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Working in groups and teams
Working in groups and teams

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1.2 Defining groups and teams

The terms ‘group’ and ‘team’are often used interchangeably. Is there really a difference between the two terms and if so what is it? A starting point in exploring this difference is to say that all teams are groups but not all groups are teams. From this it follows that what is said about groups will apply to teams but that teams will have special characteristics of their own.

Kakabadse et al. (1988) suggest that groups may be formal or informal, primary or secondary.

Primary groups have regular and frequent interactions with each other in working towards some common interests or tasks. A small work group and a project team are primary groups. They usually have an important influence on their members’ values, attitudes and beliefs.

Such groups can be formal, in that they were deliberately created to serve an organisation need, or informal, in that the group forms outside formal structures to meet the specific needs of individuals. Boddy (2005) argues that informal teams are a powerful feature of organisational life because they bring together people who have common interests and concerns and who exchange knowledge and information.

Secondary groups are those whose members interact less frequently. These are often larger than primary groups (an example is a large committee). Their members do not have the opportunity to get to know each other well and as a result they are usually less cohesive than primary groups.

When does a group become a team? The example in Box 1 illustrates the difference very simply.

Box 1 Group or team?

A number of people kicking a football about in the car park at lunch time is probably a group. There is little structure to what is happening; it is just a few people acting in whatever role they choose (or possibly several) because they want to get some exercise and/or they like spending time with their friends before going back to work.

However, taking this group and turning it into a football team would be a major task. Unlike the group, the team would have a clearly-stated task: for example, winning as many matches as possible. Ensuring that the team performed this task would involve choosing the right people according to their abilities and particular skills to perform clearly-defined roles. Team training would need to be available to help the individuals work better together. The performance expectations of individuals would be defined by the roles they held. For example, no-one expects, except in very unusual circumstances, that the goalkeeper will score goals or that the strikers will defend the goal. When a game is won the team is seen to have achieved the task, although individuals may still be singled out for praise, or for criticism, as appropriate.

A team, then, is a special type of group which ‘unites the members towards mutually-held objectives’ (Bennett, 1994).

Some differences between groups and teams are given in Table 1.

Table 1 Differences between groups and teams
Leadership Strong, focused leader There may be some sharing of leadership
Accountability Individual accountability Both individual and mutual accountability
Purpose Identical to the organisation’s mission Work towards a specific purpose
Work products Individuals within the group deliver individual products Collective work products
Communication Efficient (time bound) meetings Open-ended discussion and active problem-solving
Effectiveness Indirectly through their influence on others Direct assessment of the collective work products
Work style Groups discuss, delegate and then do the work individually Teams discuss, decide and delegate but do the work together

The distinctions in Table 1 may be overstated: for example, a group may have a specific purpose and a team’s effectiveness may not necessarily be directly assessed in terms of the collective work product. However, a difficulty in distinguishing groups from teams is that many so-called teams are really working groups because the emphasis is on individual effort. A real team is a small number of people with complementary skills, equally committed to a common purpose to which they hold themselves mutually accountable (Katzenbach and Smith, 1993). People doing exactly the same job in a call centre answering customer enquiries, with the same individual targets and being overseen by the same supervisor or manager, may be called a team, but it is best described as a working group. There is overlap between teams and groups, of course. But distinctions are useful when considering whether to invest time and effort in building a team when a group will do. For a team to be effective there needs to be a clear, shared understanding of team objectives, mutual respect and trust and an appreciation of individual strengths and weaknesses. There also needs to be an atmosphere in which knowledge and expertise can be shared openly, with opportunities for each team member to make a distinctive contribution.