Why You Must Work on Your Inner Team Before Attempting Any Team Building

Why You Must Work on Your Inner Team Before Attempting Any Team Building

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Effective teams are the building block of any successful company. Optimizing teamwork involves creating an environment where individuals can collaborate seamlessly, maximize their strengths and overcome challenges. While this may sound straightforward, many obstacles get in the way, prompting organizations to run various teambuilding workshops focused on fun, communication and collaboration but which fail to achieve their intended aims.

To achieve significant and lasting improvement in teamwork, you must begin with the individual team members. Only then can team members’ interpersonal relationships and, in turn, team performance be optimized. This process begins with acknowledging the many teams within the team.

Related: Team-Building Tips: 8 Ways to Make Sure Every Employee Feels Included

The teams within the team

Just as our planet exists within a system of planets, our nation within a system of nations, our organization within a system of organizations, and our team exists within a system of teams, that is not the end of the story. Of course, our team is a system of individuals. Still, there is more.

Psychotherapist Dr. Richard C. Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems model reveals that we are a system of “parts,” each with a distinctive persona and role. The many members of our internal “team” can be classified as:

  1. Exiles who carry the pain of experienced traumas and hard times in isolation from other “members.” These are our inner loners, scapegoats, black sheep and truth tellers.
  2. Managers who keep the trains running by focusing on top performance and keeping the Exiles invisible or under control. These are our inner heroes, golden children, star performers, doers and caretakers.
  3. Firefighters who shut down difficult emotions and problems through distractions like changing the subject, overindulgence or violence. These are our inner mascots, clowns, partiers and loose cannons.

As with all teams, our inner team has a leader: the Self, ideally, an experienced and competent leader with a breadth and depth of perspective expressed through wise consideration of all the parts. When our inner team is not operating optimally, this Self can be drowned out and overruled by its members — particularly if they distrust the leader, believe the team is not being led competently, or detect danger. The result can include dysfunction (Exile rule), overperformance (Manager rule) and counterproductivity (Firefighter rule). Generally, when self-leadership is restored, the various members can be recognized, understood and integrated.

The problem is that most of us don’t know our inner teams — and still, more of us are unaware we even have inner teams. This puts us at risk for exhibiting behaviors mystifying to us and problematic for our teams.

Related: How Self-Leadership Can Help Move The Needle Forward On Your Vision And Goals

Getting to know the inner team

While our teams and organizations are not the places to conduct therapy, we still can gain awareness of our inner teams and how they affect our work. We even can have some fun doing so. The steps below help you develop an observer’s eye of yourself that provides insight and clarity that are more textured and multidimensional than you generally can get through personality tests and other instruments. The more relaxed and playful you can be, making sure you are not taking yourself too seriously, the more insights and benefits you will gain.

Meet your inner team members. Using guided meditation, freehand drawing or life mapping approaches, reflect on your work experiences while considering the archetypes of Exile, Manager, and Firefighter. Notice what events and personas come to mind as you adopt an observer role and flip through very happy times, stressful events and turning points as if they were in a photo album. Select one that seems particularly prominent based on the surface’s various images, memories and personas.

Now, meet your inner team member: What is this “member” like? How does the member show up: male, female, nonbinary? Animal, cartoon character, something else? What does this member look like? Do they have a backstory? What is their driving motivation or most important objective? How do they manage situations and other members? Repeat the exercise until you have identified three to five inner team members.

Notice when these members show up to work. Now that you understand some of your inner team members, you can begin to recognize when those parts have shown up in your work activities. For example, you may gain a new understanding of why and how you were able to close a particular sale everyone thought was impossible or why you shut down a specific project that had been producing valuable results but which you just couldn’t stomach.

Do inner teambuilding. Like all teams, our inner teams can benefit from more mutual understanding and collaboration among members. Fortunately, simply by identifying and understanding our inner team members, we make great strides in relaxing our Managers, defusing our Firefighters and accepting our Exiles.

Related: 6 Steps to Build a Strong Team

Introduce your inner teams. These exercises can also be applied at the group level, leading to a better understanding and performance of employees’ inner teams and the group. In one team I facilitated, “Mark” introduced two of his inner team members: Ed the Enforcer, a driven taskmaster and Wacky Wade, a fun-loving connector who shields people from conflict.

With much laughter, Mark’s colleagues recognized it was Ed who bizarrely commandeered the team’s float building for the annual fundraiser, and it was Wade’s off-the-wall comment that took a contentious team meeting on a complete left turn, derailing the tension … and team productivity along with it. The exercise helped the team bond and gave them a vast collection of inside jokes and shared language that fueled their continued work.


Our organizations need strong collaboration and teamwork more than ever before. But too often, we are not ready to do that because our inner teams must first be understood and optimized. Without such inside-out approaches, even the most innovative team-building efforts will fail. Let’s support our work teams by first making our inner teams work.

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