Are We Missing the Point by Calling Every Group a Team?

The word ‘team’ has come to be used almost automatically for groups ranging from two to thousands of members. In some cases, the ‘team members’ may never meet each other, much less work together.

It seems ‘team’ is being used to bestow the aura of performance and pride to any group. These are teams in name only, not based on the origins of teams in childhood games.

For children, a team signifies fun, playing together to win. Kids want to join teams, and becoming a member is not automatic. You have to ‘make’ the team at a certain point, and the team has a lot of winning spirit and a sense of identity.

It would seem that some organizations are trying to hitch a free ride on the positive connotations of the term team. They may seek to trump-up the spirit of employee involvement by referring to all associates as team members from the instant they join the organization to the moment they leave.

Is there any reason to believe that a group will perform any better as a result of being dubbed a team? Management may intend that the associates work as a team, but they will only be a team if they meet normal criteria for team membership:

  • They have to identify with the vision, norms, and goals of the team and want to join. It is not as simple as saying “you work here so you are now on the team.”
  • To work as a team, the goals of the team must be more important than individual goals, and the team wins because there is synergy among the members. “All for one and one for all,” vs. “every man for himself.” How apparent is this in your work environment?
  • Teams go through a development process of learning to function together through both winning and losing, everybody knows the score of how well the team is doing. In your work teams, does the team have any sense of how it is doing as a team? They may know the outcomes of their activities, like entering orders, but is there any sense of a team dynamic?
  • Successful teams have members who want to be on the team because it is fun. Are the participants of your work teams on the team because they want to be, or are they even given a choice? Would the team call itself a team if it weren’t required to do so?

The watered down use of the term team skips over all the standard elements of a real team:

  • Knowledge of and interaction with the other people on team
  • Identity resulting from having desired to be a member of the team and having been chosen to be a member
  • Pride in membership from having learned team norms
  • Participation based on choice

With regard to current state of teams and teamwork, organizations have several choices:

  • If they are using the word “team” as a proxy for engagement, they can continue to do so at the risk of never developing real teams
  • If the term “team” is being used for groups of people who do not really function as a team, such people who work alone, a more appropriate term can be substituted. In other words, “our broker professionals” instead of our “broker team.”
  • The organization can invest in the formation of real teams, which involves training, coaching, and rewarding team behavior.

If an organization wants to have real teams, it needs to decide what extra expectations it will have of a group once it becomes a real team. These expectations might include:

  • Autonomy or self direction. Would the team be expected to manage itself to achieve better results than if someone managed it?
  • Team-based compensation. Would the team be paid as a group to spur results?
  • Staffing. Would the team be expected to make staffing decisions to improve performance?

If an organization puts some thought into what they expect from teamwork and create a development process for teams, there should be a reasonable expectation that there will be a payback for their efforts.

Employees who are working on a real team will know the difference between an empty word and the real thing.

Bill Wade is a partner at Wade & Partners and a heavy-duty aftermarket veteran. He is the author of Aftermarket Innovations. He can be reached at


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