They affect what your team look like!

The word “Team” means different things to different people.

When I work with team leaders and their teams, I often encounter different notions of what the “team” really is. One team leader may use the word to refer generally to everyone who works under him, while another might refer to a specific group of people.

Even within a team, each member might have a different understanding of what the “team” is; this might even be different from the team leader’s understanding!

One leader I worked with kept saying that his “team” was not working together, and as a result, he had to do most of the work. As we talked, it became clear that he had a very different idea of what the team is, compared with members of the “team”; in fact, some members of the “team” didn’t even know that there was a “team”!


What is a team?

I have found at least two definitions of “team” on the internet.

The first is about a group of people doing something together (e.g. here, and here). This group of people are basically trying to achieve a common purpose together.

The second definition is narrower: it is a group of people with complementary skills and working together to achieve a shared purpose (e.g. here, and here).

In the first definition, a group of people fishing together could be called a “team”, because they have a common purpose. In the second definition, this same group would have to be using their (different) skills to complement one another as they fish!

When I think of a “team”, I am really thinking of the second definition. Just because we happen to do something together doesn’t make us a “team”.

Yet even within that “complementary skills working together” understanding of “team”, there are different expectations of what that actually looks like. Those differing expectations might impede a team’s ability to work effectively together.


Five key decisions you need to make about your team

In order to lead a team well (and have team members working together effectively), a team leader needs to make five important decisions about the team.


1. What is the team’s purpose and mission?

Why does the team exist? What is it trying to accomplish, and for whom?

Contrary to what some people might believe, “we are all leaders in this organisation and therefore we are a team” is not a good purpose, and neither is “we are all interested in this so let us form a team”.

A good purpose and mission have to clearly explain what you are trying to accomplish together that you can’t do so separately.

“We are here to fish together!” would be a good purpose for a group, but not for a team. “We work together to catch enough fish that will feed the entire village for the next seven days!” is a better one for a team.

Sometimes, leaders might confuse their teams’ purpose with their organisations’ purpose: they think their teams exist for the same purpose and mission as their organisations.

This would be true if your team is your entire organisation. For larger organisations with many teams, each team will have a different purpose and mission from other teams.

“Without a clearly articulated purpose and mission, your team is just a group.”


2. Who constitutes your team?

It is tempting to just include everyone whom you work with and call them part of the team. But are you doing it so you may feel good, or so they may feel good?

For an effective team, each member of the team has to have a specific role to play. In addition to being committed to the shared purpose and mission, they also contribute to the team (both to the whole and to each other) and are committed to each other. The team leader must also be committed to each member’s success.

Otherwise, this is not a team.

A freelancer (or subcontractor, etc.), for example, who might contribute to the team in some way might not necessarily be committed to the team’s purpose and mission. Neither might he be committed to other team members.

Being clear about who constitutes your team allow you to focus your efforts on the right people (who you are going to motivate, develop, empower, etc.)

If you lead a large organisation, you cannot call the entire organisation your team; metaphorically you could, but practically you couldn’t. You need to know who your core team is and focus your efforts on them, and then allow them to lead their respective team well.


3. What kind of team this is?

Are you a track-and-field type of team, or are you a basketball (or soccer, if you prefer) type of team?

Both are committed to some purpose and mission, and members of both types of teams work together in some way. But the degree to which team members work together is quite different in both types of teams.

Are your team members dependant on each other for success? Or is it enough for them to just do their part well?

Knowing what kind of team you want allows you to communicate a clear expectation to everyone on the team, and structure tasks and responsibilities accordingly.

(Note: Some would argue that a track-and-field “team” is really just a group, or a group of smaller teams, since most members don’t need to work in collaboration.)  


4. Who are you to the team?

This is probably the most important decision you need to make.

Knowing your most important roles and responsibilities allow you to focus on doing them well. It also allows you to have other members of your team complement you by helping you with your other roles and responsibilities.

One team leader I worked with was so overwhelmed with tasks that he ended up not having time to plan and strategise for the team; he was “doing” and not “leading”. We worked together for several months to help him figure out his most important roles and responsibilities, and then have some of his team members take over his other roles. The result is he became less busy and can lead his team more effectively.

If you are a team leader, you need to lead. This decision frees you to lead well.


5. What team culture or environment do you want?

The culture of a team forms over time, but it starts with your decision.

Would team members help each other succeed? Would they carry each other’s burden? Would there be open sharing of information within the team? How would you like team members to treat each other? Would it have a learning environment? How would ‘failures’ be handled? What accountability structure would you have? What can team members expect from each other, and from the leader? What behaviours are acceptable or not acceptable within the team?

Knowing what you want helps you set clear expectation and model the desired culture. It also allows you to set performance indicators that are in line with those expectations.

If you want a collaborative, one-for-all and all-for-one type of team culture, you must reward team efforts much more than elevating individual heroes. If you want a learning culture, you have to build tolerance for ‘failures’.


What about you?

Which of the above decisions have you made about your team?

Which one do you still need to work out?

What other critical decisions about a team can you think of?



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