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Groups and teamwork
Groups and teamwork

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2.2 What is a team?

Activity 1

Write your own definition of a 'team' (in 20 words or less).

You probably described a team as a group of some kind. However, a team is more than just a group. As noted above, when you think of all the groups that you belong to, you will probably find that very few of them are really teams. Some of them will be family or friendship groups that are formed to meet a wide range of needs such as affection, security, support, esteem, belonging or identity. Some may be committees whose members represent different interest groups and who meet to discuss their differing perspectives on issues of interest.

In this reading the term 'work group' (or 'group') is often used interchangeably with the word 'team', although a team may be thought of as a particularly cohesive and purposeful type of work group. We can distinguish work groups or teams from more casual groupings of people by using the following set of criteria (based on those proposed by Adair, 1983). A collection of people can be defined as a work group or team if it shows most, if not all, of the following characteristics:

  • a definable membership: a collection of three or more people identifiable by name or type;

  • a group consciousness or identity: the members think of themselves as a group;

  • a sense of shared purpose: the members share some common task or goals or interests;

  • interdependence: the members need the help of one another to accomplish the purpose for which they joined the group;

  • interaction: the members communicate with one another, influence one another, react to one another;

  • sustainability: the team members periodically review the team's effectiveness;

  • an ability to act together, as one.

Usually, the tasks and goals set by teams cannot be achieved by individuals working alone because of constraints on time and resources, and because few individuals possess all the relevant competences and expertise. Sports teams or orchestras clearly fit these criteria.

Activity 2

List some examples of teams of which you are a member – both inside and outside work – in your learning file. Now list some groups. What strikes you as the main differences?

Your team examples probably highlight specific jobs or projects in your workplace, or personal interests and hobbies outside work. Teamwork is usually connected with project work and this is a feature of much work, paid and unpaid. Teamworking is particularly useful when you have to address risky, uncertain or unfamiliar problems where there is a lot of choice and discretion surrounding the decision to be made. In the area of voluntary and unpaid work, where pay is not an incentive, teamworking can help to motivate support and commitment because it can offer the opportunities to interact socially and learn from others. Furthermore, people usually support what they create (Stanton, 1992).

By contrast, many groups are much less explicitly focused on an external task. In some instances, the growth and development of the group itself is its primary purpose; process is more important than outcome. Many groups are reasonably fluid and less formally structured than teams. In the case of work groups, an agreed and defined outcome is often regarded as a sufficient basis for effective cooperation and the development of adequate relationships.

Clearly there are overlaps between teams and groups: they are not wholly distinct entities. Both can be pertinent in personal development as well as organisational development and managing change. In such circumstances, when is it appropriate to embark on teambuilding rather than relying on ordinary group or solo working?

In general, the greater the task uncertainty the more important teamworking is, especially if it is necessary to represent the differing perspectives of concerned parties. This is evident in government decision making, in areas such as technology and innovation policies, where scientific facts may be collated to support opposing arguments for new policy developments. In such situations, the facts themselves do not always point to an obvious policy or strategy for innovation, support and development: decisions are partially based on the opinions and the personal visions of those involved. When expertise does not point to obvious solutions for problems, teamworking can often come up with a compromise between the varying perspectives and vested interests of concerned parties.

There are risks and dangers, however. Under some conditions, teams may produce more conventional, rather than more innovative, responses to problems. The reason for this is that team decisions may regress towards the average, with group pressures to conform cancelling out more innovative decision options (Makin, Cooper and Cox, 1989). It depends on how innovative the team is, in terms of its membership, its norms and its values.

Teamwork may also be inappropriate when you want a fast decision. Team decision making is usually slower than individual decision making because of the need for communication and consensus about the decision taken. Despite the business successes of Japanese companies, it is now recognised that promoting a collective organisational identity and responsibility for decisions can sometimes slow down operations significantly, in ways that are not always compensated for by better decision making.