The Quest for Better Teams

Corporations increasingly organize workforces into teams, a practice that gained popularity in the ’90s. By 2000, roughly half of all U.S. organizations used the team approach; today, virtually all do.

There are several barriers to achieving great work from teams:

  • Some individuals are faster (or better) on key tasks.
  • Developing and maintaining teams can prove costly and time-consuming.
  • Some individuals do less work, relying on others to complete assigned tasks.
  • Team members aren’t always clear about roles and responsibilities, and they sometimes avoid conflict in favor of consensus.

Despite these potential pitfalls, effective teams benefit from combined talent and experience, more diverse resources and greater operating flexibility. Research in the last decade demonstrates the superiority of group decision-making over even the brightest individual’s singular contributions.


Teams can be composed of 3 to 20+ members, but there’s often an ideal number: around 10–12, depending on the nature of the project. They can, and should, be diverse to benefit from multiple perspectives, skills and knowledge.

Management professors Vanessa Urch Druskat, PhD, and Steven B. Wolff, PhD, identify three conditions essential to group effectiveness in “Building the Emotional Intelligence of Groups” (Harvard Business Review, March 2001):

  1. Trust among members
  2. A sense of group identity
  3. A sense of group efficacy

When working well, teams have definite advantages:

  • Improved information-sharing
  • Better decisions, products and services
  • Higher employee motivation and engagement


When a team first forms, members should identify their common goals and purpose. They can formalize their mission in a meeting that covers:

  1. Core purpose
  2. Core values
  3. Business definition
  4. Strategy
  5. Goals
  6. Roles and responsibilities

Team members must have a shared understanding of the business before they define their purpose. Without this foundation, group cohesiveness is more difficult to achieve.

Next, team members should list what they intend to achieve as a group. This goal should be qualitative rather than quantitative.


In Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Jossey-Bass, 2005), Patrick Lencioni advises team members to identify a “thematic goal” that answers the following question:

“What is the single most important goal that we must achieve during this period if we are to consider ourselves successful?”

Examples include:

  • Improve customer satisfaction.
  • Control expenses.
  • Increase market awareness.
  • Launch a new product.
  • Strengthen the team.
  • Rebuild the infrastructure.
  • Grow market share.

Choosing a thematic goal doesn’t mean that other goals are ignored. A thematic goal ensures that every team member emphasizes a core priority, thereby creating team alignment, minimizing paralysis and frustration, and avoiding a collective silo mentality (i.e., hoarding information).


Effective teams excel in the following functional areas:

T = Trust

“When it comes to teams, trust is all about vulnerability,” Lencioni notes. “Team members who trust one another learn to be comfortable being open, even exposed, to one another around their failures, weaknesses, even fears.”

Trusting relationships form the foundation for forgiveness and acceptance. Trust cannot exist if team members are afraid to say “I could be wrong” or “I messed up.”

Team-building sessions are the glue that holds the group together when the going gets rough.

E = Engagement

Engagement requires team members to be open to debate and willing to discuss the issues and tasks that matter most. Members who succumb to apathy and disengagement often don’t feel safe enough to speak up.

A = Accountability

Team members who commit to decisions and performance standards aren’t afraid to hold one another accountable. In fact, they invite suggestions that help each member stay on task.

Team members should agree on set phrases to remind each other of what matters most. They can help each other out by noticing distractions and steering efforts toward accomplishing thematic goals. Groups should be encouraged to ask key questions on a regular basis:

  • Will (this issue) or (task) help us reach our goals?
  • I notice ____ hasn’t been finished. What do you need to get it done?
  • What resources are missing here?

Effective team members are quick to spot problems and are willing to speak up without assigning blame.

M = Metrics

Highly functional teams focus on group efforts and avoid seeking personal gains, fulfilling career aspirations and/or boosting individual egos. They use metrics to assess their achievements—be it a simple whiteboard or a sophisticated online tracking tool.

Success depends on monitoring progress and posting results for all members to see. Results should be updated regularly so any necessary adjustments can be made.

Teams should learn to provide positive feedback and recognition for progress—key motivators that renew energy and drive.


Assess your team by asking each member to answer two questions confidentially:

  1. On a scale of 1 to 10, how well are we working together as a team?
  2. On a scale of 1 to 10, how well do we need to be working together as a team?

Calculate and discuss the results. According to research involving several hundred teams in multinational corporations, the average team member believes his/her team operates at a 5.8 level of effectiveness, but recognizes the need to be at an 8.7.