Group and Team Management

What you’ll learn to do: Describe the relationship between general group and team management with various structures and techniques

It’s hard to describe the difference between a group and a team without using a sports analogy, because the benefits of teamwork, and the obvious differences between group and team, reveal themselves so readily on the football field, the baseball diamond, or wherever it is that people meet to push the limits of athletic performance.

A winning team is more than a group of people achieving a goal and delivering a result. There’s positive energy and synergy around a team (meaning that they produce more together than they could individually).

Organizations benefit from the ability to build and manage great teams. In order to do that, we need to understand what sets one group apart from the rest and makes that group a team.

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe differences between a group and a team
  • Discuss the types of teams
  • Discuss creating effective teams
  • Describe how to turn individuals into team players

Groups vs. Teams

In Module 9: Group Dynamics, we defined a group as two or more individuals who are interactive and independent, coming together to achieve particular objectives. Specifically, a work group is one that interacts primarily to share information and to make decisions that help each member perform within his or her area of responsibility.

Photograph of a conference room. There is a table and several empty chairs in front of a TV. There is a microphone/speaker combination on the table.For instance, a retail store chain might hold a monthly corporate meeting to manage the opening of new stores. A few representatives from the retail team are there to discuss the progress on the building of the store. A representative from merchandising attends the meeting as well, so she can determine how the aisles of the store will be laid out, and what merchandise will be placed on the shelves. A representative from the finance department shows up to ensure that leases are being paid and that taxes are being paid. These team members might be referred to as the “new store group,” but the group members are there to share information with one another so they can get their own jobs done, and so a store can be opened.

A work team, on the other hand, generates positive synergy through coordinated efforts. Their individual efforts, when pooled together, are often more than the sum of their individual inputs. Their goal is not just sharing information, it’s a collective performance. They often feature both individual and mutual accountability and the members’ skills are complementary to one another.

Let’s look at the distinguishing features of a team:

  • The first distinguishing feature of a team is that the individual members are fully committed to a common goal and approach. Often, they’ve developed this approach themselves. The members should agree that the team’s goal is worthwhile and have a desire to achieve it. This agreement on the goal is imperative—this gives the team its vision and the motivation for the members to perform.
  • The second distinguishing feature is mutual accountability. If the team is going to succeed, the members should feel accountable to each other as well as the organization for the process and outcome of their work. It’s not unusual for team members to take on extra work and responsibility because they feel a deep commitment to the team, even if there is an accountable leader of that team.
  • The third distinguishing feature is that of trust and collaboration. We talked in the last module about how group members share norms, but teams actually share a culture. That culture is built on compromise, cooperation and collaboration, directed to reaching their common purpose. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t conflict involved. On the contrary, healthy conflict can boost creativity and performance as long as it’s managed well. Their sharing can continue to the point of shared leadership, even though the team may have an appointed leader.
  • The fourth distinguishing feature of a team is synergy. Synergy is the process of combining two or more actions that result in an effect that differs from the total of the individual actions. Basically, it means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The team produces more together than they would individually.

Teamwork at NASA

A famous example of a high-performing team is the crew—both on the ground and in orbit—on the Apollo 13 mission. When “failure wasn’t an option,” the ground crew in Houston worked tirelessly to bring the three astronauts home alive. As depicted in the movie, when CO2 levels in the cabin were reaching dangerous levels, the team took to determining how they could make a new filter to produce breathable air. The leader said, “We have to make this fit to this,” holding up both a square and a round filter. Then he gestured to a pile on the table of miscellaneous items that were currently floating on the Apollo 13 and added, “Using nothing but that.”  The team didn’t hesitate, and one of them can be heard saying, “Okay, let’s make a filter!” as hands start sorting through the parts.

Before long, as the world watched, this same team guided the astronauts toward building a new contraption that would keep them alive for a while longer.

This team fully committed to its goal and approach when building that filter. They shared mutual accountability for it—success was the only option they considered. They extended trust to one another, and then the astronauts extended trust to the ground team in building it. Finally, the result was synergistic—definitely more than any one individual could have accomplished on his own.

Today’s organizations are moving quickly from the concept of a hierarchical organization to one that is built of teams. When companies like General Foods moved to a team-based structure, they made news, but now organizations are more likely to turn heads if they aren’t using teams. Teams shift the control in an organization from the management to the employees, with senior teams often making decisions for the organization and employees determining how to carry out those plans. Ultimately, teams succeed when they’re supported by the organization, when there is that leadership adjustment from external (senior team) to internal (team members) and when the teams are provided a clear standard of high- performance expectation.

Practice Question

Types of Teams

Organizations use different types of teams in different ways to accomplish their objectives. Some teams have a very simple and specific focus, and others face complex issues with organization-wide ramifications. We can look at teams and classify them in a variety of ways. Let’s first take a look at them based on their task complexity and team member fluidity.

Task complexity is the extent to which a task is intricate and consists of different, interrelated parts. Membership fluidity is the extent to which membership within a team is stable. Low membership fluidity would mean that people are often entering into and leaving the team, and high membership fluidity means they are quite stable, not changing often at all.

Simple Work Teams

Simple work teams have low task complexity and low team fluidity. Their goal is simple problem solving, and often they are a group that supports day-to-day activities, dealing with issues that require input from more than one person or to generate commitment from employees. Usually these are people from a same team or department, so they generally have a similar focus and tend to work together relatively easily.

Administrative Teams

Photograph of five people fist bumping over a table with laptops on it.An administrative team has high task complexity but low team membership fluidity, meaning that the problems the team deals with are complex but people stream in and out of the group. The goal of an administrative team is to problem solve and then “sell” their ideas to the rest of the organization. Their focus could be internal, external, or both, and the team members are usually management level.

An example of an administrative team might be a relocation committee that’s dedicated to relocating a plant to a new area. Members of the team might flow in and out, but the complexity of the task is rather high and not at all part of their regular routine. Management level members work for a finite period of time to accomplish the strategic objective of moving the plant—all its machinery, all its people, and so on—to a new address.

Cross-Departmental Teams

A cross-departmental team tends to have a low complexity level but a high team membership fluidity, meaning that the work is fairly simple but the teams are committed and fairly unchanging. Their goal is integration in structure and setting ground rules, and their focus is internal and very specific.

A cross-departmental task force is an example of this type of team. Perhaps an organization is installing a new system that will manage all their data, both at the main office and at their plants, in an entirely different way. The task force might come together from different areas of the organization to identify the types of data their departments generate and how that data will be transferred over to the new system, how people will be trained to use the new system and even how change around the system will be managed.

Process Teams

Process teams deal with high complexity tasks and have high team member fluidity, meaning people are assigned to the team and stay. These folks are creative problem solvers and deal with implementation. Their focus is strategic and broad.

Process teams do not have departmental affiliation and function independently to undertake broad, organizational-level process improvements. For instance, the department store Mervyn’s, the now defunct discount department store chain, had a SWAT team that rushes in to solve a store’s critical issues. They were deployed at any time, whenever they’re needed. They even attempt to solve organizational-wide issues like flextime and insurance.

Self-Managed Teams

Photograph of a group meeting around a couch.Self-managed teams (SMTs) are a commonly used process team used in organizations. Self-managed teams are process teams of employees who have full managerial control over their own work. Volvo is known for having abandoned their typical assembly line structure for one that included only self-managed teams. The teams were charged with assembling their large part of the car, but they could decide how to do it and who was going to work on what parts. The results included significant improvements in product quality and employee satisfaction.

Overall self-managed teams include these characteristics:

  • The power to manage their work
  • Members with different expertise and functional experience
  • No outside manager
  • The power to implement decisions
  • Coordination and cooperation with other teams and individuals impacted by their decisions
  • Internal leadership, based on facilitation. This means that a rotating leader focuses on freeing the team from obstacles as they do their work.

Self-managed teams require a change in structure on behalf of the organization and a high level of commitment on behalf of all parties to ensure their success. Most self-managed teams that fail do so because of a lack of commitment on the part of the organization.

Chart showing the team membership fluidity and task complexity of various teams. Process teams have high team membership fluidity and high task complexity. Administrative teams have low team membership fluidity and high task complexity. Simple work teams have low team membership fluidity and low task complexity. Cross-departmental teams have high team membership fluidity and low task complexity.

Virtual Teams

It’s worth noting that there are now also virtual teams, which are teams that use computer technology to tie together physically dispersed members in order to achieve a common goal. It is true that these virtual teams might be an administrative, cross-functional, simple work or even a process team, but they are distinctive in that they allow people to collaborate online.

Because virtual teams have limited social interaction – many times they have not met in person – they tend to be more task-oriented and exchange less social information. But they’re able to do their work even if the members of the team are thousands of miles apart, and allows people to work together who may not otherwise be able to collaborate.

Practice Question

Creating Effective Teams

We’ve learned a little about how teams differ from groups and really “take it to the next level” as far as productivity, and we’ve learned about the types of teams we might find in the workplace. Now that we know all that . . . let’s build one!

Let’s say that we’ve determined that team work is preferable to individual work for the project we need to accomplish. We don’t want to solve the wrong problem by creating an effective team to do something a single employee could do better! And we want to understand what an effective team actually means to us . . . in this case, we’re going to call a team “effective” based on objective measurement of the team’s productivity- a manager’s assessment of their performance and member satisfaction.

Knowing that a team is the way we want to go, we’re going to take a look at four different areas and take them one at a time.

  • Context
  • Composition
  • Work design
  • Process

Context

If you’re going to create an effective team, you need first to think about context—that is, all the things that surround the team that aren’t actually your team. Contextually speaking, the things that seem to matter most to effective teambuilding are:

  • Adequate resources
  • Leadership and structure
  • Trust
  • Performance evaluation and reward systems

Of all of those items, it appears that adequate resources are the item that most impacts a team’s ability to do its work. Lack of resources impedes the team’s ability to do their work, so it’s imperative that organizations support their team with the right amount of funding and tools for the job.

Team members should always agree on the work that is to be done and who is doing it, so leadership and structure are important parts of context. Team members should all contribute equally and share the workload, they should determine schedules, any training needed and so on. If they are a self-managed team, they can agree by whatever means they determined decisions might be made, and move on to next steps. Teams don’t have to have leaders, but if they do, they should be careful not to obstruct progress and expect great things from this team. (No, that’s true. It’s been shown that leaders who expect great things from their teams get great things!)

If that leader is a part of the team, then the team needs to show trust in that leader. And the members should trust one another, too. Team members will not spend time monitoring one another if they trust each other, and they’ll be more likely to take risks.

Finally, the team should have an established system for how their performance is evaluated and rewarded. Performance evaluation and reward systems keep team members individually and mutually accountable. Individual performance evaluations and reward systems aren’t consistent with high-performing teams, so these systems need to recognize team progress as much, if not more, than individual contribution.

Composition

Photograph of four large puzzle pieces being put together. The individuals holding the puzzle pieces are not included in the photo.Now that we know the atmosphere around the team (the context), we need to take a look at the members actually making up the team, and talk about them in terms of their roles, diversity, and the size of the team.

When determining composition, a manager should consider the:

  • Abilities of the members of the team.
  • Personalities of team members.
  • Roles that will be allocated.
  • Diversity of team members.
  • Size of the team.

Team Abilities

While we talked before about how the sum of the team is greater than its parts, an assessment of team members’ abilities will help a manager determine what can be accomplished by the team. In order for the team to be successful, they’ll need to have three different skills among them—technical expertise, problem-solving skills, and decision-making skills. A good balance of the three is an imperative—too much of one and not enough of another will lower a team’s performance. It also helps if the team members have good interpersonal skills.

Team Personalities

Where personalities of team members are concerned, teams perform well if there is a “higher than mean” level of traits like agreeableness and conscientiousness, extraversion and emotional stability. Interestingly, studies have shown that it’s more important for the “higher than mean” measurement to include people who all have tendencies toward those characteristics. For instance, having one person on the team who’s very conscientious and one who is not may adversely affect the performance of the team, while two people who are more conscientious than average will enhance the team’s performance.

Team Roles

Members of a team should be selected with an eye toward filling all the roles that need to be allocated. There are about nine different roles needed on a team and, while members can fill more than one of these roles, members should be matched to those team role demands. Those roles are:

  • The Plant. Creative, imaginative. Solves problems.
  • The Resource Investigator. Communicative. Explores opportunities and develops contacts.
  • The Coordinator. Clarifies goals, and promotes decision-making.
  • The Shaper. Dynamic, challenging, thrives on pressure. Overcomes obstacles.
  • The Monitor-Evaluator. Strategic and discerning. Sees all options and judges accurately.
  • The Teamworker. Co-operative and perceptive. Listens, builds, averts conflict.
  • The Implementer. Conservative and efficient. Turns ideas into practical actions.
  • The Completer/Finisher. Conscientious. Searches out errors, meets deadlines.
  • The Specialist. Self-starting and dedicated. Provides knowledge/skills in rare supply.

These roles are classified into action-oriented roles, people-oriented roles, and thinking-oriented roles.

Circle chart showing the 9 team roles. There are three classifications of roles, and three roles in each classification. The action-oriented roles are the implementer, the completer/finisher, and the shaper. The people-oriented roles are the coordinator, the teamworker, and the resource investigator. The thinking-oriented roles are the monitor-evaluator, and the specialist, and the plant.

Managers need to understand the strengths each team member brings to the table and select members for the team with those strengths in mind.

Team Diversity

The diversity of a team also plays a deciding factor in how productive and successful the team is. Of course, there needs to be a diversity of skills, but if a team also features members of diverse age, gender, education, functional background, and experience, this bodes well for them. Keep in mind, however, that having a team with individuals from various cultures on a single team often does not spell instant success, as team members have a longer learning curve understanding how to work with one another.

Team Size

Finally the size of the team makes a difference in a team’s success. Studies show that a team should be made up of no more than ten people, and optimally, no more than exactly the number of team members that are necessary to do the work. When teams have more members than they need, cohesiveness and mutual accountability suffer, and social loafing can creep in.

Beyond those things, managers need to consider if members actually want to be on a team—there are many individuals who would preferably opt out rather than participate on one, and it’s not likely that those employees are going to lend any real value to the group. Furthermore, a manager can consider an individual’s flexibility, or their capability as a team member to complete more than one kind of task. These individuals, if they’re willing to participate on the team, are very valuable indeed!

Practice Question

Work Design

We talked a lot about work design in Module 6: Motivation in the Workplace and how the right job design can motivate an employee to perform. Similarly, the right work design for a group is a huge motivator. The manager should strive to give the team members work that offers autonomy, skill variety, task identity and task significance. Just like with individuals, these features motivate the team and increase its effectiveness.

Process

Finally, to build an effective team we must consider process. Process refers to the way the team operates, and includes things like:

  • Common purpose
  • Specific goals
  • Team efficacy
  • Managed conflict levels
  • Minimized social loafing

Having a common purpose provides direction and drives the commitment of the team members. Teams that are destined to be successful put a lot of effort into defining their common purpose—creating it, discussing it and agreeing on it—so that they can use it as their guiding principle. Any and all activity performed by the team should support the common purpose.

Photograph of a person walking up some stairs.Just like the motivational theory of goal setting, a team must translate their common purpose into attainable, measurable, specific goals. These goals help the team focus on the results they’re working to achieve. Just like with individual goals, team goals should be challenging in order to be motivational.

Teams need to feel like they’re accomplishing something, and most of the time, they truly believe that they will achieve results. This concept is called team efficacy. Success breeds success, and teams that have been successful in the past want more of that same success for their future projects. Management can help team efficacy by setting up the team to achieve small successes along the way to their larger goals, and provide training to ensure that team members are growing their skills.

Conflict can be healthy for teams, but usually not when it’s relationship based. Relationship conflicts—team members who aren’t getting along, exhibit interpersonal incompatibilities, etc.—are almost always to the detriment of the team’s success. However, conflict around task content is often beneficial because it helps the team avoid the trappings of groupthink.

Finally, a successful team minimizes social loafing. Team members in successful groups understand the effects of social loafing and hold themselves accountable for a certain level of productivity. Successful teams make members individually and mutually accountable for the team’s goals, and members of these teams are clear on those expectations.

Considering all these options can help a manager build an effective team. The model we used here attempts to generalize across all varieties of teams, so if you’re “trying this at home,” take that into consideration and don’t approach this too rigidly! You may have needs these suggestions don’t fill, but ultimately, following these guidelines will get you pretty close to building an effective team.

Team Players

Not all individuals want to be a part of a team. As we mentioned in Module 9, group dynamics often include introverted individuals who can be uncomfortable participating in a team atmosphere and, left to their own devices, would choose to work on their own. Others don’t want their compensation and evaluations tied to a group of people and prefer to work as a single contributor.

Aerial photograph of a table. There are four individuals sitting at the table; on their hands and arms are in the photograph. Each person is holding a cell phone or laptop and doing individual work.Organizations, too, have dedicated years to building hierarchical cultures within their walls that don’t support the idea of teams. Organizations have nurtured individual accomplishments and created competitive work environments, fostering attitudes in their workers that are the antithesis of team players. Finally, not all cultures lend themselves to team environments. Collective cultures, like those in Asia and Israel, often thrive in team environments, but highly individual cultures, like the United States, Canada and Australia, are quite the opposite.

This doesn’t mean that teams are a pie-in-the-sky, unattainable hope for these individuals, organizations and cultures. It just means that managers and organizations need to work a little harder to get past these obstacles.

Shaping team players calls into practice three different areas: employee selection, training, and rewards.

Employee Selection

In the employee selection process, managers should interview prospective team members to ensure that they have the skills required for team participation. Do they exhibit the action-oriented, people-oriented or thinking-oriented skills required to take on a team role? Do they come from an organization that prized individual contribution and, if so, does that seem woven into this employee’s fiber?

If it seems the prospective team member does not exhibit the necessary personality traits and skills to be on the team, then perhaps a transfer to another department is the best solution, or, in the case of a new hire, perhaps the role should be offered to another candidate. If the team member shows some signs that they’re interested and open to the idea of working on a team, then perhaps training is the answer.

Training

If employees are particularly steeped in the idea of individual work and accomplishment, then perhaps training is the answer. Training specialists can conduct exercises that show the benefits of team environments, and offer workshops that can help an employee fine-tune some of the skills they need to be a productive team member, like conflict management, problem-solving and communication skills.

Rewards

Rewards are often key in changing the mindset of an employee who has been raised on the importance of individual accomplishment. Rewards systems in organizations need to be altered to encourage cooperative rather than competitive behavior. Organizations who offer bonuses based on team achievement in addition to individual accomplishment can help bridge the gap between the two mindsets.

Promotions, rewards and other forms of recognition can be given to individuals based on how effective they are as team members. Individual contributions to the organization can be balanced with contributions to the team – team member training, helping to resolve conflict and learning new skills might be among those areas that are measured.

Practice Question

Will all people become team players? Absolutely not. And that doesn’t necessarily mean they have to find work elsewhere. Look at what J. Richard Hackman, a professor of social and organizational psychology at Harvard University, had to say about a CFO who just wasn’t a good team member, when he was interviewed for Harvard Business Review:[1]

We worked with a large financial services firm where the CFO wasn’t allowed on the executive committee because he was clearly a team destroyer. He was disinclined toward teamwork, he was unwilling to work at finding collective solutions, and every team he was on got into trouble. The CEO invited the CFO to stay in his role because he was a truly able executive, but he was not allowed on the senior executive team. Although there were some bruised feelings at first, in the end the CFO was much happier because he didn’t have to be in “boring” team meetings, and the team functioned much better without him. The arrangement worked because the CEO communicated extensively with the CFO both before and after every executive committee meeting. And in the CFO’s absence, the committee could become a real team.

That’s probably the exception and not the rule, but it stands as an example that all individuals don’t need to become team players for an organization to successfully implement a team.

When an organization is redesigning jobs around teams, it should be expected that they’ll encounter people like the CFO mentioned above, who was resistant and defiant in a team setting. If the organization is committed to valuing its employees, it will implement training and rewards to support the new environment, and finally, work with employees like that CFO to bring him around to the benefits of teams.


  1. Coutu, Diane. “Why Teams Don't Work.” Harvard Business Review, May 2009, hbr.org/2009/05/why-teams-dont-work.