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How To Find Team Rigor

In education, the term academic rigor is used to describe teaching, schoolwork, learning, and educational expectations that are “academically, intellectually, and personally challenging.” Just think back to school where there were rigorous classes and not so rigorous classes (my college major comes to mind here). The rigorous classes were rigorous because they were demanding; they were thorough in their learning pathways and, as a result, challenged you to think at a higher level, with the finished product being a better version of yourself.

Rigor builds capacity because it challenges you intellectually, emotionally, and sometimes physically. Without rigor, the learning wouldn’t be as deep.

You also find the term rigor in “rigorous” training or workout routines that call for a 100 percent commitment in both time and effort to complete it.

Without rigor, the results wouldn’t be as fast or as effective.

The leadership lessons from the military that came out of after action reviews were only as good as they were rigorous. Anything short of a rigorous review wouldn’t improve how each operator made decisions or how or what we communicated as a team—which meant we’d show up on the battlefield less than what we were capable of showing up as.

Rigor is what moves the needle from ordinary to extraordinary, from looking at the surface to exploring below, and from good to great to bad ass.

Rigor is about thoroughness. It’s about challenging what you know, what you don’t know, and how you might bridge the gap in between the two to arrive at a conclusion you never even thought possible to begin with because…your thinking hasn’t been rigorous enough yet.

And just like in school where a rigorous curriculum allowed you to deeply learn not only the content but its application in other areas of life, there’s a rigor that accompanies teams, too.

How you show up with your team directly impacts not only how the team works and what it produces but also its value to the company.

A rigorous team is a thorough team; one that’s courageous enough to address the “human factor;” one that’s aware enough to question its own assumptions, and one that learns how it learns so it can adapt to change as a matter of its being—or its rigor.

If rigor requires a holistic, exhaustive effort that pushes you beyond what’s easy into uncharted territory to learn, grow, and develop, then what about team rigor?

Many business teams (at least, the ones I’ve seen) fall short of “team rigor." In fact, there’s anything but rigor in many of the teams I coach.

There’s also very little institutional knowledge about what teams are and what they are not—which means there can’t be any rigor. If there isn’t any rigor then there won’t be any growth (or very limited), and if your business team isn’t growing then it’s either:

A) not producing


B) producing at a level far below what it’s capable of producing


There’s a rigor that accompanies teams, too—a “thoroughness” about not only the work to be accomplished but what it means to be a team. I’m talking about things such as:

  • the identity that defines what the team’s about
  • the process your team uses to produce work and under what circumstances that process changes
  • the rotating role of leadership and when it’s okay to do so
  • how your team aligns with other teams within the company

Put it this way, if there’s an unscheduled yet expected meeting-after-the-meeting, your team needs more rigor.

If your team doesn’t know how to manage the gaps and personal tensions between members, it needs more rigor.

If your team doesn’t encourage contribution, fails to hear everybody’s ideas or doesn’t act on the good ones, it needs more rigor.

And if your team doesn’t understand the costs upon each member mentally, emotionally or upon the organization as a whole because the team isn’t showing up what it’s capable of showing up as, then—yup, you guessed it—it needs more rigor.

Here’s what typically happens in a team without rigor (I wish this were an all-inclusive list, but it isn’t):

  • Real conversations occur in the meeting after the meeting, because speaking up during the actual meeting would be heresy
  • The team calls itself a team but functions like a group of individuals
  • The team meets out of habit and never questions why the team exists in the first place
  • Leadership stays with one person—the same person—all the time, no matter the project
  • Decision making is a complete nightmare because there’s no clear decision-making process because members don’t know they should have one

Now, here’s what a team with rigor looks like:

  • The team improves in real time because candor is the expectation, not the exception
  • Team members pose difficult questions to the team to move it along because they care about 1) each other and 2) the team
  • There’s no such thing as a difficult conversation because everybody knows that any conversations that are had benefit the team

We push ourselves beyond our individual limits in order to get better at something. Team rigor works the same way.

So, how do you find team rigor? Glad you asked. 

How To Find Team Rigor

Align different levels of meaning.

Research shows that we learn best when we connect content with something we value; with something that resonates with us personally. In my book I told the story about how I hated history class in college--hated it! And you know what? I got tired of disliking it.

I found ways to connect the value of learning history to values that were important to me, which, in this case, was the personal achievement of doing so.

I'm very achievement motivated, so I reframed the dull perspective I had about how the Indians harvested fucking corn (which made me want to choke myself out at the time) to one that challenged me personally about remembering what I learned*. 

What changed was my identity from seeing myself as a person who disliked history to a person who was capable of learning anything, and that was the only identity shift I needed to make changes and crush history class.

If you want to align meaning, start with identity. Identity creates meaning, and when you find meaning you create momentum.

Apply lessons learned in other contexts.

The beauty of team rigor is that it applies no matter what industry or function you work in. If you're an emergency responder and your team rotates every shift or if you're part of an airline flight crew that changes every flight, you still need to be able to team across multiple contexts, and your degree of success will depend upon how much rigor you bring to the situation.

Think about the last great team you were a part of. What made it great? Did everybody get along? Was there a common cause everybody shared? Did the team share an "everybody wins" or an "everybody loses" mindset? My guess is that everybody on that team showed up with the same rigor as the person next to them, which was:

  • To show up as their best so they could do and be their best
  • To equip the team to do better than it did yesterday

And they only reason that team was successful--the only reason you recall that team as a "great team"--was because of how rigorous each member was in their contributions. 

Now, the question is, how “rigorous” are you when it comes to the people you work with? If you still have to think back to high school to remember that last "great team" you were a part of, perhaps it's time to add more rigor.

*Don't ask me anything about corn--I don't remember a damn thing. BUT, this little mental hack did get me through history class.

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