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Management Inside an organization, are you really playing on a “team”?

The word “team” is misused widely these days.

Everything is supposedly organized on teams, perhaps to encourage people to work co-operatively. Executive teams often exhibit anything but idealized team-like behaviours, fighting one another for power and dominance, unlike Abraham Lincoln’s celebrated “team of rivals” that often rowed in the same direction, as detailed in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 book of the same name. Committees are probably not teams. Many of us belong to several groups that are called teams and may not be.

Two notions heavily influence our approach to teams. One is drawn from sports, where we see people working in common cause toward victory, and draw lessons from that spectacle. The other is the team as family.

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I recently have seen arguments suggesting both notions are foolish, so let’s consider where they steer us wrong.

Simon Mac Rory, a team development specialist in London, compares teams with Britain’s football teams (soccer to us) on the Change This website. Professional football teams buy players with a very specific role in mind – perhaps striker, defender or goalkeeper – paying huge sums for the transfer fees involved and then also the players’ salaries. By contrast, at work most leaders inherit their team from their predecessors. The pay scale is considerably lower except for the occasional high-profile CEO.

A big difference is that professional teams spend the majority of their time planning and practising what they will do. Work teams are action-oriented, with little planning, practice or review time. There are calls for us to practise our work skills but it doesn’t fit as neatly as for sports and there is no set time to fit it in, like many sports teams’ daily practice.

Professional athletes at the highest levels have a coterie of experts supporting them, from psychologists and dieticians to specialists filming and analyzing their play. They travel in luxury. “They are mollycoddled,” he writes. “Work teams receive little support day-to-day. They can even find it hard to find a meeting room. Work teams are more likely treated with disdain and are certainly not mollycoddled.”

Professional teams have clear goals, such as winning the championship, and effective methods of assessing performance of team members. Goals for work teams are often more muddled – project teams perhaps an exception. It’s harder to evaluate the contribution of an individual to the team at work and performance management can be shoddy.

“If you want to persist in making comparisons between work teams and sports teams I recommend that you go to your local park on a Saturday morning and observe the ‘under nines’ football team in action," he concludes. "The chaos, the disorganization and the sight of 20 players chasing the ball at the same time in one corner of the field is far more representative of a work team than any professional team comparison. Stop using sports analogies. They make no sense.”

But at least teams are families, right? They have each other’s back and the bonds help to motivate them. I have certainly felt such ties at the office and have had periods where I spent more time with my work family than my family family.

But consultant David Dye throws out three problems with such family rhetoric on the Let’s Grow Leaders blog. The first is that family means very different things to people, depending on their backgrounds. For some it’s a safe place where you are accepted even if you mess up. But in other cases families may be highly dysfunctional and the thought of them prompts stress. So the mutual expectations you anticipate from team members when you use the family comparison may be self-deception.

Practically, he adds, teams are not a family – you may fire employees for poor performance but don’t usually fire brothers and sisters. Moreover, talking about family can trip you up if it’s a small company that now intends to grow. “Team members who enjoyed the casual environment and lack of structure start to complain when you introduce role clarity, define MITs [most important tasks], and increase accountability,” he writes. People will moan, “We used to be family but now we’re so corporate.”

Words and metaphors are important. At one level, these can be positive. From sports teams I learned about helping others, fitting in, doing my role, understanding my limits. From families, accepting others. But the arguments I have shared remind us to be careful about the rhetoric and mythology surrounding teams, and addressing some of the issues raised, such as the need to provide more support for the teams in our office and recruit for them with the care of a sports draft.

Cannonballs

  • Political parties are another example of teams. They often seem to thrive as much by what they are fighting against as fighting for. Divisions such as seen recently in the Canadian and British cabinets are rare, a reminder of the power behind the notion of cabinet solidarity – sticking together and supporting one another publicly. Could your teams benefit from such a tradition?
  • Rock bands are also an example of teams. The Tragically Hip had a surprising durability that seemed to flow from respect for each other.
  • Author Ian Leslie, looking at The Rolling Stones, says the band benefited by dividing its responsibilities although tension flared when Mick Jagger called Charlie Watts “my drummer,” implying he was subordinate to the flamboyant lead singer. Mr. Leslie also stresses they weren’t afraid to fight, not letting disagreements fester beneath the surface.

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