Think Leadership Ideas

Make the Most of Teams

Is your company vigorously promoting teams? Are you dreaming of transforming your group so it responds like a high-performance team every day? Proceed carefully.

Anyone who has been part of a high-performance team knows the exhilaration felt when everyone clicks and team efforts bring that major goal within reach. Truth is, a high-performance team has become the gold standard of people working at their best. Some companies promote ‘teams’ as the best working solution for everything they do.

But not all situations are best served by pushing people to work in teams. In fact, when misapplied, working as a team may hurt, rather than help, both individual performance and the bottom line.

Leaders need to understand what distinguishes a true team from other working groups – a high level of interdependency and mutual accountability. So when does it pay to have a group function as a team?

When goals cannot be advanced without collaborative work, as opposed to the sum of individual accomplishments;

When mutual accountability will produce better results than accountability to a single leader.

For example, a bank seeking to improve performance at its branches may do just as well with each branch manager working independently, rather than pulling all branch managers together to work as a team. On the other hand, a customer service project that seeks to shorten the loan process is more likely to benefit from a team approach, one that pulls together people from the entire process, from customer contact to back-office processing.

Bottom line: your organization is missing out if you haven’t tapped into the power of teams – but you are also missing peak performance if you try to structure everything you do in teams. Don’t put your team mode into overload!

Savvy leaders know groups have different ways of working effectively, and apply the right structure to the right opportunity.

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To Team or Not to Team:
Four Things Leaders Need to Know

1. Match group structures to company needs and culture

To make a good match, leaders need to cultivate a deep awareness of the organization’s culture, and need to fully understand the leadership dynamics of different working structures. New or small organizations that are used to making all decisions by consensus often need to learn how to let people work independently as the organization grows. Likewise, organizations operating in a more traditional hierarchical fashion may miss important opportunities for innovation unless management knows how and when to operate as a team.

Consider a sales group for a global widget company. The organization may be well served by each senior sales manager held accountable for their unit sales targets by a VP of sales – or may be equally well served by the managers working as a true team, with the team held accountable for global sales targets. Which is best? Congruence between the company objectives, how the product is sold and delivered, and the working norms of the organization is the key to whether an interdependent team or a leader-focused working group approach is the most effective.

2. Make your learning and development effort really count

Every group can benefit from development to improve communication, clarify roles, and align on a common goal. That being said, teambuilding efforts should be carefully designed to produce desired results and a return on investment of money, time, and effort – which as said previously requires knowing where your organization is and where it wants to go. Providing “trust building experiences” may be just what a team oriented workgroup needs to increase performance, but the same experience may be a wasted effort for a group where the work is the sum of individual efforts.

This may be especially true at top executive levels. A study of 500 senior credit union executives found that intense teambuilding improved both team performance and financial performance for executive teams that already operated as true teams. For credit unions where the executives worked in more independent functional roles, teambuilding improved team performance but actually detracted from financial performance! Improved teamwork doesn’t pay off when the important work of the organization is structured around individual goals.

If the organization wants to turn effective leader-driven groups into true teams, teambuilding would need to focus on both introducing interdependent work structures as well as improved interactions and trust between members.

3. Deal with bad apples - quickly

It’s difficult enough to maneuver around a dysfunctional, hostile, or ineffective individual – and managers struggle to hold such people accountable. When the work of the group is based on each individual achieving their objectives, the group can often still move forward. For true teams, however, ‘one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel.’ When work is highly interdependent the team can never perform well if someone is on board who either lacks a competency necessary to accomplish the work, or for whatever reason cannot establish trust with other team members. Leaders must ensure that every team member is competent, in a position to make a meaningful contribution, and can build effective relationships.

4. Remember that position matters

This issue surfaces time and time again when I facilitate meetings of high-level executives working with their direct reports. Regardless of how good working relationships may be, it’s a fact of life that people give deference to others who are in positions of power. The CEO or top executive in the unit casually mentions an idea, and immediately the group assumes it is an implied decision and takes steps to support the action. While this dynamic works against true teamwork, groups that perform well can acknowledge when it happens and take steps to mitigate its impact.

by Tom Stevens (c)2006
Tom Stevens helps individuals and organizations create brilliant futures and make a difference. To contact him, visit

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