What is a team? It’s not as straightforward as you think

January 31, 2020

Does that sound like a daft question? Surely everyone knows what a team is. But actually, it’s not as straightforward as you might think. For example, a group of people working for the same boss is not necessarily team, no matter how much the manager talks about “my team”. A team is a group of people working towards a shared objective. There is a high degree of inter-dependence and a need to make joint decisions. Team members are likely to have complementary skills.

So what?

OK interesting idea but why does it matter? Because it makes a difference to how you work together, how often you need to meet and what you do in those meetings. Let’s look at some different types of team/not team:

Supportive colleagues

One of the first jobs I had as a psychologist was outplacement coaching for people who had been made redundant. I was part of a ‘team’ of consultants, each working with our own clients, reporting to a managing consultant. We were not a team; we had no shared objectives and no inter-dependence. That didn’t mean we were completely isolated from each other. We supported each other with tricky situations and used each other as sounding boards. We had occasional meetings where we shared best practice, tips and techniques and any trends we’d noticed and got updates about what was happening in the business or the market.

What we didn’t do was review our individual performance or progress. That was done on a 1:1 basis with the managing consultant. It wouldn’t have been a good use of our time to discuss how many clients we’d seen, whether they’d got jobs and so on. And frankly it was none of anyone’s business if I was behind with my paperwork or Joe had had some poor feedback.

Competing chiefs

On a bigger scale, the heads of business units, doing the same (or a very similar) thing in different geographic regions or different business sectors are also working in parallel, like the example above. Are they a team? It depends. In the worst case scenario, they actively compete. I once worked with a company where the guy who ran the business in Scotland would launch raiding parties across Hadrian’s wall, undercutting his colleague in the North of England to steal his clients. This is obviously the antithesis of teamwork. But even without this level of self-interested behaviour, business unit heads can (and may be encouraged to) compare their performance and attempt to out-do each other. ‘Team’ meetings in these circumstances seem almost pointless. What is there to discuss? People either hide or show off depending on how well they’re doing. While I can see some value in healthy competition, it doesn’t do much to generate the feeling that we’re all in it together.

Semi-autonomous leaders

There’s no reason why people working in parallel roles should become a team. I think people can work very effectively in a semi-autonomous way, provided they have an ongoing conversation about the limits of their autonomy. If you’re all doing similar things, when do you have to maintain a consistent line and when can you act autonomously? Can you pay your staff more if you’re in an area with a skills shortage? Can you use different technology? Do you offer customers different rates based on market conditions? What if the customer spans different regions?

There are no right answers to these questions but it saves a huge amount of hassle and resentment if you can get clarity around them. If you do make autonomous decisions be clear and transparent about the rationale for that, particularly if it’s likely to throw up issues of fairness. Team meetings in these circumstances are about identifying and responding to any kind of change – threats, opportunities, trends, diktats from on high. Can you do your own thing or act consistently? They’re also a useful place to share experience and learn from each other.

A joined up team

A group of business unit leaders could become a fully functioning team if they committed to a collective goal. When it’s everyone’s responsibility to attain the goal then there’s more incentive to help each other out, perhaps sharing resources when one area is struggling and identifying joint initiatives. Team meetings in these circumstances are proper discussion forums for reporting on progress, holding each other to account and collectively solving problems. But you need to ensure that everyone understands that you’re working that way. If some of you think you’re a joined up team and some think they’re working semi-autonomously – or, worse, actively competing with you – you’re not going to get very far.

The senior leadership team

The SLT is generally made up of the people who hold P&L responsibility plus the heads of the various support functions – HR, Finance, Marketing and so on. Clearly these people are inter-dependent – they can’t do their jobs without each other – and they have complementary skills. This should be the powerhouse that drives the organisation forward but often it isn’t. One reason for that is the lack of a shared goal. Another is a tendency to mistake themselves for semi-autonomous leaders, as though they are running independent entities and just need to compare notes once in a while. But the Finance dept, for example, is entirely pointless without the rest of the organisation.

Senior team meetings should be a place where progress against shared objectives is reviewed, future plans are agreed and problems are worked on collectively. Too often, though, these meetings either don’t happen at all or they consist of a series of tedious status updates where no one really knows why they’re being told this information. At worst, they’re a chance for the head of the organisation to tell someone off in front of their peers, who cringe wondering who’ll be next. This is often the legacy of a leader who has never created a team, instead managing people on a one-to-one basis, even when they’re all in the same room.

So team or not team – not as clear cut as it sounds and there is the added complexity that many people belong to more than one team. A Finance Director, for example, is likely to be part of the SLT and lead the finance team and could be part of a special project team as well. Next time, I’ll look at what makes a team work well together and what are the predictable things that make teams fail. In the meantime, if you’d like some help working out whether the group of people you work with is a team or should be a team or not, let me know: caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk


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