Team: Misunderstood and Overused

We are a team. We need to work as a team. Get with the team. We need to build teams. Everywhere I go it isn’t long before I hear the word team used in reference to the work of organizations. We have leadership teams, management teams, work teams, departmental teams, as well as many more designations for teams. What do these labels mean? Do the labels help or hinder the work of the people in the organization?

In a recent experience with a “team” with which I have been working, the light bulb went off for me. Individuals in the group call the group a team. They meet on a regular basis and have lengthy discussions on a variety of topics which do relate to work. The bulk of the discussions seem to be related to reports about activities and periodic debates about situations. From my limited experience with this group, there appear to be few, and far between, decisions made by the group. Perhaps the group is not a team.

As I reflect upon this experience and others that have been very similar, I think about the importance of understanding the concept of a team and the importance of knowing and understanding the purpose of a team. I see several groups of individuals talking about being a team with little true understanding of a team. It’s almost like being a team is the latest thing to do or be. Someone said we should be a team and, therefore, that is what we are.

However, there is a huge difference between being a team and being a group of individuals who interact. Groups of individuals assemble to complete a task, to address an issue, to plan an event, to share information, to communicate, or any number of reasons. This does not make them a team. In many of these situations the members of the group act independently and work toward their individual goals. Many times these groups are not together long enough for the individuals to create close bonds.

To be a team the group of individuals must be very clear about their purpose and share common goals to fulfill that purpose. Their individual goals become secondary in priority to the team’s goals and are designed or redesigned to align with the team goals. The members of a team demonstrate a certain level of trust and commitment to one another, working interdependently with other team members.

The work that is needed to help the individuals become a team includes developing working agreements about how to interact as a team and to identify expectations of individual behaviors. There needs to be a clear and, agreed upon by all members of the team, purpose for the team. As a part of developing the working agreements, roles and functions of individual team members are identified. By knowing these expectations of the team members, it then becomes possible for the team members to hold each other accountable for their actions.  Teams have action plans that drive the team and provide timelines for achievement of outcomes.

Without these aspects of a team, the group is just that; a group of individuals who come together periodically to accomplish something, as mentioned above. When you think of the groups you are a part of, can you clearly identify a common and agreed upon purpose with clear goals and expectations of individuals for accomplishing those goals? If not, perhaps it is not a team. And perhaps it doesn’t need to be a team. Not every group can or should be a team.

When working with a group we need to have a better understanding of what the group is trying to accomplish and then we can decide if it needs to be a team or not. Then we can possibly stop calling every group a team, leaving that term for the actual groups who function as a team. Perhaps then we will have a better understanding of what a team is and when we should use the term.

Until next time, think of the groups you belong to and decide which groups are teams and which are groups. Challenge your groups to either become a team, if needed, or to stop referring to it as a team, if it is not one.