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Most of us are members of a team or teams in the workplace. Teams and teamwork are vital in a world of collaborative effort. But what training have you had in setting up, guiding or being on a team? Not much, I suspect.

Team development specialist Simon Mac Rory says we assume that teamwork happens by magic.

“Label a group of people a team, stand back and, hey, presto you will have a high-performing team. Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said in an interview with author and business executive David (Skip) Prichard.

“If teamwork is so important, you would think that organizations would treat team performance as a strategic imperative, but most do not, preferring to muddle on with poorly performing teams and accepting mediocracy.”

Mr. Mac Rory says we assume most teams are high performing. But he says 40 per cent are actually dysfunctional and detrimental to the members’ experiences and lives. About 10 per cent actually are highly productive and 50 per cent are performing at best with small incremental results. Another misconception is that teamwork is fun. “Teamwork is not fun. Work is work and fun is fun,” he insists.

On that score, Northwestern University professor Leigh Thompson says teams are not cocktail parties – so don’t invite everyone to join. Trying to be overly inclusive leads to a team that is too large.

It’s better to consult in-house or external experts when their knowledge is needed rather than have them as full-time members. And don’t fall for the trap that, like in sports, it will need team chemistry to succeed.

“While building a team of like-minded individuals may create a safe and comfortable environment, it also elicits a narrower vision and less productive friction than a team that is diverse both in personality and function,” she writes on Kellogg Insight.

There are many different personalities and skills that can be brought to a team. A recent study of cognitive diversity found you need a delicate mix between verbalizers, who rely primarily on verbal analytical strategies when performing cognitive tasks, and visualizers, who rely primarily on imagery. You probably never thought of that aspect of diversity; I certainly hadn’t.

Another study of 8,184 Mount Everest expeditions between 1950 and 2013 provides some insights into balancing individualism and collectivism on teams, something else you may not have thought about.

One of the researchers, Stanford Graduate School of Business associate professor Lindred Leura Greer, explained to a university newsletter that some tasks, like reaching the summit, requires co-operation and success can be determined by the weakest link. Groups must jointly decide whether to proceed to the peak. So a collectivist mindset is vital.

But safety is different: Choosing the best route and knowing when to turn back require deference to an experienced leader, not negotiation among group members. So you need to know when collectivism is vital on your team and when individualism must supersede it. That’s easy to get wrong, and a source of potential tension.

In Teams Unleashed, consultants Phillip Sandahl and Alexis Phillips say coaching teams starts with the seemingly obvious principle that teams exist to produce results. “Teams that pay too much attention to individuals or team member relationships than they do to the mission can lose sight of the reason the team exists,” they warn. Yes, you still may focus on individuals or small groups within the team, but for the sake of results.

They also advise that a team is a living system, with many interdependent parts, not a well-oiled machine. Teams are messy and chaotic. At the same time, the consultants stress that people have a natural instinct for community and inclusion, and team members want to be part of a high-performing group.

“Much of the work we do as team coaches is to remove the barriers and create the supportive conditions so that individuals can fulfill this very human drive and teams can excel,” they say.

Their fourth principle – they admit it’s bold – is that the team has within itself the intelligence and creativity to excel. Let the team take initiative, collaborate and learn. Coaches must create a positive, encouraging atmosphere and see challenges along the way as opportunities for creative response rather than evidence the team is failing.

That’s more optimistic than Mr. Mac Rory’s declaration that 90 per cent of teams are dysfunctional or getting meagre results. As with all leadership, context will be crucial. But it does suggest you need to give the team the talent, diversity and size to succeed. You also need to be cautious about intervention, letting it work issues out by itself.


  • The foundation of opposites is the foundation of effective communication, argues advertising guru Roy H. Williams. A thing cannot exist without its opposite.
  • Consultant Shannon Mullen O’Keefe recommends a “Power of Two” award in your workplace to celebrate a pair of individuals who have partnered to achieve something bigger than themselves by each leveraging their own unique capabilities.
  • But if that celebrates co-operation, here’s something opposite to consider. Recent research found that using warm, communal words like “we” and “us” in codes of conduct seems to be linked to more rule breaking. It may be such words signal people won’t be severely punished for misconduct, the researchers speculate. Formal language seems safer.

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