Leadership and team identification

Case studies

Leadership and team identification

Exploring the followers' perspective

Teamwork has always been critical to corporate performance, but arguably never more so than today. By Juliet Bourke - Consulting, Partner.

“Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work’ –
Vince Lombardi (American football player and coach)

The pace, scale and nature of change is almost overwhelming and demands superior team performance to stay ahead of the curve.

So, what does it take for a team to be potent in today’s environment? One emerging area of research points to team identification.

Australian Industry report, March 2014

“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships”―
Michael Jordan (American basketball player)

Much has been written about the importance of individual team members to a team’s performance, much less about the importance of a team to a team member. Recent research suggests that a focus on “team identification”, i.e. whether team members label and describe themselves as part of the team, and feel a deep sense of belonging to their team, is crucial for facilitating co-operation, overcoming dysfunctional processes, team performance, and job satisfaction. If this is true, then leaders need to know how to inspire team identification in their members. But where to look for ideas?

Traditionally, much attention has been given to the lesson learned from sports teams. An untapped reservoir of knowledge lies in military teams whose members trust one another with their safety. This insight led to a recent study by Dr. Hendrik Huettermann (University of St. Gallen, Switzerland), Dr. Sebastian Doering (University of Konstanz, Germany), and Professor Sabine Boerner (University of Konstanz, Germany) on the influence of leadership behaviors on UN peacekeeping team members’ identification with their work group. The findings help leaders identify which of their behaviors make a difference to followers.


The aim of the research was to set aside predefined ideas of leadership in the academic literature, and to take the team member’s point of view in understanding what leadership behaviors are relevant to their follower ship.


The research method comprised in-depth interviews with 63 members of seven UN peace building operation teams which were involved in providing security in post-conflict countries, reconstructing public administration, and the development of civil society. Each team comprised five to twelve experts and operated in Liberia and Haiti. Members were highly diverse in gender (35 males and 28 females), age, ethnicity, and education background.

Interviews were 30min to 2 hours long and began with questions about the member’s sense of belonging and attachment to the team followed by more specific questions (e.g. “What did the leader exactly do that caused you to feel greater belonging to the team?”). The answers to these questions were then analysed thematically. 


Huettermann, Doering and Boerner identified nine different leadership behaviours that lead to team identification, each of which can be categorised into four general dimensions:

1.  Providing guidance
2.  Encouraging involvement
3.  Role modelling
4.  Administering team work.

Nine leadership behaviors

These are the nine leadership behaviors in more detail, both what they mean theoretically and practical examples identified through the UN research:

1.  Clarifying team goals

Clarifying team functions and member roles can be facilitated by describing the work process, explaining the team’s relationship with others, outlining implementation strategies, and summarizing information in simple and concise terms.

2.  Highlighting team boundaries

Emphasising that members belong to one team creates a sense of exclusivity. Using symbols can be effective. For example, one UN leader provided the team members with business cards which used the same lettering and wording, thus distinguishing their team from others.

3.  Directing members

This relates to encouraging team-oriented behaviours in members. One leader demonstrated this by having members hold meetings on a rotational basis and involving personnel from other teams. This gave members increased ownership and visibility to the UN community.

4.  Listening to team

Actively listening to member’s ideas, thoughts, and concerns, taking up suggestions and asking members what they think about tasks or events is not only informative for team decisions but demonstrates care. One leader realised that members stopped turning up for weekly hotel team lunches and proactively engaged them – members felt hotel dining was too pricey and inappropriate. In response, the leader immediately replaced the lunches with time slots for exchanging of ideas before and after regular team meetings. Attendance greatly improved and members appreciated the change.

5.   Addressing and motivating

This involves proactively encouraging members’ involvement in the team. One leader had members contribute ideas to a problem outside their domain, and then guided them to create an action plan for senior leadership. This allowed their voice to be heard as one team.

6.  Leading by example

Exemplary conduct includes taking initiative, discussing team goals, and being personally invested in the team.

7.  Advocating for the team

Leaders can stand up for the team and represent it to senior leadership. One extreme example was a leader who set an ultimatum: she indicated that she would withdraw from her team if her team did not receive access to military facilities access (previously prohibited).

8.  Organising meetings

Preparation to operational coordination and follow up of meetings should be exemplary. One leader conducted prior meetings with individuals “one-on-one” to determine if there were issues members would like to discuss in the subsequent group meeting.

9.  Facilitating information flow

Leaders are important for briefing members about team-relevant issues. One leader served as an information channel between team members and others, which allowed both groups to synchronise their work schedules and activities.


Beyond outlining behaviors important for team identification, this research compels leaders to think about the team as “one unit” rather than just a team of individuals. Much leadership research suggests that teams benefit when leaders focus on lifting the performance and potential of each individual. This research suggests that leaders would also benefit from a focus on their behaviors which foster team identification. In a workplace which is more heavily reliant on high performing teams, this research points to the importance of a dual focus for leaders – i.e. on team members themselves as well as their role in creating a “tribe”. 

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