To Team or Not to Team?

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There is no question that teamwork is a hot topic these days as corporate America and corporate Canada spend more time than ever before trying to understand how to build the most productive and cohesive working groups. Indeed, as Amy Randel, a professor of management at San Diego State University, recently told the Associated Press: “It’s becoming difficult to think of companies that aren’t depending on teams.”

Much of the increased focus on teamwork, of course, is often attributed to millennial employees, who reportedly tend to crave collaboration and prefer to work as part of a group. As Jessica Brack and Kip Kelly noted in Maximizing Millennials in the Workplace, a white paper published by UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, the so-called cowboy generation of workers who liked to take things on alone is on the way out and being replaced by a new generation of employees that didn’t grow up the same way.

Brack and Kelly describe how millennials differ, noting they didn’t grow up leaving the house on their bikes every summer morning and returning just in time for dinner. Instead, millennials “were driven to soccer practices, music lessons and T-ball games, and most summer days were spent at a carefully selected camp. Their early (and constantly supervised) exposure to team sports has made them the best team players and collaborators in generations.”

Certainly, there are always subtle differences from one generation to the next. But in my opinion, generational distinctions between the millennial crowd and older individuals are overstated. Whatever the case, with all due respect to the current thinking about millennials in the workplace, the truth of the matter is that teamwork isn’t actually always a good thing, especially when the task at hand is relatively simple.

While many complex undertakings clearly benefit from being assigned to strong teams, the reverse can also be true. As things stand, some companies, such as software and internet firms, lend themselves better than others to team-based projects. But even at these companies, teams are often created for projects that are better suited for individual work. And the growing number of millennial workers and blind gravitation toward the creation of a team for every task will only increase this problem unless more managers stop to think before creating teams.

Keep in mind that teamwork is supposed to be about the efficient allocation of resources. And it’s no secret that teams can be bureaucratic, frustrating, and costly. So it is the leader’s job to figure out when it’s appropriate to deploy more than one employee to a task. After all, if an assignment can be efficiently completed by an individual, then creating a team to take it on is a waste of time and money.

According to a recent Google study, how teams work together is more important than who is on a team. But team members still need to work together, and trust and motivate each other, so who is on a team is still a major key to success. Simply put, some people work well with others while some don’t. And the same can be said about working alone. So before you next set out to create a team, ask yourself if it really makes sense throwing more than one body at the matter. Then, when forming teams, remember not all teams are created equal. And while you are at it, keep the following ideas in mind to help ensure the tasks you assign are completed efficiently.

First, since the best managers know how to match employees to functions best suited to their skills, let’s accept the fact that most organizations can benefit from employing both collaborators and independent workers. People who can’t work with others when required are probably not employees you want to keep around even if they are technically excellent. But some people are simply wired to perform better individually, so don’t treat them as second-class corporate citizens simply for not preferring to work in a group. Instead of punishing hard-working people for not being the strongest team players, try making room for them in your assignment roster and let them shine when the task at hand calls for a solo act. That said, employees are too often evaluated, compensated, and promoted based on their individual performance alone. And that leads to too many employees to focus on looking out for themselves. In order to develop healthy teams, workplace evaluations should take into account both individual production and teamwork.

Second, managers need to understand that there is actually an “I” in the word “team.” In fact, there is more than one since a team is a collection of individuals. And each member on a team brings both individual assets and baggage to the table. So when forming teams, leaders, at least, need to try to limit the baggage.

Obviously, workplace bullies and two-faced employees (the people who say one thing in front of the boss and another when alone with peers) should be avoided when forming teams, not to mention forced out of a healthy company culture altogether. But keep in mind that these sort of employees are not always easy for leaders to spot. Negative Nellies, excuse-makers, and drama magnets who make everything a major production are also people to avoid. This is also obvious. Nevertheless, many managers fail to give individual behaviours enough thought when forming teams. And while all employees should see it as part of their job to behave appropriately when assigned a team task, managers are still responsible for building a team with the best chances of timely success.

As a result, leaders should never assume all employees understand what it means to be on a team. They must build the best team they can and clearly set expectations up front. After all, to focus on the job at hand, teams must understand the mission. So leaders must let all concerned know whether the group assignment is permanent or project-based. Be clear about deliverables and timeframes. Explain the scope of team authority and influence. For a team to make decisions together for the greater good of the company, it must be empowered. And that means leaders also must make sure to not undermine the team’s work. If every new idea is shot down, the team will quit thinking on its own.

The bottom line is that leaders must guide teams, not take away their empowerment. Allow team members to evaluate each other individually. Begin team meetings with a check-in. What is going right? What can we improve? This will encourage peer-to-peer accountability, a trait that is non-negotiable on a successful team. To reinforce pride in team membership, encourage the development of an internal brand that team members can stand behind. This is not just an exercise in fun. By creating an internal brand, you solidify the mission and foster the collaboration required to complete it.

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