five half-truths about teams and teamwork

when it comes to teams and teamwork, there is a lot unfounded belief and intuition. some aspects of team building and team performing are commonly accepted, and are therefore not questioned or scrutinised. but there are truths that, when we look closer at them are not really true.

teams are always the answer

this half-truth is based upon a famous principle: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. although there is a chance for a team to outperform its best member, there are no guarantees for it. in his article “teams as a double-edged sword“, bob sutton states that bad teams can…

“…bring out the worst in people as well, and if you can’t get the conditions right, it might be better to organize them along the lines of a group dental practice, where they share the same building, perhaps a common receptionist and a few other resources, and each do their own thing.”

teams are not a magic bullet for project organisation. in the best circumstances, teamwork may lead to more creativity and knowledge than individual work. but in the wrong circumstances teamwork can suffer from disharmony or disloyalty. this may lead to frustration, poor learning and much more project delay.

good teams will stay good

ongoing good team performance cannot be taken for granted. a team must always be viewed within a project or rather organizational context. this includes for example the basic structure of the project, the information system, education system and reward system as well as policies and material/physical ressources. in order to accomplish a bigger task, the team continually relies on some parts of it. success in the long term will be put at risk for example if you cut educational budget so that some or all members of your team are not able to get a personal development training. even if a team possesses great skills, motivation and good coordination, lack of critical organizational support will hurt team performance in the long run.

team failure is always due to external or personality problems

it’s always hard for a person to accept failure, most notably if he or she can be blamed for it. therefore the personal “defense systems” try to shift the responsibility for the failure often on one of two things: a) external, uncontrollable forces or b) other people which are involved. the same applies to most team managers of failed teams, who want to protect their ego (or sometimes even their job) and place the blame on e.g. a bad economy or difficult personalities in the team. by pointing to “problem team members” or an unfavourable environment they can easily explain the problem without compromising themselves. but in contrast it is more likely that the team’s failure is a result of a structural problem, or in other words: the lack of managerial ability of its leader.

conflicts among team members is a sign for alert

many team leaders associate more conflicts in teams always with more problems. but conflict is not necessary harmful for effective teamwork. it may be a normal phase for team building, which was discovered by bruce tuckman, the creator of the team building-model “forming – storming – norming – performing“. just like there are two kinds of stress, eu-stress and di-stress, there are two kinds of conflicts in teams. good conflict adresses issues and supports decision making, bad conflict is always personalized and, therefore, highly destructive for team relationships. for this reason the team leader should embrace good conflict, but prevent bad conflict by all means.

strong leadership is necessary for strong teams

another half-truth is that a team needs a strong, powerful and charismatic leader in order to perform effectively. leaders who try to control all the details and manage all key aspects are usually overworked and underproductive. in contrast to this a leader should only be concerned with a) team design, which basically means structuring the environment or context (see above), and b) coaching, which means helping the team members to use their collective resources to reach their common goals. this should be enough for eight hours of work a day 🙂

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