An effective leader's basic function is to guide a functioning team. There is a problem in discussing teams: Too many of us have some experience and, therefore, preconceptions about teams and teamwork. If you were on the school football or chess team, have volunteered time to group efforts, or participated in some special project at work, you've had experience in working with others. The problem is that there is no way to be sure that your experience is actually a good example of teamwork.
If you're a parent, you've probably seen examples of this unfortunate kind of ersatz team. Youth groups in which coaches direct kids to risky or callous behavior or in which parents literally beat each other over the results of a game shows just how bad leadership models can be.
If you did see good examples of teams as you grew, you probably did absorb some good lessons. At the same time, you never applied a critical analysis to understand what made a good team work. As a leader, you want to know how to reproduce that spirit and its possibilities in any organization you lead. That means looking in some detail at what teams do and how they work.
Teams offer a way of achieving results more efficiently than a loose collection of individuals would. Instead of rigidly fixing how individuals interact, teams allow their members to reconfigure and tailor what they do to best achieve their goals. Because people work together, they can learn from each other, broadening their experience. But the way teams work depends on how they are structured.
What Is a Team?
On the surface, the answer to this one seems easy. A team is a group of people who work together to accomplish something beyond their individual self-interests. However, they don't work in just any old way, so not all groups are teams. What distinguishes teams from other similar-sounding groups is that a team isn't a collection of people simply following orders. To function, a team needs the following:
Rules of operation
Only when a group meets the initial definition and then adds these factors does it have the chance to become a team. You might say that a team is a group that works together to accomplish something beyond the self-interest of the members.
A functioning team must have a purpose, a reason for existence. This animating principle cannot be “because someone said we had to.” Members of the team need the answer to the questions, “Why are we here? Why is it us? Why now?”
As a leader, you help add this element by working on vision and communicating your vision of the team, as well as helping team members develop a personal vision. When people understand what they are to do and how it fits into the bigger picture, they have purpose.
As purpose is related to vision, commitment is related to motivation. Team members must commit to undertake their tasks and to see the purpose of the team through completion. That requires motivation so that when things get tough, they keep going. This is perhaps the most significant difference between teams and other groups. Instead of toiling in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, team members willingly undertake what needs to be done in an atmosphere of motivation.
Rules of Operation
Every group has rules, whether formally documented or not. When a person runs one in an autocratic fashion, then the rules don't matter so much because the true rule is personal whim. For a team, this is unthinkable.
For a team to work, members don't have to like each other so much as offer respect and honor each other's efforts. So a team is like a society in microcosm. There needs to be predictability in how people interact. Teams have established methods of interacting, being productive, and resolving conflict.
Sports generally have complex sets of rules covering everything that might happen, so there is no question of how to handle a situation. But consider what happens when a fight breaks out in the middle of a game. Suddenly the rules go out the window and fists fly. Lose the rules, and you can expect chaos and injury.
To some degree, the rules may be simple. For example, the team could meet on a certain day and time each week, or there might be a standing rule about not dismissing ideas immediately. There is no standard manual for such rules, and some will evolve out of the team's own dynamics. However, that doesn't lessen their importance; you need a framework in which people can find synergy and not simply depend on orders from the top to keep them going.
In most groups, people look out for themselves and their own tasks. On a team, it's the entire team that succeeds or fails. There is no such thing as a team member winning on her own. As such, the way people pursue tasks is significantly different. They must look out not only for themselves but also for how they work with others and how fellow members are doing.
This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of a team to nurture and instill. In this country, society trumpets the rugged individualist. We fancy our selves ready to take on the wilderness and wonder why others aren't so equipped, even though we may have profited mightily from family help, society's infrastructure, programs, and other such aids that we quickly assign to our own efforts. Yet we still admire those who support others. That's the part of human psychology you want to tap.