Updated: March 18, 2022

Team Building Psychology: Ultimate Guide

You found our guide to team building psychology!

Team building psychology is a collection of theories regarding how people work together and the conditions necessary to build great teams. Using the science of teamwork, these theories can help you manage your employees and create a work environment where everyone thrives.

These psychological principles appear in many team building research studies and are similar to employee engagement theories.

This articles includes:

  • 12 psychological theories of team building
  • How to apply psychology to team building exercises

So, let’s get started!

12 Theories behind the psychology of team building

To start off our guide to team building psychology, we have compiled some psychological theories that provide insight on how people come together to make great teams.

1. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

One of the better known theories on this list, Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory that illustrates what human needs must be fulfilled for people to achieve their full potential. To reach the final stage of self-actualization, Maslow proposed that a person’s  basic needs must be satisfied before they can proceed to the next level.

Often rendered as a pyramid, the levels include:

  • Physiological needs: food, water, shelter
  • Safety needs: security, protection from harm
  • Belongingness and love needs: intimate relationships, friendships
  • Esteem needs: prestige, feelings of accomplishment
  • Self-actualization: achieving full potential, including creative endeavors

To apply Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to team building, leadership can consider whether the company meets employees’ basic requirements. Think about whether your team members have the tools needed to succeed, whether your company takes care of employees from a health perspective, and if your colleagues’ work receives proper recognition. When the company does not fulfill team members’ needs, you hold your employees back from doing their best work.

2. Clark’s Four Stages of Psychological Safety

Psychological safety refers to whether people feel secure enough to be themselves and act freely without fear of consequence. This idea is pivotal for cultivating a healthy and engaged workplace where employees feel respected and trusted to do their best work.

According to Timothy R. Clark’s framework, psychological safety has four stages:

  1. Inclusion safety: When people feel wanted and that their existence matters, usually formed through membership in a group.
  2. Learner safety: When people feel empowered to ask questions and make mistakes without retaliation.
  3. Contributor safety: When people feel able to participate and make a difference with their skills.
  4. Challenger safety: When people feel permitted to disagree and challenge the status quo without reprisal.

By creating a work environment where your team feels safe to be themselves, you lift barriers holding employees back, thereby empowering colleagues to experiment and reach their full potential.

3. Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory

Social psychologist Henri Tajfel studied how group membership provides people with self-esteem and a sense of social identity through the categorization of others as part of the in-group or out-group. Tajfel and Turner proposed that this decision is a three step process.

The three steps are:

  1. Social categorization: Classifying yourself or others based on certain factors, such as race, gender, nationality, etc.
  2. Social identification: Adopting the actions and characteristics of the categories you identify with.
  3. Social comparison: Contrasting your group with others and the effects these juxtapositions have on your self-esteem.

Tajfel’s social identity theory is relevant to team building because it helps leaders understand how to form a group identity for the team that everyone accepts. If you cultivate a team with a strong, inclusive identity, then you will see a boost in your employees’ self-efficacy, motivation, and engagement.

4. Beckhard’s GRPI Model

If you detect that your team is not functioning as cohesively as it should, then you can use the GRPI model to diagnose the issue. Developed by organizational theorist Dick Beckhard, the model is organized like a pyramid. To properly use this model, start at the top and move down each pyramid level to locate where your team’s problem lies.

The GRPI model consists of:

  • Goals: Are they clearly defined and is everyone committed to completing them?
  • Roles: Are job responsibilities explicitly delineated and do they cover all aspects of the project?
  • Processes: Are processes clear, effective, and understood by the entire team?
  • Interpersonal relationships: Are communication styles, trust, and relationships between team members working as they should?

While Beckhard’s model has its limitations, the GRPI is a useful tool to help managers think about the possible origins of team dysfunction. This information gives leaders a better understanding when enacting plans to improve team cooperation.

5. Belbin’s Team Roles

In 1981, Meredith Belbin proposed that every team needs to fulfill nine roles to be highly effective. Belbin’s theory does not necessarily mean that every team needs nine members. Instead, members often fill more than one role when operating as part of a team.

Belbin’s team roles are:

  1. Resource investigator: Seeks out ideas, resources, or connections to bring back to the team.
  2. Teamworker: Helps negotiate between team members so everyone works together more effectively.
  3. Co-ordinator: Delegates tasks and acts as the leader of the team to guide everyone to success.
  4. Plant: Comes up with innovative ideas by thinking outside the box.
  5. Monitor evaluator: Evaluates the pros and cons of ideas brought to the team and decides whether to implement them.
  6. Specialist: Has specialized knowledge in a particular field important to the team and uses that expertise to help the team.
  7. Shaper: Pushes the team to consider all possibilities and motivates everyone when the team starts becoming complacent.
  8. Implementer: Turns ideas into concrete action steps that the team can take to get the job done.
  9. Completer finisher: Acts as quality control to ensure that the project has no errors and is completed on time.

Being familiar with Belbin’s team roles helps management build powerhouse teams by considering the personalities and working styles of their employees. Conversely, knowing about these team roles also helps leadership identify gaps by spotting incomplete teams that may benefit from the addition of specialists.

6. Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development

Psychologist Bruce Tuckman’s theory regarding the stages of group development proposes that teams progress through a life cycle when working on projects. These stages provide insight on how people with disparate backgrounds come together and become a unified team.

Tuckman’s four stages of group development include:

  1. Forming: Where teams first coalesce and members are not familiar with each other yet. Most teams are excited about their upcoming task, but roles and responsibilities are not fully established yet.
  2. Storming: Where team members test the boundaries of their roles and how they work with others, resulting in conflict between colleagues or challenges to your authority.
  3. Norming: Where team members begin to trust each other and your leadership, and settle into their roles. In this stage, employees begin reaching out to each other for help and develop group loyalty.
  4. Performing: Where team members are working seamlessly to achieve common goals. Because structures and functions are established, leaders can focus on the bigger picture and cultivating members’ talents.

Tuckman’s stages of group development help leaders diagnose what phase their team is in, and determine what must be done to bring their team to a more stable state. In addition to these four stages, Tuckman later added an “adjourning” step to his theory, which is where projects end and teams break up. Adjourning often generates uncertainty in members and brings them back to the initial stage of acclimating to a new team, aka. forming.

7. Adair’s Three Circles Model

British academic John Adair uses three linked circles to model what leaders need to consider when guiding their teams. While the model may seem overly simplistic, Adair’s model reminds team leaders to consider their leadership in the macro. Also, the model teaches that leadership is a transferable skill and not inherently born in someone, as in the 19th century Great Man Theory.

These circles represent achieving the task, building the team, and developing the individual. The model links these three circles because these three ideas are reliant on each other. To help illustrate this idea, consider that a task needs individuals in a team to complete it. Similarly, a team needs individuals to work properly and a task to achieve a sense of purpose. Finally, individuals rely on tasks for a sense of momentum and teammates for a sense of community.

8. Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)

One of the most popular personality tests, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, assigns a four-letter character type that describes strengths and weaknesses. Through this assessment, you learn how you may act as a romantic partner, coworker, and parent.

Each letter of the MBTI stands for:

  • Extraversion (E) or Introversion (I)
  • Sensing (S) or Intuition (N)
  • Thinking (T) or Feeling (F)
  • Judging (J) or Perceiving (P)

The combination of these letters make up 16 personality types.

Since the MBTI characterizes people in terms of their workplace habits and possible career paths, having your team take the assessment can provide useful insight on what personalities work well together and how best to assemble your team.

Here is a list of free personality tests for teams.

9. Marston’s DiSC Model

When learning how to work well with others, it may be best to assess your team’s personalities and find an approach that suits everyone. Based on the work of famed psychologist and Wonder Woman creator, William Moulton Marston, the DiSC model uses a sliding scale between task v. people-oriented and moderate-fast-paced to describe people’s approaches to situations.

By observing where on the scale your colleagues lie, you can create a stronger team by augmenting your approach to match the rest of your team. For example, if you determine that you are more task-oriented and your coworkers value a people-oriented approach, you may want to adjust your working style so your team can work more seamlessly.

For more information on the DiSC Model, visit Everything DiSC.

10. Thomas–Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI)

The Thomas-Kilman conflict mode instrument measures people’s approaches when they are in disagreement. Similar to the DiSC model, Dr. Thomas and Dr. Kimann’s five methods of dealing with conflict are on a sliding scale between assertive v. unassertive and cooperative v. uncooperative.

These five methods are:

  • Competing: Assertive and uncooperative
  • Collaborating: Assertive and cooperative
  • Compromising: The middle ground between assertiveness and uncooperativeness
  • Avoiding: Unassertive and uncooperative
  • Accommodating: Unassertive and cooperative

Measuring conflict resolution methods lets teams recognize what approaches their members use and helps determine healthier measures to adopt when working out conflicts. Once members are aware of what methods they gravitate towards, your team can communicate more constructively when guiding the project towards the finish line.

11. Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team

In the book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, author Patrick Lencioni points out five different drawbacks that contribute to team failure. If teams cannot overcome these challenges, they will not be unable to work together to accomplish the task at hand.

These five dysfunctions include:

  1. Absence of trust
  2. Fear of conflict
  3. Lack of commitment
  4. Avoidance of accountability
  5. Inattention to results

Understanding Lencioni’s five dysfunctions lets management diagnose possible problems within teams as they occur. To help set their teams up for success, consider whether leaders can do anything to alleviate any of these symptoms before they lead to full team breakdown, which stalls company performance and productivity.

Check out The Five Dysfunctions of a Team on our list of team building books.

12. Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Emotions

Around 1998, Barbara Fredrickson developed the broaden and build theory of positive emotions, which posits that experiencing positive emotions leads to gaining skills and resources. However, experiencing negative emotions, such as fear or anger, leads to people exhibiting a more “narrow” set of behaviors centered around self-preservation and survival.

Fredrickson’s theory demonstrates the importance of positive experiences to your team. Not only should managers strive to create happy work environments, but they should also invest in team building activities. These events are fantastic opportunities for employees to gain skills and knowledge in low-pressure, fun contexts, while boosting morale and engagement.

If you work on a remote team, then consider scheduling virtual team building activities.

How to apply psychology to team building exercises

Now that you are familiar with the psychology behind team building, here are some activities that strengthen coworker bonds and keep your people happy and motivated.

5 Psychology games for team building

Our team members are great fans of psychology. Here is our collection of psychology-based games that apply theories in fun ways to help colleagues learn about each other. Even better, these games can also be played virtually by dispersed teams.

Here are more team building games for the office, and a list of online team building games.

1. Psychology Masks

Psychology Masks is a team building activity, where participants use art to explore the dichotomy of people’s inner and outer selves. First, order blank white masks for your team. Then, employees paint the outside of the masks with images that illustrate how the world sees them and the inside with images that depict how they see themselves.

The masks should reveal a lot about your colleagues, and start conversations where people feel comfortable speaking about themselves. After the masks are complete, you can also hang them up around the office as cool wall decor.

2. Desert Island Intelligences

You may have heard of Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, which proposes that people have a variety of skills and abilities, known as intelligences.

Gardner’s eight intelligences are:

  • Visual-spatial
  • Linguistic-verbal
  • Interpersonal
  • Intrapersonal
  • Logical-mathematical
  • Musical
  • Body-kinesthetic
  • Naturalistic

The premise of Desert Island Intelligences is that eight people, each symbolizing a different intelligence, are stranded on an island with limited resources. Your team’s job is to vote each person off the island, one by one, in order of descending importance to survival. Because this premise stokes debate, you are sure to learn a lot about your team members through their decisions.

3. Myers-Briggs Session

One of the most famous personality tests, the Myers-Briggs assessment, assigns a four-letter character type that reveals what you are like in relationships, the workplace, and as a parent. In a Myers-Briggs Session, your team completes the test and discusses the results.

Myers-Briggs Sessions are valuable because the dialogue these sessions initiate will help your team become stronger by spurring your team to talk about ways everyone can work better together. Your team members may also gain better self-awareness in the process.

4. Utilitarian Test

Utilitarianism is a theory that concerns the ethics of actions depending on their outcomes. In this game, your team takes on famous utilitarian questions, such as the trolley problem, fat man, transplant surgeon, and Heinz dilemma. Through their responses, colleagues challenge their reasoning skills and learn more about each other through how they would handle each situation.

To increase the competitiveness of this game, you can also play Utilitarian Test as a debate. Split your employees into two groups and have each argue for a different outcome. Since utilitarian questions have controversial solutions, your team is sure to erupt into lively debate.

For more information on utilitarian questions to try, check out these resources:

Or, try searching for “utilitarian tests.”

5. Strength Buddies/Weakness Partners

Similar to Myers Briggs Session, we based this psychology team building exercise on taking a personality assessment, CliftonStrengths. To get started, ask your team to take the test. Then, pair up members based on shared strengths and weaknesses.

Every week, your colleagues can meet up with or video call their strength buddies, and also their weakness partners to check in on each other and their progress. This setup creates accountability for your team as they continue to work on themselves.

6 Positive group activities for adults

Staying positive is also an important part of harnessing your psychology for good. Here is our assortment of positive group activities to galvanize your colleagues and improve engagement.

1. Mindfulness Mondays

For teams looking to focus their minds, Mindfulness Mondays consists of a weekly meditation exercise. Using apps, such as Calm or Headspace, your team tests out different meditations to monitor thoughts and relieve stress. By starting each week with this practice, your team elevates productivity by preparing mentally for the work week ahead.

2. Community Vision Murals

A combination of community murals and vision boards, Community Vision Murals are stretches of wall in your office which are painted with aspirational images symbolizing your company’s goals. Not only is the act of painting relaxing in and of itself, but decorating the walls with these murals helps with your team’s positive visualization of the future.

3. Positivity Tea Time

Sometimes, people need a reminder about the positive things in life. Positivity Tea Time is a group activity, where your team shares one positive experience while sipping on a cup of tea. By sharing together, your team grows closer as your positivity uplifts everyone’s moods. You can also send new teas to your team every week, so members try a new tea flavor together, too.

4. Virtual Spa Day

Self-care is a vital part of staying positive. Virtual Spa Day is a weekly activity, where your team explores a new aspect of self-care together. These activities are designed to take care of your team’s minds and bodies, thereby boosting employee motivation and performance. Best of all, Virtual Spa Day may dispel the notion that self-care is not for men by normalizing the practice for everyone.

Some stellar ideas for Virtual Spa Day include:

  • Meditation circles
  • Moisturizer workshops
  • Face mask workshops
  • Foot scrub workshops
  • Group mani pedis

5. Gratitude Round Robins

When teams work together for a long time, expressing gratitude for each other may fall by the wayside. Gratitude Round Robins aims to rectify this issue by setting aside time every week to remind each other why people are grateful for them.

To try this activity, everyone goes around in a circle and says one thing that they are grateful for for the person next to them. The best Gratitude Round Robins statements tie directly to the recipient’s work or skills, and are not superficial.

Some Gratitude Round Robins examples are:

  • “I’m grateful to Alex for teaching me how to use the copy machine. Now I know what to do when the machine runs out of toner.”
  • “I’m grateful to Sophia for her excellent Google Sheets skills. I didn’t know you could make drop down menus in Sheets.”
  • “I’m grateful to Owen for always being a positive role model in the office. His work ethic in completely 12 reports every day is truly amazing.”
  • “I’m grateful to Candice for always starting meetings on time. I know she respects my time when she does this.”

When your coworkers receive these statements, they feel that others in the organization truly acknowledged their efforts. Regularly scheduling these round robins keeps employees motivated and engaged.

6. Secret Compliments

In Secret Compliments, participants trade praise via anonymous Google Form submissions. Using a random team generator, pair employees up, and give everyone a deadline to submit their secret compliment. Then, gather your team, and read the compliments aloud. Because entries are anonymous, members can speak freely and build each other up.

Final Thoughts

Since psychology is the science of mind and behavior, social psychologists derive these theories from studies of human experience to help you understand how employee actions or ways of thinking affects the rest of the team. Leaders with knowledge of these theories benefit from the ability to work with human nature to enhance team performance and productivity.

The best team building efforts work best when fortified by psychological theory. With this guide, you can confidently use team building psychology to develop cohesiveness and happiness among employees and make a more healthy and powerful team.

Feel free to check out these lists of books on motivation and organizational behavior books for more advice.

FAQ: Team Building Psychology

Want to learn more about the psychology of team building? Here are some commonly asked questions about team psychology.

What is team building theory?

Team building theory constitutes the psychological mechanisms behind creating a well-balanced, highly effective team. These theories describe how to get employees to bond and form the backbone of the team building exercises and challenges on Teambuilding.com.

What is the main purpose of team building?

The main purpose of team building is to help employees get to know each other and develop friendships. These events get team members out of their comfort zone, so they can pick up new skills and learn better ways to collaborate in the workplace.

What are some benefits of team identity?

Some benefits of team identity are:

  • Heightened commitment to company goals
  • Increased trust and cooperation between team members
  • Seamless processes to get tasks done
  • Decreased conflicts among team members
  • Clear idea on team members’ working styles and conflict resolution methods
  • Elevated resilience to setbacks

Having a strong sense of team identity gives employees something concrete to buy into, resulting in a greater investment in achieving goals and the well-being of the team. Thus, having a team identity advances team performance and motivation.


What are some characteristics of highly effective teams?

Some characteristics of highly effective teams are:

  • Team members with fulfilled basic needs
  • Access to necessary resources
  • Workplace that provides psychological safety
  • Sense of community
  • Defined roles, goals, and processes
  • Ability to identity and overcome obstacles and conflict
  • Diversity of thought, personalities, and roles

Teams with these characteristics are more likely to succeed at accomplishing their goals without burning out. When building a team, keeping these characteristics in mind will help you create the ideal circumstances for happy and high performing teams.

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