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Workplace Strangers – A Group Is Not A Team

Perhaps one of the most misused terms in the people side of business is the term “Team”.

In many organizations, Team has become the rallying cry of wishful thinking – with many of us desperately hoping that people will just get along and work effectively with each other.

We put a group of workplace “strangers” together in a room for a project. Without any real groundwork regarding how the group will work together, in what ways, using which talents, and toward what outcomes, we say “Ok, now you are a team. Hooray!”

However, the dirty secret is that a group of people brought together is just a group of people. Just putting them together in a room, with a fancy project Team name, does nothing to facilitate real performance and progress.

Only when a group looks, sounds, and performs like a Team – only then should we bestow the valued title of Team. Otherwise we risk diluting the perception of the Team concept, and even demoralizing people when we stick the Team name on an otherwise poor performing, low trust, bad energy type of workgroup situation. Have you ever been a part of one of those?

We should reserve the recognition of Team for those groups of people that:

  • Are extremely clear on their common objectives

  • Know and trust each other to a high degree

  • Speak and perform on behalf of one another

  • Achieve common objectives in a way that heavily uses the talents of all the members

  • Take individual responsibility for mistakes, and share common recognition for successes

Since these actions and characteristics don’t just magically appear on their own, as Leaders we must:

  • Facilitate the creation of the group’s objectives, by effectively involving the group members. People only Buy-In to goals on which they have the opportunity to Weigh-In.

  • Create a working environment where people feel safe to truly speak their mind. Be open and supportive of healthy conflict and discussion. Yes, this even means encouraging people to disagree and dissent. A group of “yes-people” is not a team. Arguing about important topics is good. Fighting over trivia is not.

  • Model the servant leadership concept of sacrificing personal gain for the good of the group. Make sure people have what they need to do their best work.

  • Balance the involvement of group members. Don’t assume the louder members will be the best experts, and don’t assume the quieter members fully agree or have nothing to contribute.

  • Be accountable for setting the example. Take ownership for your mistakes openly, and publicly recognize others for the group’s successes.

You might even consider starting with the name Group, and make progress toward becoming a Team. I understand it may feel awkward or even pointless to change the name of the group as they progress from relative strangers to close colleagues. Yet, we must not forget the power of recognizing not only WHAT we accomplish in groups, but also HOW we get things done. How we get things done in our groups is a major driver in how people feel about their work, their colleagues, and ultimately themselves.

In my experience with teams around the world, we have sometimes started by using group names like Network, Forum, Group, and Unit. Later, as part of celebrating success, we have sometimes changed the name to Team, in recognition of the group exhibiting the powerful characteristics and results of true collaboration and performance.

Think about some of the “Teams” in your work and personal life. You have a great opportunity to ensure they are living up to, and truly earning their name. Let’s challenge ourselves to help ensure that Team is a name reserved for those best groups – that do meaningful work, and accomplish their objectives as an example of collaboration and sustained excellence.

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