How To Build Interdependence In Teams

Gathering a bunch of people in one place and assigning them an objective to work on together doesn’t mean you’ve successfully assembled a team. It just means you’ve successfully brought together a group of people and told them they have to co-operate. How willing they are to collaborate, though, is another matter entirely.


The biggest difference between a group of people working together and a team is interdependence. Google’s Project Aristotle, for one, defined work groups as those characterised by little interdependence. Conversely, teams were those who were “highly interdependent.”

People who feel little desire to work together are usually much more prone to putting their own interests above the team’s. This may not necessarily undermine the entire team, but it does limit the effectiveness of collaboration.


As the saying goes, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” For a team to do well and last long, they need to share a sense that they’re all in it together. Beyond knowing that each member has a vital role to play in achieving team success, the best teams are able to pull on individual strengths while remaining collectively in sync.

Without interdependence, this isn’t possible. Hence, here’s how to build interdependence in teams.

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1. Clarity of purpose & goals

Interdependence is predicated on the knowledge that one can achieve more as a team than one can on her own. It’s hard even to take a step towards this, though, if there’s too much abstraction in:

  • Why the team needed to come together in the first place
  • Who in the team is responsible for which tasks and roles


At the very least, it puts everyone on the same page in understanding precisely why there was a need for a collective team effort. In other words, if people know exactly what they’re striving for and why they have to team up together to get there, they’ll be more open to the kind of interdependence that fosters effective collaboration.

Conversely, if there’s little to no understanding of this, it’s much easier to slip into “work group” status instead of “team” status.

Additionally, having role clarity confers more benefits than just allowing people to know whom to approach for what. It enables them to understand that each member plays a vital role in moving the team forward.


2. Harness the power of cognitive diversity

It’s easy to default to thinking, “I’ll do it myself” when you don’t see the added benefits of collaboration. When you have a team that consists of introverts and extroverts, analytical and creative minds, and detail-oriented and big-picture thinkers, though, team efforts often produce much higher-quality output than single ones.


Tapping into and helping to unleash the full power of the team’s cognitive diversity is indispensable in cultivating interdependence. People need to know what each one of them can bring to the table before they can learn to depend on one another.

When a team is that cognitively diverse, they’ll come to understand that the combined power of each person’s unique strengths is far more effective than that of any one person’s. Thus, they’ll naturally start to rely and depend on each more intuitively and quickly than before, facilitating better collaboration.


3. Frame personal growth as a team effort

One of the most debilitating reasons why team members “check out” and only look out for themselves is that they see their personal growth as more important than that of the team’s.

Those who do this, however, tend to operate on the assumption that personal growth and team success are mutually exclusive, or even inversely related. Simply put, they incorrectly assume that the higher your thirst for personal success, the more collaborating will bog you down.


Even the most self-motivated and over-achieving people need help. For instance, according to psychologist Scott Geller, “community” is one of the elements of self-motivation; it takes a village. More tellingly, Wharton professor Adam Grant’s research has shown that those who put others’ interests above their own often enjoy greater career success.

Realising that you can achieve more by supporting others’ growth instead of just your own is essential in recognising the need for interdependence in team contexts.


4. Reward selflessness instead of self-serving behaviour

Effective collaboration must be supported by formal and informal norms that reward team-oriented behaviour instead of self-serving behaviour.

Unfortunately, traditional reward systems in the corporate world have primarily done the opposite; they encourage people to act in their own interests instead of that of the team’s. To quote Simon Sinek, “in business, we give bonuses to people who are willing to sacrifice others for themselves.”


The more you reward people for a particular behaviour, the more they will repeat it. Cultivating interdependent beliefs and acts in your team, then, requires that leaders put mechanisms in place to discourage self-serving behaviour and encourage selflessness.

For example, HubSpot’s “JEDI Award”–the Just Effing Do It Award–is awarded to employees who quietly act selflessly to keep moving the team and company forward.


5. Practice & cultivate empathy

Each team member is essential for the group’s success; when one person trips, it can bog down the entire team. Everyone needs to be engaged, invested, and fully utilised so that they can collaborate effectively.

To that end, cultivating empathy in teams is crucial in facilitating interdependence. If team members can’t see from one another’s perspectives, it’s challenging to achieve the kind of interpersonal understanding that underlies interdependence.


Effective leaders, though, don’t just stop at cultivating empathy in other people. They recognise that being an empathetic leader is as important, if not more important, than any other factor in facilitating interdependence. People often suffer from blind spots and cognitive biases that make it difficult for them to see eye-to-eye with others.

Leaders must develop strong personal relationships with team members so that they can help every one of them see how and why they need each other.


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