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Your team is one of your Reference Groups.

Your Team as a Reference Group

What psychology tells us to focus on, instead of Trust.

Patrick Heller
3 min readOct 13, 2021


When you read about creating great teams, a lot of stress is put on building trust between team members. Psychological research into Reference Groups, however, tells us otherwise. Find out where to start instead.

When we perceive other people’s views of us, we handle different views differently. We actively value one view over another and even try to manipulate other people’s views of us to try and influence our self-perception. Comparing ourselves to others is called social comparison and the group of people we compare ourselves against is called the reference group.

Our reference groups can differ a lot, depending on the social environment we find ourselves in. Thus, we feel different at work than at the sports club. Research has shown that we tend to focus on traits that set us apart from the rest of the group. When thinking about ourselves at work we might focus on being the only woman on the team or being the youngest team member, while at the sports club we might focus on being the slowest or the strongest. If you play sports in a women-only team, it doesn’t cross your mind that you’re a woman because the entire reference group is also female. Likewise, at work, it won’t cross your mind that you can type pretty fast since all your colleagues can do that as well.

It should come as no surprise that how we relate to a reference group has a big influence on our self-esteem. If you measure yourself against team members who are better at everything you are good at, your best guess will be no respect and perhaps little acceptance from the others. On the other hand, if your abilities generally align with the team and you stand out in a thing or two, then your best guess will be both acceptance and respect.

Since our achievements are influenced by our self-esteem, it’s quite possible someone performs terribly in one team and thrives in another. It’s important to notice that being better at everything than everyone else on your team will also impede the acceptance and liking part that partly forms the basis of your self-esteem, even though the respect part might still play a big role.

From my point of view as a coach who is often involved in team coaching, what I’ve described here about reference groups and self-esteem is not taken into account enough in organizations. When teams are formed, the usual first aspect to consider is the technical expertise, after which the coach, team lead, or Scrum Master are expected to work on the team building to make the teamwork.

Following the popular 2002 book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by American business consultant Patrick Lencioni, about how to create high-performance teams in an organization, much stress is put on building trust, seeking constructive yet critical dialogue, forming commitment, promoting responsibility, and focusing on team results. None of these steps is truly possible if the self-esteem of the team members is below par. For instance, Lencioni describes building trust by sharing personal stories. You will, however, not trust your team members with your inner feelings and most personal stories if you feel no acceptance, no respect, and no liking — in other words, if your self-esteem around this reference group is at an all-time low.

In my opinion, it would be wise to look at forming teams from a perspective of reference groups and self-esteem, especially since an increase in self-esteem has a direct effect on personal, and by extension, team performance.

If you are interested in psychology at work and want to go more in-depth, you can buy Essential Psychology for Modern Organizations from Amazon and other bookstores: