Spirit in High-Performing Teams and the Team Spirit Spiral

Whatever else high performance and excellence may be based on, they would seem to have something to do with the quality of spirit ….human Spirit, our Spirit, the Spirit of our organizations.
Harrison Owen


Many modern organizations have lost their spirit, even their interest in spirit. They operate with vision and value structures that only faintly stir the hearts and souls of their employees. When heart and soul are missing, workers may withdraw or compensate through compulsive, frenetic, obsessive, or addictive behaviors. These organizations merely keep up with current demands, providing meager service. They are often wounded and in pain, unable to foster authentic communication or to heal themselves. They are without spirit and without joy.

At the same time, organizations have perfected their technological prowess, their analytical capacities for making decisions and improving processes, and their form and structure. Great efficiencies have been realized, but at the same time organizations are numbed-out and glazed over. They have lost touch with their spirit.

The technological age has fostered in information explosion, with the amount of available information increasing at a staggering rate. We venerate and worship technology. But a certain emptiness pervades our organizations. The deeper meaning of our work has become remote and inaccessible. Our concept of who we are and what we can become has been lost with our spirit.

Ironically, it is the new science that teaches us about the vast unseen that operates below the level of form and structure (Wheatley, 1992). We know that atoms are manifestations of energy. Only recently has our thinking about teams and organizations acknowledged the energy, the spirit, that underlies high-performing teams and organizations.


Efforts to unite spirit and teams and organizations arise out of research on high-performing systems that identifies spirit as a key underlying consideration in great teams and organizations (Vail, 1989). High-performing organizations are calling forth an approach to work that stirs and touches the souls of those who make up the organization, generating unbounded enthusiasm for extraordinary service. The call is for individuals to go beyond themselves, so that the team's results are more than the sum of the individuals' potential. What is called for is relating and working together in a spirited way, so that teams inspire bolder and more imaginative responses to the challenges confronting organizations.

Exponential gains in organization effectiveness are possible when teams are infused with spirit. Despite the potency of this synergy of team and spirit, the notion is still incompletely understood by modern enterprises. Realizing the possibility of spirited, high-performing teams requires a shift in awareness, a shift in values, and a shift in the way teams work. This book provides, in Chapters 3 through 8, the tools, resources, learning activities, and interventions to nurture team spirit.


There is a growing appreciation of the concept that the seemingly opposite considerations of organization, science, and spirit are interdependent and mutually inclusive. The approach to team development described in these pages integrates thinking about spirit with current thought about team and organization development, as well as thinking about science. The synthesis that serves as the basis for the model of team development identified in these pages includes:

Organization: Contemporary thinking from the field of organizational development about how teams move through developmental phases and can be cultivated to work more effectively.

Science: Disciplined scientific investigation of life, from the smallest organism to the universe itself, that has revealed similar and identifiable evolutionary patterns.

Spirit: The urge to find meaning and purpose and the interconnections between human beings that are important to people around the world and across time.

These three areas may seem divergent, yet they share a common core. Each creates wholeness out of separateness; each offers a unique contribution to the process of bonding that must occur before a team can function at a high performance level.

The Team as a Series of Organizational Stages

Often, we think of a team as a thing created at a moment in time. Since the earliest moments of humankind, men and women gathered together in community to hunt, to harvest, and to prepare meals; these human endeavors served naturally to create teams. Consider also the possibility that teams not only are created, but also evolve.

In 1988, team development consultants Allan Drexler and David Sibbett expanded upon the groundbreaking research done by Jack Gibb in the early 1950s. They conceptualized a team development model called the "team performance system." Drexler and Sibbett suggested that all teams pass through stages of development. Each stage presents the team with particular concerns. For each stage, Drexler and Sibbett describe the behaviors that signal whether the concerns peculiar to that stage have been resolved. If such concerns are not resolved, the team is "stuck" at that stage, requiring resolution before it can move on to later stages.

Drexler and Sibbett facilitated team development based upon this model. Teams and organizations benefited from having a shared model and vocabulary from which they could understand the phases and stages of their development as a team. From Sibbett and Drexler, Building Team Spirit draws the idea that a team is something that evolves over time, with necessary phases that lead to team effectiveness. Building Team Spirit also acknowledges the importance of a shared model and vocabulary that teams can draw upon to understand and enhance their work together.

The Team as a Life-Giving Force Understood by Science

Living things are commonly at odds with themselves. As a simple example, we'd like to be on time for work but we'd like to sleep in. In 1992, Margaret Wheatley, drawing upon the work of general systems theorist Eric Jantsch, wrote about this disequilibrium (referred to as "dissonance" in the next chapter) that she affirmed as inherently life-giving and nurturing. The acceptance and resolution of dissonance, Wheatley argues, is the process that permits systems to regenerate and move to higher levels of awareness and effectiveness. Eric Jantsch calls this process "self-organization."

Every team is similar to a living organism. At every moment in time it has its own blend of forces, some consonant and some dissonant. Teams to not evolve by suppressing their dissonance; rather, they move to higher levels of effectiveness by understanding and embracing it.

From Margaret Wheatley, Building Team Spirit takes the idea that the disequilibrium within a team or organization provides an energy source capable of moving the organization to a higher level of awareness and effectiveness. It is this disequilibrium that we must learn to embrace. The value structure that undergirds team spirit, to be presented in Chapter 2, identifies dissonant, as well as consonant, factors that operate within the dynamics of a team.

The Team as an Expression of Human Spirit

Matthew Fox, a key investigator of spirit in work, integrates ideas from ancient traditions with more recent thinking about spirit (1994). Fox points to native and traditional peoples' capacity to recognize and celebrate "awe and wonder" as a group experience. Further, he emphasizes the cleansing force that comes from recognizing the darker, more difficult manifestations of the group experience.

We can be brought to vivid awareness of these two values through a process Fox calls "creation storytelling." Such storytelling grounds us in a history of how we arrived at our present, awakens within us awe and wonder at the fact of our being here, and permits the "letting go" that is the expression of the dissonant elements of the group experience. We will return to the importance of storytelling in Chapter 2. In addition, many of the learning activities that appear throughout this volume serve as vehicles for teams to tell their stories.

Fox says the path that the spirit takes "…is a path away from the superficial into the depths; away from the outer person into the inner person; away from the privatized and individualistic into the deeply communitarian." Through Matthew Fox, Building Team Spirit lays claim to the importance of transcendence, the team's capacity to share "awe and wonder" and the capacity for cleansing that lies within the group. Building Team Spirit explicitly identifies the importance of celebrating and forthright communication to team effectiveness.


Just as scientists have revealed atomic particles as the unseen but essential building blocks of the physical universe, the unseen but essential qualities (or phases) of team spirit can be identified and named. The defining characteristic of the high-performing team-the trait that makes a team more than the sum of its members-is this unseen but critical "spirit."

The elusive quality of spirit can be experienced through the learning activities used in Building Team Spirit. For example, with a little prompting team members will recall nearly-forgotten experiences of extraordinary teams, teams full of spirit, in which they have participated. They take great delight in doing this, creating greater consciousness about the possibility of team spirit. (See Appendix D, Characteristics of Spirited Teams, for an activity to facilitate this awareness of spirited, high-performing teams.)

The activities help team members understand that spirit is not separate from worldly affairs, nor is spirit some ephemeral or ambiguous state. It is at the core of our humanity, should we choose to notice and cultivate it. We can become more conscious of spirit in work.

Spirit is the committed exploration of personal meaning and purpose in life and work. It inspires us. It draws us beyond ourselves. When we go beyond ourselves, spirit and teams come together. Out of selflessness we give ourselves freely to important work, to the service of others, or to colleagues with whom we join in work. High-performing teams exhibit selflessness and a sense of spirit.

In moving beyond narrow self interest, beyond the individualism that permeates our culture, the possibility of extraordinary teams emerges. Spirit is at the core of this possibility, and team spirit is the desired end state.

While at some level spirit defies cognitive understanding, we can name the qualities of spirit operating in teams. Identifying these qualities can provide a common vocabulary for teams to talk about their work together. Consider the following six qualities that we characterize as "phases" of a spiral in Figure 1-1.

All teams, whether consciously or unconsciously move through and operate in all phases, linked by the critical sixth integrating component: Service. Each phase has its own unique contribution to make in realizing spirit in a team. These phases spiral together simultaneously and interdependently. Our experience shows that ordinary work groups can become spirited, high-performing teams by consciously attending to each of these phases. The learning activities provided in this volume support teams in recognizing the phases of the Spiral and thus engaging in the conscious development of spirited, high-performing teams. Building team spirit is a dynamic, evolving, organic process.

Chapter 2 explores the phases of the Team Spirit Spiral in more detail.

The core integrating phase of Service
Quality of spirit: The team experiences contribution and service to customers and to the team.
Letting Go phase
Quality of spirit: A sense of freedom and completion arises from being forthright and sharing with full integrity.
Celebrating phase
Quality of spirit: There is a presence of awe, wonder, and an appreciation for the contribution of the team and team members.
Claiming phase
Quality of spirit: The team experiences solidarity, single-minded purpose, and assurance about what needs to be accomplished.
Visioning phase
Quality of spirit: An extraordinary sense of possibility for what can be created is alive and present for the team.
Initiating phase
Quality of spirit: A profound sense of relationship exists, wherein team members feel belonging and trust in their work together.
Note: The qualities of spirit represented in the Spiral interact in complex ways, as they blend and fuse throughout the life of the team. For example, the Letting Go quality of spirit is ideally occurring in every phase of the team's' work together.

Figure 1-1. The Team Spirit Spiral