How to Promote Teamwork

Teams and teamwork have been all the rage in organisations for decades. So much importance has been placed on them that nearly every job description mentions them as a central part of fulfilling the role. Even interviewers are fond of asking candidates for examples of how they exercised it in their current or previous jobs.

This approach hasn’t been limited to jobs that lent themselves to it. In positions where there is normally great independence, organisations still want employees to be, or to be seen to be, active members of a team in some capacity.

As it’s a foregone conclusion that nearly every employee will be part of one team or another, it’s perhaps surprising that it should even be necessary to devote an entire article to the topic, never mind how to promote it. Surely, it’s something that everyone wants to do, right?

The devil is in the details, as the saying goes. Clearly, everyone is not in a team role. In fact, many are not on teams at all. Instead, they’re part of a group. It’s just that some managers think it sounds more cool to refer to groups as teams, especially when it’s “my team”. Calling a group of people a team doesn’t make them so, but it gives those who refer to them as such a warm feeling.

The propensity to use one term to describe two distinct groups hides the fact that while all teams are groups, not all groups are teams.


Did you get that?

Teams have very specific characteristics that separate them from groups, and so before you can begin to understand how to promote teams, you have to make sure that you have one to start with.


What is a team?

What makes a group into a team, and at what point does a team cease to be so and become a group instead?

For better or worse, there’s no agreed upon definition, which may be another reason why so many managers erroneously refer to groups in their organisations as teams.

Principally, you have to look at how they function because a team will act as a unit in a way that a group never will.


Common purpose

One characteristic that separates teams from groups is their common purpose. A number of squadrons of pilots, for instance, may all be under the direction of a single Wing Commander, but collectively everyone is a member of a group; not a team. Those hundreds or even tens of pilots and navigators might be referred as a team because those aircrew are all committed to the mission of the Wing. But a common purpose by itself is insufficient to qualify a group of people as a team.
So although a team will share a common purpose that they do so doesn’t in and of itself mean that the group is a team.

You see, in those circumstances where people do work together towards a common end, the difference is in the nature of the relationship they share among them. A few hundred people will not share the same strength or depth in a relationship as the six or eight people in a team.


Team members are intimately familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of each other, and they’ve learned to work with and around them. They’ve developed an instinct for what each one will do, not to mention how one feels that simply isn’t present in a larger group. In fact, it’s likely that many of the people in this example wouldn’t even know one another.

That’s an important distinction. Team members know one another well and, as a result, are able to work together more effectively.

Another thing that separates teams from groups is how they’re rewarded or rated. Teams are always rated as an entity. Groups, on the other hand, celebrate individual stars.

Pilots, to carry on with the same example, who shoot down a certain number of enemy aircraft are considered aces. You might hear someone say that they had “this” many aces in their team, but you see that wouldn’t give credit to the team as a whole. That’s not to denigrate the skill of the pilots. It’s only to point out that it wasn’t a team effort beyond perhaps the assistance of another pilot. If there is a team, then it will consist of the pilot and his maintenance crew, because collectively this enables the pilot to hit his target. It could also be argued that in the dogfight, whatever other pilots lent a hand were momentarily part of a different team, but the entire Squadron, never mind the Wing was not.

These are perhaps the two biggest differences between a group and a team. Groups lack the intimate knowledge of how to work with individuals that teams have, and groups reward individuals, whereas teams don’t.


How to promote teamwork

Now that you know the difference, you can think about how to promote teamwork. And that, too, is an odd thing to consider. That’s because teams are recognized as such because they promote their mutual efforts. In other words, it’s what you’d expect to see. And anything less than that is what you’d expect to witness from a group.

Let’s suppose that you have a small group of people - probably no more than about eight - which you want to have function as a team. How would you do it? And by the way, the reason the number is so small - and no doubt you’ve seen this yourself - is that if it’s any bigger, then people tend to informally divide themselves into two or more smaller teams.

You’d start by preparing for it. You’d decide why certain people were to be on that team, and why others - even those who work with prospective members right now - would be excluded. You’d put certain structures, authority, and guarantees in place so that its members couldn’t be dragged off to work on things that were outside of the team’s remit.

You’d allocate certain resources to them to be used only for the things that they were tasked to do.

You’d make whatever preparations were necessary in order to preserve the team as a team.

Team promotion comes from increasing its effectiveness; from enabling it to do more of what it was formed to do in the first place.

Some think that simply having a clear sense of purpose is enough, but that assumes the mutual purpose means a mutual commitment to one another.

It doesn’t.

Think of the Second World War when the Old Soviet Union was an ally. The Allied Powers worked together in order to defeat a common enemy, but their motives were different, as was clearly seen when the War was over.

The worn-out acronym, TEAM - Together Everyone Achieves More - is only partially true. It assumes that those who are together also work together; but you can have a group of people who are together, but don’t work as if they are.

That’s an important difference.


Team effectiveness doesn’t necessarily depend on team efficiency. That may surprise you, too.

Efficiency is about process, whereas effectiveness is about outcome. The process needed to be the most effective may not be the most efficient: That is, it may take more resources to achieve the best end, where a more efficient process might be enough, but not quite as good.

You have to decide what’s most important. Just remember that teams have the freedom to do what works best for them, and what works best for them may not be the most efficient.


How do you select team members?

Team members are chosen, not just for their expertise, but also because of the relationship they have with others who are on it.

They also “play well together.” That is, there’s a natural chemistry in their personalities that makes it easy for them to cohere. While members may work independently for a time, their eyes are always on what others are doing, and how what they do will directly impact them.

When you choose the right team members, that also makes it unlikely that you’ll get slackers. This is a common complaint about teams. A few people do most of the work, and the others come along for the ride.

If that ever happens, then it’s because you put the wrong people on the team in the first place; either that, or you changed the rules midstream such that people see no reason to behave as team members.


When does a team become a group?

A team ceases to be one for many reasons. An obvious one is that they stop being treated like one.

How could that happen?

Remember the reward system? When you start rewarding people as individuals, then you can expect them to behave like a group, and that’s because collaboration and cooperation no longer brings the same rewards as it once did. If you can get the same or similar rewards working on your own, then why wouldn’t you. Now you’re competing with everyone else so that you’ll get noticed.

It’s worth remembering that you get the behavior that you reinforce, If you want to preserve and promote your team, then you must do all that you can to protect the fabric and foundation of it.


Change in the mission

Another way it could happen is if the mission - the purpose - of the team changes. Now it’s one thing for the team to make this decision, say for example if they worked well together and want to stay that way to work on a new project. It’s quite another, however, for you as the supervisor to change it for them. When the latter happens, the team may no longer have a reason to work together. It takes effort to coordinate your activities with others such that together you form a strong team. No one is going to do it if they don’t see a good reason to.

And that’s not all.

The team may no longer feel that all of the members are best suited for the new activity. Indeed, there may be some who themselves feel that they shouldn’t be there. It could be that they or their line manager agreed that they could set aside their other duties and temporarily work on this assignment.

The thing is that you must guard against any changes that will cause the team to fall apart. And that leads to the next thing which is that it’s easier to change a team into a group, than it is to make a group into a team, especially if that group was a team in the past.

You see, the members of a team are like strands in a rope. They are connected to one another on many levels. When you break those strands, you can’t just reattach them. That’s because of the emotion that’s part of the relationships they had. When you break up the team, to a large extent you also break up the nature of the relationships. When relationships are severed, trust is lost. And trust is fragile. It’s one of those things that can take a very long time to create, but once it has been lost, there may be no getting it back.

Remember that all teams are groups; but not all groups are teams. In order to promote teamwork, you must first make sure that you have a team.

No matter how cool it sounds to refer to a group as “my team,” you must resist the temptation to do so so that you don’t confuse anyone - least of all yourself. Because when you mistakenly refer to a group as a team, it’s easy to expect that group to produce results that only a team can give you.

And if you really do have a team, then you must treat it like one at all times. You must not even for a moment allow yourself to succumb to the temptations that a group offers, especially when it comes to individual rewards.


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