Building Fearless Teams

Building Fearless Teams

Teamwork is at the heart of productivity and culture and is critical to successful collaboration.
Akin Belo
October 8, 2023

An Overview of Teamwork

At the simplest level, a team is a group of people who come together around a common goal and share responsibility for achieving the goal. Teamwork is at the heart of productivity and culture and is critical to successful collaboration. A strong team culture helps us achieve results, take care of each other, and build resilience under stress. In other words, an effective team culture addresses both the task and human side of the equation in balance. The best teams go beyond the normal level of teamwork and intentionally build a strong team culture around their work. They focus on communicating, building trust, and managing conflict and minimize the fallout from challenging emotional experiences under pressure. When team members are fully engaged and committed, they can achieve maximum results and sustain their impact over time.

How Teams Grow and Evolve

Decades of research has shown that teams move through a series of critical stages as they develop (see Figure 1). Teams start in the “activate” phase where goals and accountability are defined and team members get aligned around a common goal. They then move to “regulate” where they learn to build trust, resolve conflicts, and support each other. After “regulate”, the team moves to “perform” where they work together to get things done and support each other. Ultimately, the best teams reach the “adapt” level where they are able to keep producing even when they experience roadblocks or challenges. In other words, they become resilient and sustain their best work in spite of stress and pressure.

Figure 1. Team Performance Curve

Some teams form strong relationships and move up the curve quickly. Some teams fail to develop a supportive culture and stall in the early phases and get consumed by debates, arguments, and differences of opinion about how work should be handled. They simply can’t get past their differences to support and trust each other enough to collaborate. In other words, they are stalled because of an inability to handle emotional challenges that come with the work. As Figure 2 indicates, this emotional layer of teamwork surfaces when the team is formed and is in the background as the team begins to deliver on its goals and move up the curve.

Figure 2. Emotional Layer in Team Performance

Once a team reaches high performance, there is no guarantee that it will stay there. If the team experiences stress and can’t manage it, they may fall back on the curve to earlier stages and have to work their way up again. Typical team decelerators include changes in leaders or team members, budget reductions, customer crises, and project failures. Teams that build strong cultures while they do their work, have the skills and support to make it through challenging times without dropping back to the regulate stage and having to work their way up the curve again.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the behaviors needed from team members to move up the curve to high performance. Some team accelerators are shown by stage in Figure 3. When a team is first “activated”, it is important to set up a structure to do the work, but also critical to build relationships and get to know each other. Once the team is working, it will experience challenges and conflicts, and members need to show trust and manage emotions to avoid damaging relationships. As the team begins to “perform”, members will need to continue to provide support and trust to grow the culture while the work gets done and challenges emerge. Once the team is producing, it will experience stress and crises and need to work through them to be resilient enough to move up to the highest level and “adapt”.

Figure 3. Team Accelerators

In a high performing team, all team members are aware of the team’s current stage and contribute by supporting these accelerators. For example, in one team I coached, the team was accountable for managing a customer relationship improvement project. The team was made up of individual members from different parts of their organization including operations, finance, and marketing. The marketing and operations members got into conflict frequently because they did not agree on how customer relationships should be managed. The operations members were very practical and results-oriented and felt that the members from marketing were too sensitive to customer requests and were demanding too much from operations to change processes and “respond instantly” to customer requests. The marketing members felt that operations people were too insensitive and creating disappointment for customers because they could not shift their approaches when needed. Marketing feared that the company could not keep up with competitors who were more agile. When the team tried to identify how to manage customer relationships, this difference came up over and over and led to a stalemate.

In effect, the team was stalled in the regulate phase and could not perform the work they had been asked to do. The team leader asked for coaching to address this issue and set up a team process to develop ways of getting past this blocker. I set up a meeting with the representatives of marketing and operations and asked them to describe their interests (i.e., what were they trying to achieve by taking the opposing positions). Marketing indicated that they wanted to offer clients something that would help them sell products and could not match up with competitors. Operations indicated that they were short staffed and could not respond as quickly as marketing wanted. Both ended up going to management to ask for increased staffing in operations and eventually solved the problem. Unfortunately, the emotional effects of the conflict had created a situation where they could not talk about options without getting upset and shutting down. As a coach, I helped them regulate emotions as they talked through options, and they eventually came to a common solution. This team and others can get to perform only if they are able to manage the emotions that come with diversity of options and differences in viewpoints.

What Do We Mean by “Fearless Teams”?

We have reviewed multiple accelerators of high performance teamwork (as shown in Figure 3), but research has shown that psychological safety is more important than any other to high performance teamwork. Psychological safety occurs when team members can express their concerns and be heard by the team without fearing criticism or negative reactions from others. Under this safety net, they feel comfortable asking questions, asking for help, giving critical feedback, contradicting others, and even proposing wild ideas. When the team creates a safe culture, members feel calm and regulated and can do their best thinking even under stress and time pressure. This environment leads to high quality thinking, decision making, and problem solving and moves teams to high performance very quickly when ideas can flow freely without people worrying about being judged. Unfortunately, many teams create unsafe environments in the course of doing their work. Figure 4 shows some common signs of low psychological safety.

Figure 4. Signs of Low Psychological Safety

These signals can help team members identify and correct low psychological safety. In one team I worked with, they posted these 10 signals and stopped at the midpoint of each meeting and asked, “how are we doing”. Another team created a mini-survey from these items and asked team members to anonymously rate how the team was doing. They then discussed those that were identified as problems and talked about how they might counteract them. Psychological safety is an ongoing challenge. It can be weakened by simple things like having one or two people dominate the team discussion or when people who are offering a different opinion are interrupted by others who support another position. Building team awareness of the need for psychological safety and how to make sure it is happening is a key factor in moving up the team performance curve. Some common strategies for increasing psychological safety are shown in Figure 5. These came from teams that have dedicated themselves to monitoring team support and openness and taking accountability for making the team culture safe.

Figure 5. Strategies for Increasing Psychological Safety


The best teams make teamwork an explicit and intentional goal and work process. They monitor the quality of teamwork and take steps to improve it while they complete the tasks of the team. Intentional focus on teamwork is easier when the team uses a model like the Team Performance Curve to track progress on a regular basis to identify where improvement is needed. If the team focuses only on the work to be done and does not address how the team is doing while completing the work, things can easily go off the rails and leave the team stalled at a low performance level.

For more information on how Kintla can help you build fearless teams, contact

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