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“Team-Building” depends on what the definition of “team” is . . .

Despite thousands of pages and posts, I hope there is room for yet another definition of what we mean when we talk about “teams.” After all, without agreement on what the thing is, it’s unlikely we’ll be successful in building it. Modesty fails to prevent me from offering my own definition as The Final Answer:

A team is a group of people who depend on each other to accomplish something they all care about.

The salient features of this definition are:

  1. The most obvious one: it’s people (more than just one) and they are associated in some evident or conscious way. (A no-brainer, but bear with me, because it leads to an important diagnostic question.)
  2. The members of the team depend on each other; there is not just mutual interest but true interdependence.
  3. There is something to be done, accomplished, achieved, or completed. Call it a purpose, a goal, or even a mission.
  4. The members of the team care about number three. They’re not just there for the fellowship, fun, or camaraderie–unless that’s explicitly all there is to number three for this group of people.

So your team is having trouble. You’d like to take action to improve the way they function or get along together. Perhaps you engage an internal or external facilitator to do “team-building.” Here’s how this definition might help you: before you spend time and money on trust-falls, group therapy, or motivational tote-bags, do some diagnosis.

First: Do the people you’re concerned about know they’re a team? Especially these days, when widely distributed teams are common, it’s fair to ask whether these people even know that each other exists. Just because they all report to you, have the same job title, are in the same cost center, or are all in Bangladesh does not make them a team.

Second: Do the members of the team require the active cooperation, support, involvement, or participation of each other? “Require” is the operative word. Can any member succeed without the others? If so, I question whether this is a team.

Third: Do the members of the team have a common purpose, goal, or mission that they can name and describe? My thesis is that a common goal of some kind in a sense creates the team–or, if you prefer, enables teaming. From this perspective, team is a verb rather than a noun. While there is no “I” in team, there is necessarily a “why.”

Fourth, and finally: Do the members of the team care about its purpose, mission, or goal? To what extent does each member have and demonstrate commitment?

Based on sound answers to these four questions, you may be ready for “team-building” in one or more of four forms:

If the problem is that the people on the team do not know they’re on a team, team-building means informing them of this fact. This is seldom “the problem” in team-building, so go on from here to the other three elements of this definition before you call the group together for introductions.

If the problem is that the members of the team don’t realize how interdependent they are, then team-building could take the form of exploring and reinforcing these interdependencies. This is different from just getting to know each other; it’s about fully realizing that members depend on each other for success.

If the problem is that the members of the team are fuzzy about why they are a team and/or what they are trying to accomplish, then team-building should consists of clarifying purpose, goals, and mission.

And finally, if the problem is that members do not care about or are not visibly committed to the team’s goals, then building that commitment is the challenge of team-building.

There are many tools and techniques for tackling any and all of these four challenges, widely available from good sources. The trick is to diagnose carefully before leaping into action.

I propose that issues of trust, personal disclosure, cheerleading, camaraderie, fellowship, and many or most issues of interpersonal conflict will take care of themselves if the manager and consultant work together on the four questions I pose as the fundamental elements of team-building.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Breaking down the components of a “team” in the way that you do is effective in assessing our assumptions about this term and deciding how to approach team building. I have seen similar definitions and like to include one additional element, which is mutual accountability. While similar to “depending” on each other, I believe accountability carries more weight and responsibility. In my experience this is difficult, but important, to strive for. Teams that believe they are empowered, committed and are expected to take initiative will succumb to indirect blame and criticism if they cannot look to each other with trust and confidence to deal with problems and make decisions. Without mutual accountability there is a tendency to make the team leader (or whatever term is used for this) responsible for leadership, driving motivation, steering the team, making course corrections, and addressing poor performers. The best teams will do this themselves with the recognition that the leader is a member of the team, but not the sole source of direction and action. If the leader both gets the credit when things go well and takes the blame from above when they don’t then you do not yet have a team.

    September 3, 2013

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