Building better work – the IKEA Effect


Building better work

Most us will have experience of self-assembling something. You can buy ‘flat pack’ kits to build almost anything, ranging from houses and cars to bookshelves and desks. For some it can be a joy, for others (myself included) it can sometimes be a bit of a struggle.

But what can our experiences of self-assembly teach us about work? It turns out that the role we play in constructing something, changes our relationship with it.

Ultimately, we value what we build.

The IKEA effect

Researchers, Michael Norton, Daniel Mochon and Dan Ariely were curious about whether building an item influenced peoples’ perceptions of its value.

In their initial study [1] they randomly assigned participants to “builders” or “inspectors”. Builders were asked to assemble a plain black cardboard box from IKEA (the Kassett Storage box for those interested) using standard instructions. Inspectors were given a ready-made box and had the opportunity to examine it.

At the end of the study, participants would have been holding identical boxes. The only difference being that for half the group, they would have played a part in putting the box together.

Before the study finished participants were asked to place a bid on the box. They were also asked to rate how much they liked the box.

Builders bid significantly more than inspectors and their ratings of how much they liked the box were higher too. The researchers coined the term the “Ikea effect” to refer to the phenomenon of people placing additional value on items that they have played a part in constructing compared with ready-built goods and services.

Although this study was relatively modest in size, the IKEA effect has been found to be present in a number of subsequent and preceding studies involving items such as origami, lego, custom designed clothing and even lottery tickets [2].

The psychological factors at play

Intuitively, the IKEA effect makes sense. We may all have experienced an attachment to, or affection for, a self-assembled item of furniture. In my case this is often even more surprising because they tend to be poorly constructed.

Economists have known for some time that the more effort people put into the pursuit of something, the more they tend to value it. So a partial explanation of the IKEA effect might simply be that the effort invested transfers, or rubs off, in terms of an apparent greater attachment.

Another explanation relates to control and effectiveness. By building something people are able to control and shape elements of their environment and in doing so are also able to demonstrate competence to themselves and others in terms of what they have built. 

Building better work – ideas to harness the IKEA effect at work

The IKEA effect demonstrates that people value what they build. We can harness this principle in the workplace.

Here are three ideas of how we might be able to encourage and enable the IKEA effect.

1.   Allow people to shape elements of their work - don’t ‘ready-assemble’ jobs.

In terms of job design, team leaders are often asked to develop elaborate job descriptions which provide no space or opportunity for people to shape their roles. Effectively we are doing the equivalent of presenting people with “ready-assembled” jobs. Whilst we are doing this with the best of intentions (to make life easier, clearer and better defined for our colleagues) we might be inadvertently impacting on how much people come to value the work they are doing.

 An alternative would be to create opportunities for individuals and teams to determine for themselves the way to undertake their jobs, giving them some freedom and control over how their work is done. Rather than tell someone to do work in a certain way, reframe the focus around the outcome that is needed and let them decide the best way to achieve this.

 2.   Co-create key goals and strategy. 

We should apply the idea of self-assembly as much to our goals and strategies as we do to our physical tasks. The IKEA effect would suggest that people will value the strategies, visions, missions and goals which they have played a part in building more than those which have been presented to them “ready-made.” Yet these decisions tend to be made by small executive groups, often in isolation from the wider workforce.

Rather than simply present the next strategic direction or key initiative as something that has been pre-determined, find ways to harness peoples’ inputs, thoughts and ideas as part of the process.

 3.   Be careful what you remove.

We should be curious and potentially cautious about assuming that removing tasks and making aspects of our work easier will make it more enjoyable. On the face of it, streamlining or stopping certain activities will make our working life more manageable and less stressful. Yet removing opportunities to build aspects of our work might have a potentially negative influence on our overall levels of satisfaction.

Whilst potentially counterintuitive, researchers have indeed found that in some circumstances reducing certain job demands can actually also reduce people’s overall engagement and enjoyment [3]. And this phenomenon has been observed by food manufacturers too [4].

People value what they build

People value what they build. And this applies as much to our work as it does to our flat-pack book shelves and tables.

It is tempting in our rush for efficiency and effectiveness to create pre-assembled solutions and present ready-made decisions for the people we work with. Yet this pursuit, whilst well intentioned, might have a negative impact on the value and worth that people place on the work they do.

If we are curious and committed to building better work then we need to create opportunities for people to put their physical and emotional fingerprints on the work they do.

Norton, M. I., Mochon, D., & Ariely, D. (2012). The IKEA effect: When labor leads to love. Journal of consumer psychology22(3), 453-460..

2 For studies on origami and lego see Norton, M. I., Mochon, D., & Ariely, D. (2012). The IKEA effect: When labor leads to love. Journal of consumer psychology22(3), 453-460.

For the lottery ticket study Bar-Hillel, M., & Neter, E. (1996). Why are people reluctant to exchange lottery tickets? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 17–27.

Petrou, P., Demerouti, E., Peeters, M. C., Schaufeli, W. B., & Hetland, J. (2012). Crafting a job on a daily basis: Contextual correlates and the link to work engagement. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 33(8), 1120-1141.

4 When instant cake mixes were first introduced into the US, households were initially slow to use them. Through further exploration the cake manufacturers found that the mixes were felt to make cooking too easy which ultimately made the effort and resulting cake undervalued. The answer was to amend the recipe requiring an egg to be added. Whilst there are potentially a large number of reasons why this amendment led to greater subsequent adoption, adding labour (the egg) appeared to be a vital ingredient. It felt more like baking. See:

What's wrong with resilience?

Exploring a more buoyant approach to health and wellbeing

It seems like everyone, and every organisation, wants to become more resilient at the moment.

When I’m asked to talk about, and train people, on building resiliency, I find that I’m often starting at a disadvantage.

The ideas that people have about what resilience means - at least from a scientific perspective - are often both mistaken and fixed. The common misconception about resilience is that it is the ability to remain strong, stoic and defiant in the face of challenge and adversity.

A, perhaps simplistic, metaphor that could be used to describe this way of thinking is a lighthouse. It stands tall, strong and defiant in the face of crashing waves and stormy weather.

Lighthouse thinking - seeing resilience as standing tall and strong in the face of adversity

Lighthouse thinking - seeing resilience as standing tall and strong in the face of adversity

We know that this ‘heroic’ approach to dealing with stress and challenge is, for most of us, not sustainable. Overtime, our energy and resistance levels fade until we reach breaking point, crumble and burn out.

Whilst this is not a universal understanding of resiliency, it can be difficult to challenge and change people’s ideas and mindsets surrounding this concept.

Rather than battle these pre-conceptions, I’ve started to change the conversation instead. I’m using a different perspective. I encourage people, teams and organisations to think about being more buoy(ant).

Buoy(ant) wellbeing

Rather than resist or deflect waves, a buoy moves with them. In stormy weather it gets buffeted more than when it is calm, but the buoy never gets swept away. This stability is achieved because it is tethered to, and grounded by, an anchor.

In order to maintain buoyancy and stability from both a mental and physical health and wellbeing perspective it is important to have an effective anchor too.

Buoy(ant) wellbeing - moving with, but not getting swept away by, challenges and opportunities

Buoy(ant) wellbeing - moving with, but not getting swept away by, challenges and opportunities

Whilst our natural levels of buoyancy and the weight of our personal anchors are unique to us, they are not fixed. We can all pro-actively influence our ability to move with, but not get swept away by, the challenges and opportunities we face each day.

We can all pro-actively influence our ability to move with, but not get swept away by, the challenges and opportunities we face each day.

The ability of our personal anchors to keep us grounded is influenced by our day-to-day actions, behaviours, values and beliefs. These are skills, practices and ways of thinking that can be learned, nurtured and developed. And these concepts can be applied holistically to organisations, as they can to teams and individuals.

Ultimately, the most critical element in positively influencing actions and discussions around health and wellbeing is not myths, metaphors or models. It’s the business of encouraging and enabling people, at all levels, to make the changes and take the steps that are going to make the biggest difference to their own health and the wellbeing of others. This often starts, but should never stop, with training or education. We need to bring evidence-based approaches to make positive sustainable and systematic change.

It’s not a case of stopping resiliency training. Or that ‘buoyancy is best’. But words do matter.

Our mindsets and beliefs around concepts and ideas influence how we engage and explore them.

How do we change the conversation?

It it still early days for me in developing my thinking around these concepts and I would love feedback and thoughts about the idea of buoyant wellbeing.

More broadly, I’m keen to hear and learn from others who have effectively dealt with preconceptions and misconceptions around the concepts, such as resiliency, they have been asked to explore with people within organisations.

Let me know your thoughts, tips and experiences.


Originally published on Linkedin in August.

Emerging trends in Positive Psychology

Lasting ideas from the European Conference of Positive Psychology 2018

In late June, I had the pleasure of attending and presenting at the European Positive Psychology Conference in Budapest. The conference brought together researchers, practitioners and pioneers of Positive Psychology from across the globe.

As ever, there was a richly packed and diverse programme of keynotes, seminars and workshops.

All the sessions I attended were thought provoking and of a really high standard, but there are a few ideas and talks that have made a lasting impression. I wanted to share these.

I also wanted to highlight resources that I’ll be exploring further, so you play along at home. You'll find these in the links throughout the blog and a section at the end.

To be clear, this is a narrow and personally biased selection. For those who want a comprehensive overview of ECPP 18, I recommend checking out the conference programme and/or the abstracts submitted.  


1) Moving from an individual to a systems perspective

A, potentially fair, criticism of positive psychology is that to date, the majority of research undertaken and constructs developed have focussed on flourishing at an individual level. Arguably, the field sometimes fails to account for the complex systems and networks of social relations and structures within which people are embedded.

In a symposium chaired by Margaret (Peggy) Kern it was refreshing to hear a number of presentations on the need to consider system informed positive psychology which applies the holistic lens of systems science with the strengths-based lens of Positive Psychology. As Paige Williams suggests this enables us to consider issues and ways of working from inside out and outside in.

Lindsay Oades offered that one explanation for our individualistic focus was the, perhaps unrecognised, influence of liberalism ideals and principles. Lindsay argued that it might be useful for researchers and practitioners to deliberately explore other political philosophies such as communitarianism. 

My, perhaps simplistic, understanding of communitarianism is that good society is based on the successful interplay between liberty and social order, individual rights and social responsibility.

Shifting our focus from enabling individuals to reach their highest potential to enabling us all to make our highest contribution is certainly something I will be reflecting on and exploring further. It reminded me of some of the sentiments expressed in the pioneering Benefit Mindset work developed by Ash Buchanan

2) Making art from broken pieces

Itai Ivtzan highlighted both the need and the opportunity for positive psychology as a discipline area to broaden its focus beyond positive emotions and experiences and in particular move more attention to the study of how people successfully live through, and grow and transform from, negative experiences.  

Described as a ‘second-wave” of positive psychology, Itai outlined a future for the field which encouraged and enabled people to embrace and recognise the ‘dark side’ of life.

From a personal perspective, I have always seen positive psychology attending to both negative and positive experiences, but I recognise the potential need for greater balance in the research. 

To illustrate the opportunities to grow from challenge, set-back and adversity, Itai introduced us to Kintsugi. This is the Japenese art of repairing pottery which celebrates and recognises, rather than conceals, breakage and restoration. The literal - and quite fantastic - translation of Kintsugi is 'golden repair'.

I loved this concept. As humans we continually build and grow from our imperfections, mishaps and failings, as well as our strengths and successes. 

Image from  Diversity NZ blog


3) Using the Job Demands and Resources Model for energy and engagement

A number of talks, symposia and posters used the Job Demands-Resources (JDR) model as a mechanism for considering how to influence energy and engagement. Whilst primarily applied in the context of work, I also saw the model being used for coaching, personal development and education.

Whilst I was certainly familiar with the JDR model and the positive torrent of research of this model led by Arnold Bakker and Eva Demerouti amongst others, I’ve not seen it make such a leap into positive psychology.

In particular, it was interesting to see JDR models which highlighted the importance of building and drawing from personal resources, such as mindset, behaviours and beliefs and the linkages with job crafting.

4) Learn it, Live it, Lead it, Embed it.

As a father and someone who has worked in the Higher Education sector, I’m always drawn to understanding how positive psychology is, and can be, applied within schools, colleges and universities.

Charlie Scudamore delivered a fantastically candid and insightful session on the lessons learnt from nurturing and embedding a positive educational culture at Geelong Grammar in Australia.

The key idea that I took away from Charlie’s session didn’t relate specifically to positive education but more about the factors which were critical in embedding and supporting change.

Charlie was clear that in order to build truly transformative approaches to wellbeing across the organisation people needed to:

  • learn about the concepts – the science behind them and the practical application
  • consolidate this learning by applying their personal lives - living the concepts,
  • leading and (in the case of schools) teaching these new approaches
  • spot and lead opportunities to embed the ideas into new ways of working.

I really liked the Learn, Live, Lead & Embed approach. From personal experience I have seen so many initiatives fail to reach their partial or full potential because some, or all, of these different stages haven’t been reached.

5) Interest and research in Job crafting is growing

From a personal and professional perspective, I was really pleased to see a growing interest in job crafting. Job crafting refers to pro-active changes that individuals make to the tasks, relationships and the way they think about the meaning and value of their work.

To my knowledge, Gavin Slemp, Peggy Kern and I were the only group to present a paper on job crafting at the European conference in Angers in 2016. This year there were at least 5 presentations that referenced the potential benefits of crafting work and personalising our thoughts, tasks and relationships.

Wilmar Schaufeli highlighted research showing the positive relationships between job crafting and engagement, wellbeing and performance. Machteld van den Heuvel  gave a masterclass on how to deliver job crafting interventions. Håkon Tveiterås and Benedicte Langseth-Eide gave a number of practical examples of how job crafting could, and had been, used as part of leadership and employee enrichment initiatives to enable better health, functioning and performance. Bente Alsos from Wideroe Airlines gave practical examples of how job crafting had been used by people, including airline cabin crew to frame the benefits of their work.

Aside from her presentation on the power of communications training to build high quality relationships, Belen Varela generously shared her own ideas and research of how she is encouraging job crafting in Spain and beyond. 

It was also a pleasure to share my research and thoughts, which I had developed with Gavin Slemp, on the new concept of “micro” job crafting. We found that when analysing examples of job crafting in action which we had collected the majority of crafters appeared naturally drawn to making very small, micro, job crafting changes in their work (5 - 12 minutes a day).

I argued that encouraging more job crafting at a micro-level might be the key to encouraging more of us to personalise our approach to work. 

Screenshot of slides presented by Rob Baker and Gavin Slemp at ECPP 2018

Screenshot of slides presented by Rob Baker and Gavin Slemp at ECPP 2018

ECPP in Iceland 2020 

I would really recommend the European Conference of Positive Psychology for anyone researching, applying or exploring the concepts in this field. The sessions were accessible, the delegates warm and welcoming and the passion for the discipline area was palpable.

See you at the in Reykjavic in 2 years time. And if you want to discuss or explore any of these ideas further then get in touch. I'd value the opportunity to think about and explore them further.


Attracting amazing humans and keeping them happy - 5 tips

Last month, I partnered with the fabulous Michelle Minniken to deliver a session to budding and seasoned entrepreneurs on how to attract and retain amazing humans. We gave participants our top 5 practical tips informed by our personal experiences and the latest organisational and positive psychological research. 

The session was delivered as part of the festival of entrepreneurial energy and ideas that is the annual Newcastle Startup Week.

Michelle melds fun, professionalism and pragmatism with occupational psychology in a way I always find refreshing. Further detail about Michelle, Insights BP, and a fuller version of our conversation at startup week, then please check out the Insights BP blog

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Our top 5 tips

1)    Get personal

If you’re genuinely looking to create an exceptional work environment one of the most powerful things you can do is to allow people to personalise their approach to work.

The frustration with our current approach to recruiting and managing people is that we don’t treat people as individuals. Increasingly, (and often unintentionally) our desire for fairness, equality and efficiency has nudged us to a more homogenous, sterile and joyless approach to working.

We forgot to treat people as humans. We don’t take the time to understand and make the most of individual strengths, talents and interests.

Rather than ignore our diversity and expect everyone to do their work in the exact same way, let’s embrace our individuality.

We can make work more personal by intentionally taking time to understand the strengths and interests of the people that work with us. We can enable everyone to make the most of their talents and preferences by making small, active, changes to shape their work.

Our work is often a lot more flexible than the average job description would have you believe.

People personalising their work by as little as 5 minutes a day, in a way that matters to them and they find enjoyable, can make a potential difference to their enjoyment and satisfaction.  

Take away:

Explore an individual's talents, strengths and interests with them and be open to finding ways of allowing people to do (slightly) more of the things they are good at, and enjoy doing, and (slightly) less of the things that aren’t a natural strength or they find de-energising.  

2)    Don't think you're a good judge of character

It’s really hard to choose humans well.

Michelle is an occupational psychologist, but on her second husband. 

In the workplace, problems occur because when recruiters start hiring, they don’t have any real understanding of how to accurately assess humans, so tend to rely on shortcuts in their decision making, which include both conscious and unconscious biases.

The cost of hiring the wrong person is massive. It’s around five times their annual salary.

The root cause of most of our recruitment problems stems from the way we hire. An over reliance on CVs without any due diligence regarding their veracity, or simply relying on an unstructured interview using questions designed to 'trip' candidates up rather than allowing them to demonstrate their suitability for the role are just 2 of the significant issues we see. 

Don’t just hire for experience and skills alone. Hire the whole human.

Take away

Hirers need to be a little more scientific. At a basic level, check if a candidate can actually do the job by giving them a task to perform. Check their knowledge. For example, if they’re a developer, discuss code; if it’s a sales role, talk through hypothetical scenarios with customers, and for a more strategic role ask them to do a 90-day plan.

3)    Forget the perfect match

We often delude ourselves when recruiting that we are looking for the “perfect match” to the detailed job description we have developed. We’re searching for the magic unicorn. The truth is the perfect job match and – sorry to break this - unicorns don’t exist.

It would be a surprise to us if many people look at their job descriptions more than twice a year after starting a job.

We should be incorporating more flexibly when designing jobs – be clear on key tasks but let the person being asked to do the job decide how they want to deliver according to their personal strengths, passions and interests.

Take away

Aside from the small but specific skills and competencies that may be critical for a role, consider the broader experiences, values and contribution a potential applicant could bring.

4)    Show some trust

Letting go, delegating and generally just trusting people to do the right thing can often be hard. But we'd argue that this is critical in enabling longterm, scalable, success.

People that feel trusted at work have a greater sense of ownership and engagement in the tasks they do.

Micro-managers are still a real problem in the workplace, which can starve creativity and motivation.

I have, listen and read many interviews with founders of new businesses. When reflecting on what they wish they had done earlier, entrepreneurs often share stories of turning points which are associated with 'letting go' or 'delegating' key tasks.

Our advice to start-up and scale-ups would be to show trust and offer autonomy early-on.

It’s dangerous for founders and leaders to continually tell others how to solve issues or what to do. Allowing colleagues to successfully grapple with problems, learn and bring their own perspectives will pay dividends in the longer term, both motivationally and in terms of performance.

Take away

Hire good people, give them some boundaries, responsibility and accountability. Then get out of their way and allow them to perform.

Show(er) people (with) trust, respect and kindness. Praise loudly and listen intently. 

5 (Most of all) Just don't be a dick

Show(er) people (with) trust, respect and kindness. Praise loudly and listen intently. 

Too many people - intentionally or not - starve people of the oxygen and fuel they need to do great work by punishing mistakes, being controlling, manipulative, disinterested and silent in terms of reward, recognition and praise.

Relationships at work are precious. How you treat people shapes their commitment and interest in the work that they do.

Remember, from a recruitment perspective, the candidate experience is a two-way street, and the power of the internet is such that a terrible experience can severely impact your reputation, and therefore your ability to recruit good humans.

Highlighting faults, failing and bad practice is similarly now just a(n anonymous) click away for disgruntled ex-employees.

If you think people don't check out your ratings on websites such as Glassdoor, then you are deluding yourself. 

The world of work would be so much better if we could install some kind of “you’re being a dick” alarm in workplaces, which would alert you and others to the fact that that you are acting, thinking and/or behaving in a way that at best just sucks the energy and enthusiasm from others and at worst is a source of harm, upset and long term disengagement.

In the absence of “you’re being a dick” alarm (patent pending) as a founder or leader you won’t go far wrong if you just treat people as people with lashings of dignity, compassion and kindness. 

Take away:

Be nice. Treat people as people, with dignity, respect, compassion and kindness.

Thanks to all involved in the Newcastle Start-up week for inviting us to present. Newcastle Start-up Week 2019 will take place from 13 - 17 May. It is highly recommended. 


Does wellbeing have a (high) visibility problem?

Ask people what is critical to ensuring a healthy and safe environment on a construction site and they will quite quickly start talking about hard hats, high visibility clothing and steel toe capped boots.

Whilst personal protective equipment is a component in controlling exposure to occupational risks, there are four other more substantive factors to be considered such as elimination and substitution of hazardous practices. These are steps that can be taken at an organistional rather than individual level.

I think that wellbeing or wellness activities often fall into the same area as hard hats, safety boots and high visibility clothing.

Whilst well intentioned, wellbeing initiatives are often delivered individualistically and in isolation with little thought to how, and whether, they make a difference to the overall health, happiness and overall performance of people in an organisation.

So what can we do? Here are 3 ideas to explore if you want to explore a truly holistic wellbeing approach for your organisation.

Hierarchy of Controls - National Institute of Safety & Health

Hierarchy of Controls - National Institute of Safety & Health

1) Define what you mean by wellbeing

It is often assumed that we know what wellbeing means. But this is a big assumption. It can vary considerably from person to person, team to team and organisation to organisation.

I once worked with a company that had teams working in four different standalone functional areas which had the terms “health”, “wellness” or “wellbeing” in their title.

These teams did not have a shared definition of what they meant by health or wellbeing. Their work was distinct and focused in specific areas but it all involved the broader health and happiness of people in the organisation. When asked, the teams had never thought about how their work interacted and had never considered a more holistic approach.

My preferred definition of wellbeing is feeling good and functioning well. It has its roots in academic research and it reflects both positive emotions and positive performance. It is easy to remember and tends to resonate with most people I speak to.

But this may not be the right definition for you, or your organisation.

Why don’t you start by asking people what a good day at work looks like for them and consider the factor and themes that this produces.

Aaron Jarden's Me, We & Us wellbeing model

Aaron Jarden's Me, We & Us wellbeing model

2) Think Me, We and Us

If you want to develop wellbeing approaches that permeate across functions, teams and individuals then it is critical to think systematically.

One approach to do this is to consider how wellbeing initiatives will impact on individuals, teams and the organisation as a whole. Or as Aaron Jarden, a leading wellbeing researcher, refers to it: take a me, we and us perspective.

Some questions to consider at each level might be:

  • Me – what wellbeing approaches will make the most difference to an individual working within the organisation?
  • We – what wellbeing approaches will be most effective in encouraging positive and collaborative working relationships amongst leaders and teams?
  • Us – what will make the biggest difference to the organisation as a whole in lifting its collective wellbeing?

3) Evaluate your organisational approach to wellbeing

Whilst it is often tempting to build and launch wellbeing programmes and initiatives based on what “feels” needed, there is value in taking time to evaluate your organisation’s current wellbeing approach and identifying your strengths and the opportunities for development.

Undertaking a wellbeing evaluation or audit might help highlight where you will get the most value for future investment in wellbeing – and you might be surprised where this is.

I recommend that organisations consider the following 6 areas:

  1.  Commitment – The commitment, visibility and profile of wellbeing within your organisation.
  2. Wellbeing development and literacy – Opportunities for people to explore what wellbeing means to them and their colleagues and the factors and activities which positively influence wellbeing.
  3. Environment – The extent to which the working space enables and encourages wellbeing.
  4. Wellbeing support – The quality and number of programmes and initiatives that are designed to provide high quality and specific health guidance and support.
  5. Enablers – Policies, procedures and practices which underpin, support and promote wellbeing.
  6. Current wellbeing levels – A regular measurement of the wellbeing of people across the organisation.

Visibility for all the right reasons

You can use these 3 areas to start a conversation about what wellbeing means for you and your organisation and the steps you can take to can put the health, happiness and performance of people at the centre of what you do.

There is of course, no specific recipe to building the perfect wellbeing approach.

It’s in everyone’s interest to develop high quality, evidence informed approaches to wellbeing, which will make the most amount of difference to the most amount of people.

Let’s give wellbeing visibility for all the right reasons.


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References  & resources:

Is the whole greater than the sum of its parts?

Charlotte Axon explores what makes teams effective

What makes teams effective?

What makes teams effective?

For most of us, being part of a team is a key part of our working lives. According to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, today’s youngest workers will hold an average of 12 - 15 jobs in their lifetime.

I’ve been lucky enough to explore team development through my occupational psychology research[1]. And I’d like to share some key findings – what makes teams highly effective, and how these factors can be used in your everyday work.

What do we know about teams?

Teams are not necessarily linked via organisational charts, but exist where members have highly interdependent relationships. Team members make decisions and solve problems together, and rely on each other for success. Often they spend a large amount of time working together, which makes it even more important to understand how the composition of individuals equates to outcomes.

Leadership matters

My research addressed the impact of a team development intervention over 12 months, and found that leadership was key to increasing team effectiveness.

The manager of the team made a conscious change to their leadership approach, which focused less on individual targets and more on individual development. The manager expected that as each individual worked closer to ‘their full potential’ the overall team effectiveness (i.e. sales) would increase – and it did.

Following the intervention, the team reported higher levels of:

  • Clarity over meeting outcomes;
  • Understanding of how their individual role contributes towards team goals;
  • Commitment towards helping achieving team goals

You can read about the findings in the main report.

So is team effectiveness enhanced when we focus on individuals?

A recent study by Google aimed to “discover the secrets of effective teams”. Replicating a method used to determine what makes a great manager, the researchers used a combination of qualitative assessments (i.e. peer ratings) and quantitative measures (sales performance) to define ‘effectiveness’.

These findings suggest that team effectiveness was less about individual team members, but more about how they worked together. You may be intrigued to learn of the factors which were found to be related (and unrelated) to team effectiveness.

The five most influential factors were (in order):

  1. Psychological safety (i.e. members are confident taking risks around each other, with no negative judgements for admitting mistakes)
  2. Dependability (i.e. members complete high quality work on time)
  3. Structure and clarity (i.e. members have a clear understanding of expectations, how to fulfil these, and how individual performance impacts team effectiveness)
  4. Meaning (i.e. members find the work to be personally meaningful)
  5. Impact (i.e. members see that their work can make a difference and contributes to the organisation’s goals)

Perhaps surprisingly, factors not found to be related to team effectiveness included individual personality, co-location of teammates, individual performance, workload size, or team size.

So what does this tell us?

Although this research looked specifically at Google employees, the findings tell us something crucial about teams. And it’s not rocket science. Feeling supported, ‘safe’ and confident amongst your peers matters.

Have you ever joined a new team, or jumped into a new role, only to find that you are suddenly unsure or uneasy about bringing up new ideas? Have you ever been in a situation where you know your colleagues have great insight and ways of working to bring to the table, but they don’t ever mention them? These sorts of scenarios reflect reduced psychological safety in a team, and can stem from situations such as individuals having their views dismissed in public forums by more senior colleagues.

Interestingly, the Google research also concluded that individuals scoring higher on psychological safety were less likely to leave, were more open to the power of diverse opinion and brought in higher revenue. Demonstrating a strong business case for fostering psychological safety in an organisation.

So what can we learn from this?

Psychological safety

Establish whether team members feel comfortable suggesting ideas in front of others, and in making mistakes without fear of judgement. Fostering psychological safety requires that managers share information with team members about their own preferences and working styles, and actively encourage them to do the same. Make it clear that you want to hear their opinions.

It is also worth considering the three organisational behavioural scientist Amy Edmondson proposes (see her TEDx talk):

1.      Frame the work as a problem with learning, not execution;

2.      Acknowledge your own fallibility;

3.      Encourage curiosity and ask lots of questions


Establish whether team members feel that their work provides a sense of personal and professional fulfilment, and whether it considers their individual development needs and areas of interest, rather than solely skills and ability. Provide positive feedback on an area they are excelling at, and offer to help in areas they struggle with. You can also act as a role model by publically expressing your gratitude when someone helps you out. Have a look at this KPMG study: “Motivating Employees Through a Deeper Sense of Purpose”.


Establish whether team members feel that their work contributes to making positive change, and how current processes may be impacting on individual wellbeing. Create a shared vision that clearly demonstrates how each member’s work contributes to the wider team and organisational goals. It is important to regularly reflect on your work and how it impacts stakeholders.

Prosocial motivation (the motivation to benefit others)

Capitalise on the fact that organisations see higher performance, more organisational citizenship behaviours and reduced turnover where individuals are motivated to promote the benefits of others. Through their focus on others, these individuals can be guided to build strong interpersonal relationships and reduce dysfunctional conflicts in order to generate effective team outcomes.

Some final thoughts

Although team membership and goals often change, research and practice shows us that there are some simple steps that we can take to increase the likelihood of better team performance.  In particular organisations can; 

  • establish clear expectations around how diversity of views are welcomed and considered;
  • encourage team behaviour which focuses on helping others;
  • ensure that team members gain a sense of personal satisfaction from their work; and
  • highlight how their actions impact on a broader scale.

If you want your teams to collaborate and perform to their maximum potential, a great starting point would be to consider whether this lists applies to the teams in your organisation. And if not, explore the reasons why. 

Charlotte Axon, October 2017

About Charlotte and how to find out more

Charlotte has a Masters in Occupational Psychology and works at the University of Sheffield. She is currently trialling an innovative approach to talent attraction. To explore more about Charlotte's research, you can read her original paper here

[1] Jordan, T., & Axon, C. (2013). Nine ways to improve team effectiveness – A case study report. British Psychological Society. Book of Proceedings for DOP Annual Conference, Chester, UK.

Positive universities: bring passion and optimism but don’t forget the purpose.

Positive universities: bring passion and optimism but don’t forget the purpose.
  • What would be happen if in addition to earnings, employability and academic attainment, we also measured the legacy of higher education in terms of a graduate’s wellbeing?
  • What would a flourishing university mean for staff and students?
  • What would a Positive University look and feel like?

From last Friday’s International Positive Education Network (IPEN) conference it is clear that leaders at the highest levels in higher education, public health and economic policy, joined by world-leading scholars and public policy shapers are both curious and serious about exploring these questions.

And so they should be.