Important Differences Between Groups and Teams

Nine people rowing a long kayak as a team. Differences Between Groups and Teams

The terms team and group are often used interchangeably, but there are some differences between groups and teams.

We define teams as consisting of three to 25 people who:

– Work toward a common set of goals
– Work jointly
– Share common leadership
– Hold joint accountability for performance
– See themselves as being part of a team with common goals and shared fates

Groups and Teams

This definition of teams is somewhat different from the usual definition in three ways. First, according to this definition dyads are not teams. The dynamics between any two people are much simpler than those between three or more people. Second, this definition assumes people share a “mental model” about the teams to which they belong. In other words, they identify themselves as being members of a particular team and tend to have common interpretations of events. And third, teams tend to be fairly small—usually less than 25 people. Larger groups may call themselves teams (such as a professional football team) but in reality, they are usually groups made up of various sub-teams (the offensive unit, defensive unit, etc.). Common examples of teams might include commercial aircrews, crews of firefighters, United States Army platoons, product development teams, manufacturing shift workers, fast food restaurant crews, research and development teams, and soccer teams. The individuals in each of these examples share common goals, depend on the help of the other team members, share leadership and common fates, and most importantly, identify with their teams.

Groups are clusters of people that do not share these five characteristics to the same extent as teams. A regional sales team responsible for selling insurance and other financial services to local citizens would be a prototypical group. In this so-called team, each sales rep has individual revenue and profitability goals for an assigned geographic territory. An individual’s ability to achieve these goals does not depend on what the other sales reps do; instead, it is completely dependent upon that person’s own performance. Although individual efforts contribute towards the region’s revenues and profitability goals, the region’s performance is merely the sum of each rep’s individual efforts. If a regional sales manager wants to increase revenues, then he or she could add reps, expand territories, increase prices, or change the product mix; requiring the reps to work more closely together would have little if any impact on the region’s financial performance.

Leading Groups and Teams

This is not to say that leaders play passive roles when managing groups. In fact, far from it! Leaders in charge of groups need to ensure that the members operate under the same assumptions regarding customers and competitors, possess the right skills, stay motivated, share information, have adequate resources, achieve their individual goals, and get differences quickly resolved. Contrast these leadership demands with those of a head surgeon of a cardiovascular surgical team. The head surgeon would have many of these same leadership responsibilities but would also need to ensure that their fellow surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants shared common goals, cooperated, used common work processes, had seamless task handoffs, shared a common fate, and identified with the team as they put stents and pacemakers into patients. Thus, the leadership demands on people in charge of teams are more extensive (and consequently more difficult to master) than the demands on people in charge of groups.

This blog post was authored by Gordon Curphy, managing partner of Curphy Leadership Solutions and author of The Rocket Model.