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Stop Building Teams!! Confessions of a Team-Builder

Team building!!!!! That’s what I have made my living from for the past 15 years and that’s what leaders keep doing as an answer to workplace woes (low morale, low productivity, lack of accountability, poor relationships, etc.). It makes some sense after all. When you think of a team, what do you think of? People working together in unison? Everyone focused on the same objective? Accessing collective wisdom to find great collaborative solutions to thorny problems? These are all great things and it is certainly nice when it happens. When it happens.... Unfortunately building a great team can be a bit like catching lightning in a bottle. It is hard to do and even harder to sustain. But the thing is... When it works, it is all worth it.

Of course if you ask someone that has been to a team-building workshop or two they will probably roll their eyes at the waste of time. So why is it that so many people end up frustrated with what is intended to be a positive, engaging, and supportive experience?

The answer is that building teams is a mistake. Stop building teams!! You should be building collaborative workgroups instead. What is the difference? Good question! The simplest explanation is this:

  • If the work you and your people do is mostly independent, the outcomes are defined, and the roles stay consistent, then you should probably build a work-group.

  • If the outcomes are emergent, the work is highly dependent on others team member’s contribution, and the roles are flexible/adaptable then you should be leaning more towards a team (assuming you can let go of control!)

Sounds simple, right? So why are we building so many teams and where do they go so wrong?

Part of the problem is that teams are popular in organizations for the wrong reasons. Team building is used as an employee engagement strategy rather than as a strategic approach to work. The idea is: create a “team” environment and the organization will get better results with more highly engaged employees. That’s the theory anyways. Alas, high-performing teams are only about 15% of teams. Most of the rest huddle around mediocrity (or even worse, toxicity) and are inefficient compared to what each individual could do alone.

When teams fail to meet their promise, people lose faith, become less engaged, or worse; you lose people and/or clients. Teams fail to thrive for a wide variety of reasons but most often it comes down to two things: The work is not suited for a “team” approach and/or leadership.

The work does not call for a team approach

One of the main reasons that teams are the wrong approach to engaging people is that most of the work people do does not require teamwork. Getting things done often requires coordinated efforts for sure, but not collaboration. Only occasionally is collaboration a requirement of getting things done, and that is usually a one-off type situation (all hands on deck to solve a big problem for example) or it happens between a sub-group of the team dealing with something they can handle together on an as-needed basis.

Trying to get a team to focus on work that doesn’t really require a team leads to frustration and disengagement because it is very inefficient. It wastes people’s time, their attention lags, accountability suffers and that tends to mean reduced quality and drama. Trying to get a “team” to do work that doesn’t require teamwork is a bit like putting an entire crew on a job that just needs a guy with a shovel.


There is another reason teams are an unsuccessful strategy. This one may even be more significant than what’s above. Many leaders/organizations don’t have the capacity for true team leadership. Leading collaborative work demands a self-aware leader that can share power and serve his/her people. It also sometimes requires unpopular stands and many leaders are afraid that members of their team may react badly.

When people are unwilling to make the hard decisions (and take action as a result) they avoid it, even at the cost of low productivity and loss of respect (most people expect boss-like behaviour from their leaders and when they don’t see it they lose respect for that leader). This is especially true when a leader has been promoted from their peers and has to shift the relationship.

Even if the leader can navigate the challenging balance between direction, inquiry, empowerment, and accountability, they still might be working in a risk-averse, hierarchical, power-based, political organization. These organizations tend towards a workplace culture that does not support collaboration and teamwork. When that is the case, a leader can create pockets of team excellence but it is very rare, mostly unsustainable, and it takes a unique leader to pull it off. Most are better off building work-groups.

So What?

So what indeed? That is the big question. If you know that “team-building” is not what you need then what do you do. Fortunately the answer is not that complex. It means you should be building a functional work-group instead of a team. Leading a functional work-group is different from leading a team in a few key ways.

  • Direction and strategy is set by you (a team would do most of this collaboratively)

  • You may ask for the team’s input but you make the decisions (teams make decisions together)

  • The request for input is often one-on-one (teams have these conversations together and avoid triangulation)

  • You, perhaps in cooperation, define the functional roles to accomplish the work (a team would collaboratively segment the work)

  • Accountability is the responsibility of the leader (on a team, members hold each other accountable)

  • Meetings are used mostly to coordinate efforts (teams use meetings for decision-making and problem solving)

There are, of course many other examples of how teams differ from groups but the main difference is the style of leadership. In a nutshell, group leaders are more directive, team leaders are more facilitative.

Now that you have realized you should be leading a group instead of a team, what should you do? Here are a few pointers.

  • Understand where you want to control decisions and outcomes and where you are willing to let your people make decisions (your boundaries)

  • Be clear, transparent, and consistent with your approach

  • If you are going to change how you lead, let people know how and why (if you don’t they will make it up anyhow)

  • Get comfortable with your use of power

  • People expect their leaders to take ownership for direction, outcomes, decisions, accountability, etc.

  • Unless you have built a great team and negotiated responsibility with them, you will need to get used to being “in-charge”. It can be uncomfortable. That’s part of the leadership journey

  • Talk to your people about it and find out what they want

  • Discuss the boundaries that guide your leadership style

  • Get their input into how they would like to be led

  • Structure your meetings so they are limited and accomplish what people need

  • Focus on building strong relationships with each person individually

  • Help people understand that you may treat them each a bit differently but that you are fair and balanced in your approach (if you don’t talk about it, they will)

  • Be fair and balanced in your approach

Leadership is a rewarding, exciting, frustrating, challenging, lonely, confusing, and satisfying kind of role. It is not for everyone and the best of them never stop learning, adapting, and seeking the right approach for the work to be done and the people they serve. Knowing if you should to lead a team or a group (or a hybrid) takes an understanding of the work to be done and a willingness to honestly assess your leadership strengths, weaknesses, and preferences, then chose the right fit. It takes a commitment to the art and science of leadership.

Lane Sherman is the author of the book “The Keys to Collaboration: How to build a great team or fix the one you’ve got” (Amazon, 2015) and is the creator of the For Leaders Only Workshop Series. He has an MA in Leadership and has worked with over 4,000 teams in his 15+ years as a team developer and leader. He currently works in private practice fixing broken teams and helping leaders (and organizations) hit their collaboration sweet spot.

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