What You Don’t Know About Teams May Be Hurting You

With the priority of organizational redesignbeing centered around creating elite teams—teams that are highly empowered, cross-functional and self-driven—one issue continues to arise, and that is the definition of what an elite team looks like.

As a team coach, I ask the question “what does an elite team look like to you?” and the answer is generally, “I don’t know.” I’ll then follow up with “what was the last great team you were a part of?”  The answer is shocking as it’s typically “high school.” If you need to think all the way back to high school to remember the last great team you were a part of, then there’s a fundamental problem with how teams are employed in the workforce.

The leaders and managers I coach today all struggle with teams simply because they were all raised–through no fault of their own–in an era of hierarchal rather than collaborative or systemic thinking. Whether they’re new to leading teams and don’t know where to begin or their team’s communication is stifling output, they all want to improve results by working together better but don’t know how because of the following misunderstandings:

Teambuilding is the same as team building.

No, it’s not. The former is about trust falls and ropes courses whereas the latter is about enhancing team capability through action learning and allowing leadership development to be the byproduct. What normally happens in companies is they dedicate a day or two a year to “teamwork” or “teambuilding” activities and then either (a) forget about the lessons learned (b) lack an implementation plan or (c) both. This is the same as dedicating one day a week to decision-making, or one day a month to communicating with other humans. If you want real results, you need to build the team in real time. One way to do this is by sharing your observations.

As a team coach, it’s my job to observe how a team produces work and help them understand how they’re “showing up” as individuals and as a team. Part of this entails how they meet, communicate and make decisions together. The fastest way to build the team in real time is to share what I see for them to explore together. For example, if the team is having a difficult time coming to a conclusion about a certain topic, I’ll ask, “what’s the decision-making process for this?” What this questions sparks are two realizations:

  1. They don’t have a decision-making processbecause if they did, it would alleviate a lot of emotional tension from navigating difficult issues.
  2. They’re not optimizing collective potential because decisions made without a decision-making process are six times less effective than those with a process.

Just the simple act of having such conversations is enough to build a real connection between members, foster greater belonging and build a new capability (i.e. decision-making) in the team.

People just need to “work together” more.

When you squeeze an orange you get orange juice. When you crush grapes you get grape juice. When you incentivize an individual, you get an individual–but what you don’t get is a team. I see this all the time in sales “teams” who call themselves a team but don’t act anything like a team should (sorry, salespeople). To be clear though, the problem isn’t that they’re selfish or ego-centric but how they’re set up for success. Namely, the environment in which they work (i.e. the company) encourages individualism over collectivism for one of two reasons: it’s how things have always worked or nobody knows how else to work and are afraid to ask. If you want people to work as a team, you need to incentivize them as a team.

Everything should be team-based.

As much as being part of an elite team has shaped my worldview on teams, not every problem requires a team-based solution. There are times when a group approach is better suited than a team and vice versa. What determines whether a group or team-approach is necessary is the task to be accomplished. Think of it this way. The goal of Sales Team A is to sell 100 widgets total amidst four salespeople. It doesn’t matter who sells what or how many just as long as all those widgets get sold. The person who sells the most gets the highest commission, the person who sells the least receives the lowest. Everybody keeps their jobs, they’re just rewarded differently.

Sales Team B needs to sell 100 widgets, too. However, if they don’t they’ll all be out of a job. That’s the difference between a group and a team: a team shares the same fate, a group does not. Ask yourself whether the task you’re trying to accomplish can be achieved through an aggregate of individual efforts or the input of collective efforts.

Teamwork shouldn’t be taken for granted. After all, when you belong to something you believe in, you’re engaged, and when you’re engaged you’re productive. Being part of an elite team was exactly what compelled me to push forward despite career chaos, just as it will drive employees to stay engaged and keep producing–or not.