Working in Teams

Teams are essentially meetings that continue regularly, either on an ongoing basis, or for a specific amount of time related to performing a particular task. Teamwork is a useful way to accomplish a task, since multiple members generate multiple insights and ways to solve problems or create new ideas. It’s likely that, as a professional, you have been or will be involved in some sort of team, to enact a project, develop a new procedure or product, interview and recommend new hires or outside training, and more.

A team may be cross-functional, drawing members from different operating areas of an organization to ensure a variety of perspectives when implementing a new procedure.  A team may be a task force formed for analyzing, investigating, or solving a specific problem. A team may be self-managed, consisting of employees who are responsible and accountable for all or most aspects of generating a particular product or delivering a particular service, like a mini-company within a larger organization. Any of these teams may be in-person or virtual. No matter the type of team, a team’s focus is collective performance, with both individual and mutual accountability. Many businesses today rely on teams as a basic method of operation.

Benefits of Teamwork

Teams bring together people with diverse skills to create something that no one person could do alone. A well-planned team improves motivation. Communication is higher on teams, and the diverse skill set means teams can discover new approaches. Because teams have specific shared goals, team members usually enjoy greater autonomy, variety, task identity, task significance, and feedback. Teams create social support for difficult tasks, improving morale and motivation.

Another benefit of teams is to improve product and service quality. For example, each Whole Foods grocery store operates with an average of ten self-managed teams, including produce, prepared foods, groceries, etc. Each store also has a team made up of just the leaders from each team to facilitate communication and sharing. Each team takes responsibility for the quality of the products and service in its area.

Employees also benefit individually from participating on teams. They develop relationships to people from other areas of the business and learn more about what is happening across functional department lines. Studies have shown that members of effective teams are more motivated and report greater job satisfaction than employees who have not worked on teams, or who have worked on ineffective teams.

Pitfalls of Teamwork

There can be many problems that hinder good teamwork. You often don’t have the luxury of choosing whom to work with; team members have to deal with different personalities, work ethics, and personal agendas that may not complement one another. Other common challenges include poor leadership and a lack of clarity about roles, a lack of focus or unclear mission, dominant personalities, non-contributing members, bad communication, and group think (agreeing with the majority simply to avoid conflict). The pitfalls of teamwork may be avoided by being aware of what makes an effective team, and by consciously working toward those characteristics.

Characteristics of Effective Teams

Effective teamwork takes time and work – it’s very rare that a team just gels and its members work together easily from its inception.  The following elements are critical to the effective functioning of any team.

Planning & Leadership

Good planning and good leadership can improve collective efficacy, or the team’s belief that its members are capable of organizing and working together to reach its goals. When the tasks needed to reach the team’s goals are being planned, initial activities should lead to demonstrable team achievements. When teams experience successes early in their development, they are more likely to build collective efficacy. Good leadership provides a clear vision for the team and articulates why the goals are important. A good leader can keep the team focused, mediate conflicts, and ensure that individuals are held accountable. A leader also provides guidance, feedback, and encouragement. When teams receive timely feedback, they are more likely to understand the relationship between their effort and their performance.

Clear Mission and Focus

Lack of focus can make a team just a group of individuals. Keeping the team focused takes constant effort. A good leader can keep teams focused and on task by assigning roles and encouraging accountability. One good focusing strategy is to use an agenda and distribute it prior to meetings, so that team members can prepare. Even a functional and mature team should have meeting agendas and planning documents in order to be sure no one is making assumptions about the group’s direction or undertaking a plan that has not received consensus. In addition to individual meeting agendas and follow-up minutes that indicate how each agenda item was met, team leaders and members should have an overall project agenda, as appropriate, so that they understand long-term goals, touchstone points along the way, and can measure their progress toward those goals.

Clear and Consistent Communication

Bad communication is a quick way for a team to be unproductive and ineffective. By using a scribe and lessons-learned tracker to document team meetings and activities, all team members can be kept up to date and in the loop. Good communication also involves the ability to listen to others and apply active listening skills, really focusing on understanding others, suspending judgment, asking questions, and summarizing what you’ve heard to verify your understanding, as the following video explains.

Finally, underlying all good communication is genuine respect for and engagement with your colleagues. In practical terms, that translates into providing every team member a chance to contribute, acknowledging and valuing those contributions, and incorporating those contributions into the work of the team.

The following video provides the results of a study from Google that highlights communication as the key to effective teamwork.

Clear Roles and Assignments

In addition to assigning and rotating standard meeting roles such as facilitator, note-taker, or devil’s advocate, as discussed in this text’s page on Effective Meetings, note that there are other positive and negative roles that team members take on during team discussions, roles which they may continue to switch, depending on the context and the topic being discussed. Also note that the positive and negative aspects of these roles are not always clear. For example, if someone in your group always makes everyone laugh, that can be a distinct asset when the news is less than positive. At times when you have to get work done, however, the joke may become a distraction. Notions of positive and negative will often depend on the context.

Positive Roles [1]

Initiator-Coordinator Suggests new ideas or new ways of looking at the problem
Elaborator Builds on ideas and provides examples
Coordinator Brings ideas, information, and suggestions together
Evaluator-Critic Evaluates ideas and provides constructive criticism
Recorder Records ideas, examples, suggestions, and critiques

Negative Roles

Dominator Dominates discussion, not allowing others to take their turn
Recognition Seeker Relates discussion to their accomplishments; seeks attention
Special-Interest Pleader Relates discussion to special interest or personal agenda
Blocker Blocks attempts at consensus consistently
Joker or Clown Seeks attention through humor and distracts group members

To support a team functioning effectively, realize that these are classic roles, determine whether the role taken was appropriate given the context, and realize when you need to stop repetitive role behavior for negative roles, which you may want to do by positively re-directing the group.

Conflict Management & Resolution

Conflict is a fact of life, and conflict is sometimes magnified in a team setting. When we hear the word “conflict,” we typically think about all the negatives associated with the word. Most of us would like to avoid conflict entirely; however, conflict can also be productive.

Positive conflict comes from recognizing disagreement as part of a healthy process. It’s an exchange of passionate ideas that helps you find creative solutions as well as test weaknesses of current solutions. A tolerable amount of conflict is vital to group success in order to avoid group think and to generate more innovative ideas among members of the team, who may have diverse opinions and points of view. In addition, positive conflict generates buy-in and offers elements of ownership and a sense of cooperation and enhanced membership to all of the team members. When members feel safe expressing conflicting beliefs and opinions, teams are more productive and less prone to conformity.

Conflict in teams has been studied, and one famous theory of team development from Tuckman includes conflict as a normal part of team process, especially in the “storming” phase: [2]

The five Stages of the Tuckman Model: Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, and Adjourning.

Therefore, given its inevitability as well as potential positive results, learning to understand and manage conflict is critical when working in teams. Conflict management is equally the responsibility of the team leader and all members of the team. Note that conflict management is not the same as conflict avoidance. In most instances of team conflict, avoidance is a worse solution than engagement with the conflicting situation, as avoidance often leads to less optimal solutions and may even prevent the team from finishing a project.

To manage conflict effectively, apply the following strategies:

  • refer to the team’s ground rules, e.g. everyone has an equal turn to talk, no interruptions, all comments are valued, etc.
  • separate the problem from the person, e.g., don’t allow one person to always play devil’s advocate or express concern over ideas; instead, formalize and rotate this role; don’t assign blame
  • help team members re-frame information to ensure they understand other perspectives
  • search for commonality in opposing ideas
  • reinforce the concept of consensus, the idea that even if you don’t agree with something fully, you can and will support it


When groups need to get a job done, they should have an obvious and agreed-upon method in place for making decisions. The decision-making process may be decided by a group leader or by the group members as a whole. In general, there are four common ways of making decisions in groups. A two-sided horizontal arrow. Labels on the top read, from left, "Consensus," "Voting," "Compromise," and "Authority Rule."Consensus requires the most group input. To reach consensus group members must participate in the crafting of a decision and agree to adopt it. While not all members may support the decision equally, all will agree to carry it out.  Even though this style of decision making has many advantages, it has its limitations as well—it requires a great deal of creativity, trust, communication, and time on the part of all group members. When groups have a hard time reaching consensus, they may opt for the next strategy, which does not require buy-in from all or most of the group.

Voting by majority may be as simple as having 51% of the vote for a particular decision, or it may require a larger percentage, such as two-thirds or three-fourths, before reaching a decision. Like consensus, voting is advantageous because everyone is able to have an equal say in the decision process (as long as they vote). Unlike consensus, everyone may not be satisfied with the outcome.

Compromise often carries a positive connotation in the U.S. because it is perceived as fair since each member gives up something, as well as gaining something. Nevertheless, this decision-making process may not be as fair as it seems on the surface. The main reason for this has to do with what is being given up and obtained. There is nothing in a compromise that says these two factors must be equal (that may be the ideal, but it is often not the reality). Individuals or groups that feel they have gotten the unfair end of the bargain may be resentful and refuse to carry out the compromise. They may also foster ill will toward others in the group or engage in self-doubt for going along with the compromise in the first place. However, if groups cannot make decisions through consensus or voting, compromise may be the next best alternative.

Authority Rule requires essentially no input from the group, although the group’s participation may be necessary for implementing the decision. The authority in question may be a member of the group who has more power than other members, such as the leader, or a person of power outside the group. While this method is obviously efficient, members are often resentful when they feel they have to follow another’s orders and feel the group process was a façade and waste of valuable time.


Teams can be any size, but smaller teams (approximately no more than 8) are optimal, as the goal is to get team members to work together as a coherent whole.  That goal becomes harder to accomplish with large teams.


Richard Beckhard’s GRPI model [3] (widely adapted in sports contexts as the GRIP model) is a good way to group and summarize these interrelated characteristics of highly effective teamwork.

  • Goals: everyone must fully understand and be committed to the goals of the team, and of the organization. Everyone’s goals must be aligned in order to establish trust, make progress, and achieve desired outcomes.
  • Roles: all team members must know what part they play, what is expected, and how they are held accountable and responsible.
  • Interpersonal: quality communication and collaboration require and foster trust among team members; sensitivity and flexibility are required to deal with conflict and make progress.
  • Processes: systems should be defined for how decisions are made, how the team solves problems and addresses conflict, how the team defines work flow, and what procedures need to be followed to achieve the team’s goals.
A circle in 4 pieces representing each of the GRIP elements: GOALS, ROLES, INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS, AND PROCESSES

[1] Positive and Negative Roles from Beene, K., & Sheats, P. (1948). Functional roles of group members. Journal of Social Issues, 37, 41–49 and McLean, S. (2005). The basics of interpersonal communication. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

[2] Tuckman’s Model of Group Development image from

[3] R. Beckhard, (1972). “Optimizing team building efforts,” Journal of Contemporary Business, 1972, pp. 23–27.