“We’ll get this done. I’ll put a team on it.”

In truth, there are far fewer teams in the workplace than the use of the term might have you believe.

Mostly, we have groups.

Or, we have collections of individuals driven by their calendars to show up at an appointed time and play at being a team.

When the alarm bell rings, they move on to their next play-date, all to little effect.

Managers use the phrase, “My team.”

Project Managers reference their project teams.

Product Managers allegedly lead cross-functional teams.

And so on.

Few if any of these are teams in a strict sense. They are missing the few but critical strands of DNA that separate teams from groups.

The results speak volumes.

Signs that You Have Groups Not Teams in Your Workplace:

Mostly, our group initiatives struggle and fail to achieve their intended results.

A good number of initiatives are abandoned, in part because no one can agree on how to move them forward.

And while I don’t have a camera monitoring the so-called team activities in your organization, I can confidently describe the scene.

Groups get together and debate and argue. Debating is an unofficial corporate sport.

Membership is porous, with individuals momentarily attaching themselves to initiatives and groups and just as quickly disappearing as if they were corporate Cheshire Cats.

Sponsorship, even for important initiatives is inconsistent from executive-to-executive and often sorely deficient in offering what the group needs to gel as a team.

Group members are stretched and stressed. Invariably, there are too many initiatives chasing too few resources, and people struggle and flail and fail. Meanwhile, executives pile more initiatives on top of those already imploding.

Values to guide critical behaviors and processes are missing-in-action.

An informal poll of group members would find that there is less than a clear view of who the customer is or why the initiative is so important for the organization.

Individuals charged with leading these mostly cross-functional groups are ill-prepared for the heavy lifting of soft and people skills required to help a group evolve into a team. They are process and technical experts with little background in the psychology of groups or individuals and they are operating with a fundamental lack of understanding of the requirements for a real team.

Decision-making processes are a combination of who can yell the loudest and who has the most political heft. Most of these activities are fraught with all manner of cognitive biases.

Decisions are deck-chairs. OK, not literally. However, imagine the crew of a foundering ship running around bolting down deck chairs on one deck, and then suddenly unbolting, moving and securing these chairs on another deck. I’ve observed teams implode over decisions that were never really decisions but temporary milestones.

The coaching so critical to helping groups gel into teams is nowhere to be found. I find it odd and lamentable that the single most natural means of strengthening group performance—coaching—is so infrequently employed.

And the results are not what we want. Worse yet, they’re not what we need.

From Group to Team:

But, Some Get it Right!

Of course, not every initiative or group succumbs to this sorry state. Some actually gel into teams and a very few achieve a state of high performance.

What’s the difference? Mostly, the opposite of the above. They have the DNA essential for team life.

There’s a clear and compelling purpose meaningful to each participant.

Membership is crystal clear and boundaries are well defined.

The structure and supporting mechanisms are present to help the sponsor and team navigate the transition from group to team.

The sponsor is prepared to do her part to not only support but help the initiative leader mold this group into a team.

The team lead recognizes the need to immediately define values and roles.

The team leader takes responsibility for teaching her team how to talk and how to decide.

Coaching is present and active. While it might come from within the team, mostly, it comes from someone who can look objectively at what is happening and provide feedback and feed-forward.

The Recipe for “Team” Is Not Locked in a Vault

Someone offered a comment on one of my leadership articles recently: “The formula for success is common sense but not commonplace.”

Same goes for team development.

Mostly, I fault senior managers for not recognizing the incredible benefits of teaching employees how to team. And the rest of us operate as obedient citizens in a mode of sub-optimizing. We spend too much time on assessments and personality type indicators and too little time and effort putting the building blocks of a team in place and then helping it grow.

One caveat: sometimes a group is all you need. Another topic for another day. This article assumes the initiative is important enough to merit the potential magic that accrues from a group of individuals aligned and formed into a team.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

If you are a manager charged with supporting groups masquerading as teams, it’s time to get invested. Revisit the basics. People are complex, yet the right blend of ingredients and recipe of support is invaluable in helping move from groups to teams. Now, get to work.

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Leadership Books by Art Petty