Sticky teams – how to build a team that people just won’t want to leave

The context – an applicant’s market and talent-hungry employers

What we’re noticing right now is that employers are having to work harder than ever to satisfy and retain their people. It’s mainly post-pandemic busy-ness fever that seems to be driving it and who knows how long that will last. But whatever the economic and employment situation wherever and whenever you are reading this, there’s always value in knowing how to create a sticky team.

What’s a sticky team, you ask?  Well, it’s a team that people just won’t want to leave.  And as teams are the groups who we interact with the most, potentially identify with the most and almost certainly within which we have the closest working relationships, it’s hard to overestimate their importance in affecting people’s sense of engagement, belonging and the likelihood of staying with their employer.

So how then to create a sticky team that people won’t want to leave? I have 4 tips for you to do that and for each I’ll present the research, the idea and then a practical way of bringing it to life.

Magnet 1: People want to belong…how to build a culture of inclusion and belonging

According to a study by Carr, Reece, Kellerman and Robichaux (2019):, If workers feel like they belong, companies see bottom-line benefits. In their study, high belonging was linked to a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days.

On the other hand, their research found that feeling excluded from their team led to them adopting team sabotage behaviours. While that sounds a bit dark, actually it just means that that team members who felt that they weren’t included and didn’t belong were much less likely to put effort into the team.

None of this is a surprise – humans are hard-wired for connection and belonging. From an evolutionary point of view, this was a safety and survival mechanism. You know, we even have a hormonal behavioural reinforcer – oxytocin – that’s released when we connect and when we feel we belong.

And yet feeling ‘othered’ is a topic that is rightly becoming hotter and hotter, so teams and team leaders need to work hard to ensure that they are nurturing a psychologically safe team, where people can be themselves and feel that they belong, rather than needing to ‘fit in’ by behaving in inauthentic ways that can make them feel unsafe.  For more on creating psychological safety, check out my podcast at Season 12, episode 6: What is psychological safety and how can you get it?

That’s magnet number 1 for creating a sticky team: build a team culture of inclusion and belonging.

Magnet 2: Show appreciation…and it doesn’t need to cost!

In a 2012 study by the American Psychological Association (, the researchers found that 90% of employees who feel valued at work are more motivated to do their best, compared to 33% of employees who don’t feel valued. The study also showed that 50% of employees who feel underappreciated intend to search for a new job within the year, compared with 21% who do feel valued.

So this is magnet 2 in creating a sticky team. Be sure to value and appreciate hard work, effort and contribution to the team’s goals. That can come from colleagues but most likely, it will come from the team leader who needs to be vigilant for reinforceable examples of good work and where team members are role modelling team values, so that these examples can be privately and publicly noticed and appreciated.

Where to appreciate and recognise? Team meetings, town halls, monthly employee recognition schemes are all good places to show appreciation for the work of individual team members and for the efforts of the team as a whole.  And none of that costs money.

Reinforcing the reinforcement with cash recognition is another valuable tool, but it doesn’t always and only need to be about cash. Appreciative words – when they’re specific and genuine – have been shown to make a big difference to the chances of someone staying in a team and going the extra mile.

Magnet 3: Focus on people’s strengths so that they can bring these to the team every day

An extensive Gallup study from 2019 showed a link between the strengths approach and engagement and productivity – This study showed that strength-based work practices in organisations lead to:

  • 10-19% increased sales
  • 14-29% increased profit
  • 3-7% higher customer engagement
  • 9-15% increase in engaged employees.

So that’s why magnet no 3 is to focus on people’s strengths. There’s also a backlink here to creating a feeling of inclusion and to valuing and recognising people (our magnets 1 and 2). You can do both of these things through strengths. When you know the unique strengths that a colleague brings to a team, telling them that you really appreciate those qualities and the value and benefit they bring to the team helps to create that sense of being ‘seen’ as a unique, authentic human and being appreciated for that too.

So my practical tip here is to make sure that everyone in the team has a common language for strengths. What I mean by that is to use some kind of established framework or model (Strengthscope, Strengthsfinder, VIA or another) that enables people to call each other out for demonstrating their strengths and so that they can ask for help and support in areas which play to other colleagues’ strengths.

Magnet 4: Adopt human-centred working practices to create sticky organisations

Going a little bit beyond teams here into creating sticky organisations, a recent piece of research out of MIT Sloan (Sull, Sull and Zweig, 2022) –  on toxic cultures as a major determinant of high resignation levels identified several factors that were seen to drive higher retention levels. Here are their top 3:

  1. Lateral career opportunities – this was seen as 2.5x more important than what you get paid as a reason to stick with your organisation. It’s not about promotion, it’s about new challenges that involve a sideways move. This may or may not be within your current team, but it highlights the importance today for employees of being able to see opportunities to stretch and grow, in ways other than only being promoted to the next logical level on the career ladder.
  2. Flexible working that works – 50% more important than what you’re paid in predicting whether you’ll stay or not is to make sure that the flexible or hybrid working policies you have make you at least as sticky as other employers in your space. If others offer full flex while you’re offering part, it’s likely that pretty soon, you won’t be seen as being as attractive as your competitors. So consult with your team, find out what works for them, and implement the most attractive scheme you can, asking for feedback as you go.
  3. Social events – we talked earlier about the importance of belonging to team health and social events are seen as increasingly important in our post-pandemic working world. Indeed, the availability of social team events is 30% more important than someone’s pay package as a reason to stay. So quiz events, team days, lunches, dinners, whatever kind of get together you can manage with whatever budget you have – these events will be seen as markers of appreciation and drivers of belonging, two of our stickiness factors, so be sure to have them covered.

In conclusion – magnets don’t need to cost money and they make a real business difference

Those are my four magnets for driving team stickiness and creating a team that people just won’t want to leave. As a reminder, they are:

  1. Build a culture of inclusion and belonging
  2. Show appreciation, regularly and from the heart
  3. Focus on people’s strengths so that the whole team benefit
  4. Adopt human-centred work practices wherever you can.

As a final word, do look out for my upcoming podcast and blog on team onboarding that’s coming in a few weeks’ time for some extra thoughts on this topic as that’s an area which can have significant additional impact on team stickiness…and in most teams, it’s just not given enough (if any) attention.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this blog. If you have and/or if you want more, please head to for more content just like this…more tools, tips and thoughts on issues facing teams today. Go to the resources section and have a rummage around there, there’s lots to find. Till next time, stay strong.