Is your “team” really a team…and does it matter?

I love teams and think that when they are working well, they are among the greatest personal and professional experiences that we can experience. Being part of a group of people that works together and relies on each other for collective success is challenging and rewarding stuff. This is true in lots of parts of our life – sport, family, friends and at work.

Stock image of people who are almost definitely not a team, but pretending to be.

Stock image of people who are almost definitely not a team, but pretending to be.

I am noticing, however, a potentially unhealthy obsession with teams at work. In their work on this, Katzenbach and Smith have been differentiating work groups from teams for about 25 years. If you adopt their approach, people who work together might be placed along a spectrum from:

  • Team (think elite sports or military teams that are measured purely collectively and are heavily reliant on each other); to

  • Work group (people who only happen to have the same line manager, but don’t need each other to get their individual jobs done)

Most groups fall somewhere in between and it can depend on the task at hand (i.e. sometimes they are more of a team and others more like a work group).

When I talk to people, I hear them say that neither a work group or a team is inherently better, it depends on what is required. This is what is said. I often observe an implied value in many parts of corporate culture that teams are, in fact, considered to be better than work groups.

Why does this matter? I think it leads to a lot of wasted effort. Effort spent on getting people to work together, create formal and informal connections, define their values, attend meetings and “team days” is wasted if it’s not what is required of those people, right? That’s not to say that work groups can’t benefit from being respectful and enjoying each other’s company or even having some agreed ways of interacting. It’s certainly not an excuse to be rude or unhelpful! The effort on team development, could be better invested in looking at role clarity and ways of maximising individual (rather than collective) contributions – particularly in aligning individuals’ strengths and values to that of the task at hand and the organisation as a whole.

So, what can you do? I suggest starting with a couple of questions and honest answers:

  1. What is it that this group of people can do better together than individually?

  2. What is the least “team development” that you could do and still foster a high level of individual engagement?

  3. What serves our purpose best – to be more of a work group or more of a team?

Look forward to hearing what you think,

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