Deborah Mackin

Article Summary:

What is the difference between a team or a group, and when should you form one over the other?

The Difference Between A Team And A Group

Years ago an executive director called me from Arizona saying that she had converted her organization into teams overnight and had told people to pair up with those who wanted to work together. She was calling because she couldn’t figure out what to do with the people with whom nobody wanted to work. Her question: could those people just be a group rather than a team?

That question prompted a fascinating exploration: when does a group become a team? What are the distinguishing characteristics of a team that are different from a group? The behaviors of a real team are decidedly different from a group.

We believe the best definition of a team is from the book Wisdom of Teams. “A team is a small group of people with complementary skills and abilities who are committed to a common goal and approach for which they hold each other accountable.” Let’s pick this definition apart. The best size for teams is 7-12 individuals. Larger teams require more structure and support; smaller teams often have difficulty meeting when members are absent. Members have skills and abilities that complement the team’s purpose. Not all members have the same skills, but together they are greater than the sum of their parts. On teams, members share roles and responsibilities and are constantly developing new skills to improve the team’s performance. Teams identify and reach consensus on their common goal and approach, rather than looking to a leader to define the goal and approach. Most importantly, teams hold their members accountable. What does this mean in practical terms? When they experience conflict with a member, they speak to that member directly rather than to a supervisor. When a member isn’t performing to the level required, the team addresses the performance problem.

Now let’s look at how a group functions. A group can be defined as a small group of people with complementary skills and abilities who are committed to a leader’s goal and approach and are willing to be held accountable by the leader . A group supports the leader’s goals and the leader-dominated approach to goal attainment. A group drives individual accountability rather than shared accountability. Leadership is predominantly held by one person rather than the shared, fluid leadership on a team. In a group, the dominant viewpoint is represented; in a team, multiple, diverse viewpoints are represented. Decisions in a group are made by voting or implied agreement; decisions on a team are typically made by consensus.

So, would it be right to say that teams are good and groups are bad? Absolutely not. A better question to ask is: when do you use a group and when do you make the extra effort to develop a team? Let’s face it, groups are far easier to create than teams, so it makes sense to be a group when the following exist: the decisions and process are already determined, buy-in is not necessary, time is a critical factor and there is split or minimal management support for teaming. To form the group, identify a strong, effective leader and empower the person to recruit group members, formulate the goal and approach and drive decision making. This approach would be practical for short-term projects with outcomes already defined.

Teaming, on the other hand, should be used when you need broad buy-in for the best results, when no one person has the answer and when shared responsibility is important to the success of the goal. To achieve a real team is difficult and time-consuming. There is no magic bullet that will transform a group into a team overnight. It takes time to develop the skills to work well together and understand how to solve problems and make decisions effectively.

The next time your group or team gets together, ask the members “What would it take for us to be a real, high performance team?” Then, as you brainstorm the answer, challenge them to press forward toward being a team.

Deborah Mackin is founder and president of New Directions Consulting, Inc. and author of teambuilding books, including the 2nd edition of the Team Building Tool Kit (Fall, 2007). As an international consultant and trainer for 20+ years, Deborah is a widely recognized authority on teams, quality service, productivity, and leadership. For more information, visit New Directions Consulting.

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