Four Common Myths About Teams

describe the imageHumans are social animals and spend much of their time working in groups and teams, yet most people don’t understand the dynamics of effective teamwork. That is not to say people do not recognize good teamwork when they see it, but many do not know what to do in order to get people to work together effectively. Some of this confusion is due to the following misunderstandings about teams and teamwork:

Myth #1: Teams always perform better than individuals. Although we like to think that groups outperform individuals, there are some tasks that are better performed by individuals. Repairing cars, setting up home theaters, and conducting sales calls illustrate this clearly. Yes, teams of mechanics can work on cars and companies can endorse eight-legged sales calls, but in many cases this would degrade the performance of the individuals doing the work. Our default action is to assign work to groups rather than individuals and this often leads to redundancies and inefficiencies. Leaders need to look at the nature of the work to be performed and determine the best way to get it done.

Myth #2: Athletic teams are good analogies for business teams. Leaders often use athletic teams as examples for creating high-performing work teams. Given the prevalence and visibility of professional sports teams, these analogies are understandable but misguided. Work teams are nothing like athletic teams. Think about 2012 Super Bowl Champions the New York Giants. Many private and public sector leaders would love their teams to perform like the Giants, but professional athletic teams differ from work teams in five important ways. First, professional athletic teams obsess over talent. Potential players must participate in combines, mini-camps, training camps, and preseason games before final hiring decisions are made. Many work team members are selected on the basis of availability and internal politics rather than skill. Second, athletic teams practice-to-play ratio is something like 100-to-1, whereas work teams spend little if any time practicing. Third, professional athletic teams have clear team goals (i.e., win a championship) and objective measures of success (win-loss records), whereas work teams often suffer from ill-defined goals and metrics. Fourth, the challenges and threats facing professional athletic teams (i.e., next week’s opponent) are clearly understood, whereas the challenges facing work teams are much harder to anticipate. Finally, athletic coaches teach their teams how to win. They are constantly teaching team members new strategies and tactics for beating competitors, whereas work leaders rarely, if ever, educate their teams. These differences do not mean work teams should not borrow some of the best practices of professional athletic teams, but mindlessly applying sports analogies to work teams is not particularly useful.

Myth #3: Corporations are team-oriented. If you look at the corporate values of any company, collaboration and teamwork usually appear near the top of the list. Although companies constantly preach the importance of teamwork many of their processes and systems encourage individualism. Most company’s performance management systems are based on individually oriented goals and accomplishments; team goals, contributions, and results typically take a back seat. Likewise, hiring and compensation systems, budgets, and support programs (i.e., IT help desks) are often slanted more towards individuals than groups. Though they often hope for teamwork, companies reward individual effort.

Myth #4: Effective teamwork is common in most organizations. Many people believe that if you put together a group of high performing individuals, they will eventually coalesce into a high performing team. Unfortunately we all know examples of work and athletic teams that had the right talent but failed to perform to expectations. Effective teamwork is actually a relatively rare occurrence. Although we have all belonged to hundreds of teams, only a few qualify as high performing teams. Because most groups and teams have ill-defined goals, use ineffective work processes, squander resources, or suffer from interpersonal conflict, they usually fall short of their goals. 

By Gordon Curphy
Curphy Consulting Corporation
Guest blogger and author of The Rocket Model