Beyond the buzzword: How to build team synergy

Julia Martins contributor headshotJulia MartinsJune 25th, 20215 min read
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Buzzwords get a bad rap—especially business buzzwords. From freemium to hyper local, these terms are used so often that they essentially lose all meaning. A quick Google search yields list upon list of “the top 100 worst business buzzwords”—and nearly all of the lists include synergy. 

Like so many other business buzzwords, synergy has been used so frequently that it doesn’t always pack the punch it used to. But every word has a purpose behind its creation—and synergy is no exception. In this article, we’ll dig into the true definition of synergy, and how to use this term—not as a buzzword—but as a driver for team growth and impact. 

What is synergy? 

Synergy is when two or more things—organizations, departments, or even teams—work together to produce something of value. This commonly misused buzzword takes inspiration from the Ancient Greek philosophy that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” In fact, the word synergy comes from the Latin synergia, which was derived from the Greek word, synergos. Synergos means “to work together” or “to collaborate.”

At its core, synergy is about helping you effectively connect, communicate, and collaborate with cross-functional partners. So why is this word so often ridiculed?

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Origins of the synergy buzzword

The concept of synergy in business achieved popularity in the 1990s, when corporate executives and investment bankers used corporate synergy to gain buy-in for proposed mergers and acquisitions (M&As). 

Corporate synergy describes the expected additional value companies achieve by merging. In other words, two companies working together under a merger or acquisition can produce more value than the sum of their individual effects. This is largely due to economies of scale. Larger, merged businesses not only support one another, but they also achieve cost reductions that ultimately lead to higher profitability.

Sometimes, corporate synergy doesn’t just describe the M&A process. It’s also used when a company cross-sells another company’s work, or lends team members for cross-business product development, for example. 

In practice, corporate synergy—and especially financial synergy, which is when two companies merge finances—is hard to achieve. Integrating two businesses and the entirety of what those businesses represent—including finances, employees, products, culture, and practices—takes a lot of time and effort. Without the right change management process, the M&A process can fall short of its intended benefits. This is called negative synergy. 

The hype for corporate synergy in relation to mergers and acquisitions—combined with the potential negative effects when combined action didn’t work out—contributed to the modern-day association with synergy as a buzzword. 

Read: What is change management? 6 steps to build a successful change management process

How synergy relates to teamwork

At its core, synergy describes a way to work together to produce great results. Though this term was co-opted by corporate executives, it doesn’t refer to mergers and acquisitions as a rule. After all, the term comes from ancient Greek and was used in practice as early as the 1600s.

Team synergy takes the idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts and applies it to teamwork. This positive synergy enables team members to be their full selves at work—with their unique life experiences, perspectives, talents, and communication styles. In fact, each individual’s unique perspective is exactly what enables a team to get their best work done. By leaning into each team member’s strengths—while also giving them opportunities to learn from one another—your team can achieve much more together than they would be able to do on their own. 

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The difference between diversity and synergy

Diversity describes how similar or different your team is. The more varied experiences, backgrounds, perspectives, and beliefs you have on your team, the more diverse your team is. 

But we know that simply valuing diversity isn’t enough. That’s where business initiatives like Diversity and Inclusion programs (D&I) come into play. Committing to a diverse team means doing the work to build a more equitable and inclusive environment.

Team synergy focuses on the "doing the work" part of diversity. In order to achieve team synergy, you can't just have a diverse team, you also need to empower collaboration and communication between team members in order to build something amazing together. When team members can be their full selves at work, they can unlock better collaboration and synergy.

Read: Asana’s approach to Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity

Building team synergy

The team synergy effect leads to effective teamwork and high-impact results across the team. But like all interpersonal skills, building team synergy takes time and effort. To build team synergy, try these three strategies:

1. Start with communication

The core of any strong working group is communication. This is especially true for diverse groups. The value of a diverse group comes from the differences of opinion and experiences that team members bring to the table—but team members need to feel comfortable expressing themselves in order to share those experiences. With effective workplace communication, team members can express themselves freely and accurately, and more effortlessly achieve synergy. 

To start building good workplace communication skills: 

  • Establish where your team should communicate, and about what. When team members understand where to communicate, the barrier to doing so is lower. If you haven’t already, set and share a communication plan with your entire team.

  • Prioritize two-way communication. Part of being a collaborative team member, especially in a diverse group, is listening to other people’s ideas instead of just trying to put your own ideas out there. To build these skills, encourage team members to practice active listening.

  • Differentiate between facts and stories. “Facts vs. stories” is a conscious leadership technique. “Facts” are observable details like who attended a meeting. A “story,” on the other hand, is your interpretation of the situation. By separating stories from facts, you can avoid acting on stories until you’re able to validate them.

Read: 12 tips to effective communication in the workplace

2. Foster trust and collaboration

In addition to knowing how to communicate effectively, team members also need to feel comfortable doing so. Make sure you’re making space for team members to bring their full selves to work by modeling team collaboration best practices

To foster collaboration:

  • Invite co-creation. A key part of team synergy is working on things together to produce something each individual wouldn’t be able to do on their own. To do this, don’t just tell team members to work together on a project. Instead, hold brainstorming sessions, invite discussion, and open the door to disagreement. Co-creation means building an idea together, not chipping away towards a goal separately.

  • Encourage open communication. Team members should feel comfortable saying what they feel, giving their opinion on projects, or disagreeing with other team members. We often treat disagreements like a bad thing, but healthy disagreement is actually key to good team collaboration. 

  • Lead by example. It takes time to build team collaboration—but the best way to get started is to model the behavior you want to see in your team. Make sure you’re always inviting co-creation and welcoming new opinions, and you’ll start to see your team do the same.

Read: 10 easy steps to boost team collaboration

3. Set group norms intentionally 

Group norms are the unspoken rules that guide how team members interact. Even if you don’t set group norms, they will naturally develop as your team works together. Left unchecked, group norms can lead to some bad practices that make team members uncomfortable and, ultimately, lead to bad group dynamics

But by proactively setting group norms, you make it easier for your team to collaborate. Bringing these “unspoken rules” out into the open reduces guesswork and uncertainty, so team members can spend less time worrying and more time getting their collaborative, high-impact work done.

To avoid that, proactively set group norms. For examples of how team leads set group norms, read our article on tips to create group norms for high-performance teams, with examples from 7 Asana managers

Bye, bye, buzzword

Synergy isn’t just the word of the day or a boring buzzword. With effective team synergy, you can empower a diverse team to work together effortlessly—and get their highest-impact work done. 

For more tips on how to enable great teamwork, read our article on 45 team building games to improve communication and camaraderie.

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