Managing People Well

Improving Teamwork

improving teamworkTeams are an essential part of the way business is being done in many companies. This is because management tries to increase organizational performance through the positive synergy coming from teams. When the tasks being done require multiple skills, judgment, and experience, teams usually outperform individuals.

In this article, we talk a bit about what work teams are as opposed to work groups, when to use them, and what characterizes effective teams. If you think your teams can do better, or if they just aren’t working well, this article is for you.

Teams vs Groups

What’s the difference between a group and a team? As mentioned in our article on improving group performance, a work group is a group that interacts mainly to share information and make decisions to help each group member perform better in his or her area of responsibility. Work groups don’t engage in collective work that requires a joint effort. This means that the overall level of performance is equal to the sum of the input.

Work teams on the other hand, benefit from positive synergy through coordinated effort. Individual efforts result in a level of performance that is greater than the sum of each individual input. In work groups the goals, performance evaluations, work style and success definition tend to be determined by the group leader. With teams, these factors are often determined by the team members.

When to use Teams vs Groups

Work groups with a single leader are best for: A challenge where time is crucial and the group leader knows best how to proceed.

Teams are more appropriate for: A complex challenge that needs to be handled by people with different skill sets working together most of the time.

Types of Teams

Teams are formed to accomplish various objectives. Common forms of teams are:

  • Problem Solving Teams: Formed usually to improve quality, efficiency and the work environment
  • Self Managed Teams: Self Managed Teams  are a step beyond Problem Solving Teams. These teams are truly autonomous. They not only solve problems, but implement solutions and assume responsibility for results as well. Managerial positions have less importance and may even be eliminated.
  • Cross Functional Teams: Are made up of employees from different work areas, who come together to accomplish a task.
  • Virtual Teams: Allow people to collaborate online using tools like video conferencing, email, instant messaging. Not surprisingly, these teams are becoming increasingly popular. Virtual Teams can be formed with members in different parts of the world in a cost efficient way.

Creating Effective Teams

Lots of effort has gone into trying to identify factors that lead to increased team effectiveness. Perhaps not surprisingly, some factors that contribute to effective group-work also apply to teams. The following are characteristics of effective teams:

Work design

Team members tend be more motivated and find the work interesting if the work design allows:

  • Team autonomy
  • The opportunity to use different skills and talents
  • The ability to complete an entire task
  • The task should have a substantial impact on others

Incorporating the above factors in the work design increases team members’ sense of ownership and responsibility over the work.

Team Composition

Size: The most effective teams tend to have more than 4 or 5 people because this allows for a greater diversity of views. The maximum effective size is usually around 10 or 12 people. More than this and it becomes more difficult for the team to get things done.

Skills: Effective teams need members with three types of skills

  1. Technical expertise
  2. Problem-solving and decision-making skills
  3. Listening, feedback, conflict resolution, and other interpersonal skills

A team can’t reach its performance potential without all three types of skills in the right mix. If you have too much of one at the expense of another, performance will suffer.

Company Resources

All work teams rely on resources outside the group to function.  Business teamwork researcher T. Kinni found that “one of the most important characteristics of an effective work group is the support the group receives from the organization”. In other words, if a team isn’t supported by the company, it probably won’t work well. Support can come in the form of technology, timely information, encouragement, and administrative assistance.

A Common Purpose

Effective teams have a common and meaningful purpose that’s broader than specific goals. It provides commitment, direction, and momentum for members. Successful teams put a lot of effort into discussing and agreeing on a purpose that belongs to them, on both a collective and individual level.

Specific Goals

As outlined in our article on motivating individuals, setting specific, challenging yet realistic goals, can help improve performance. The same applies to work teams. Difficult but attainable goals raise performance on the criteria for which they are set. So, if you want to increase quality, set goals for quality. To increase speed, set goals for speed.

Setting milestones is also helpful for teams to focus on their goal and evaluate progress along the way.

Leadership and Structure

Team members should agree on who does what and ensure that the workload is distributed evenly. The team needs to set schedules, determine how conflicts will be resolved and what skills need to be developed. Leadership can facilitate this but a formal team leader is not always required. Self-manged work teams sometimes outperform teams with formally appointed leaders. In self-managed team, members absorb the responsibilities typically assigned to managers.

Team Oriented Performance Evaluation

Getting team members to provide feedback to each other can help get team members to be both individually and jointly accountable. Evaluations shouldn’t be the only form of feedback. Team members can be encouraged to present works in progress to get constructive feedback from other team members or outsiders on the quality of work. Meeting informally and reviewing both individual and team behavior helps keep the team on track.

Team Oriented Rewards

Plaques, ceremonies, small financial rewards and celebrations of success at corporate gatherings are often used by companies to acknowledge teamwork. Unfortunately, the evidence that these team rewards make a difference is mixed. Evidence suggests that small group rewards can motivate groups if there are clear links between the group’s performance and the reward. On the other hand, team rewards may promote competition between teams, reducing information flow between them.


Teams that have confidence in themselves are more likely to be successful than teams who don’t. Teams that have been successful believe they can and will be successful in the future. This, in turn, motivates them to work harder. Success breeds success.

A manager or leader can help build this confidence by helping the team achieve some small successes. If possible, skill training (technical and interpersonal) should be provided. This can go along way to develop team confidence.

“Good” Conflict

Conflict isn’t always a bad thing. If it is based on disagreements about task content, conflict can often be beneficial because it stimulates discussion and can lead to better team decisions. Conflict is almost always harmful if it is based on interpersonal incompatibilities, tension and animosity.


Individuals sometimes slack-off in groups. This is because individual effort can be harder to identify. An individual might feel that they can hide in the team. To avoid this, it’s important to clearly define what members are individually responsible for and what they are jointly responsible for.


Members of high performance teams trust each other. As we know from our personal experiences, trust takes time to build and can easily be destroyed. Once destroyed, it’s hard to regain.

High performance teams (and individuals for that matter) also trust their companies. A lack of trust in an organization is usually a major problem. Not being able to count on the employer for openness, loyalty and integrity can have a major demotivating effect.

Teams aren’t always the best solution!

The benefits of using teams don’t always exceed the costs. Teams need more resources to function well than individuals. Meetings, conflicts, communication and coordination efforts can add significant costs.

HRMagazine contributors Allan Drexler and Russ Forrester, outline three tests that can be applied to help decide if it’s best to use a team:

  1. Can the work be better done by one person? This is often true for simple tasks that don’t need diverse input.
  2. Does the work create a set of goals for the group that is more than the sum of individual goals?
  3. Do members of the group depend on each other to complete their tasks? In other words, teams make sense when the success of the group depends on the success of the individual and the success of each individual depends on the success of the other individuals.