to increase stress and procrastination and to damage team morale is to ask people to do something beyond their actual or perceived skill-set. The reverse is also true. The more capable someone feels about a given set of tasks, the more positive energy is available to work toward the goal.

Ask yourself these questions: Can I do what is required to reach our goals? What can we learn to increase our confidence?  These are the things we must consider for us to be certain we are helping individuals and teams obtain the appropriate abilities. Have we trained our teams adequately so that they are confident about the tasks they’re being asked to do? Have we given enough direction, examples, tools, and success stories? Have we enabled them to learn more when necessary? We must always remember to ensure that the team feels confident in its ability to do what counts.


            What prompts us to take action? A frustrated sales manager once told me, “My sales team and I set the goals for client outreaches this quarter, but they’re not doing what they need to hit those numbers. Why won’t they do what they know they should?”

I discussed B=MEAT with him and confirmed these considerations. The desired behavior was to make a certain number of client outreaches each quarter, and he agreed that was true. The motivation for making sales calls was clear, and he informed me that team members knew that making those calls was the fastest way to achieve their goals. He also told me that the company had invested heavily in training and that their training manual was massive, so it appeared that they had been trained well enough to be confident in their ability to make the calls efficiently and effectively.

My follow-up question then captured the issue. Do they have specific daily triggers that prompt them to make sales calls? He responded with the chin move. I suggested that he determine when the sales people would have the highest probability of reaching the clients. He said that 9:00-11:00 a.m. was the optimal time. I suggested that 9:00 a.m. should become the universal trigger for the team to make calls, and if team members were not calling during that time, they should have a very good reason. This simple trigger resulted in the highest sales in his service as the team leader.

Remember: consistent motivation is based on positive momentum. Install daily triggers to ensure proactive behavior and to consequently fuel consistent motivation and focus.

As a  former college athlete, I’ve heard more pre-game pep talks than I can count. Some flopped, but others were successful in their ability to inspire. I realize now that the success was based on our leader helping to clarify why we had worked so hard in preparation. Even

though we all have different roles on the team and are different people, we are part of something bigger than ourselves. These kinds of leaders inspire confidence in our ability. Thanks to them, we knew that our plan was sound and that when we executed the plan appropriately, success would be inevitable.

We can help our teams and ourselves by clarifying the driving force behind our sacrifice, consistently increasing confidence by helping improve team members’ ability to do their work, and setting triggers to turn successful behavior into automatic behavior. This will lead to individual and team success under any kind of stress.



Andy Core is an award-winning lecturer, author, and expert in productivity, motivation, and well-being. He was voted a 2012 Top 5 Global Health/Healthcare Speaker by Speakers Platform and has spent the past 23 years mastering what it takes to become energized, healthy, motivated, and better equipped to thrive in today’s hectic society. 

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