Obliterating Myths About Teams

by Randi S. Brenowitz

This article was featured in the May 19, 2003 issue of HR.com

Although the results generated by high-performing teams can seem alluring, there is no magic in what is required to build a strong team. It takes intense commitment and strong foundation work. Whether the team's purpose is new service delivery, compensation program reviews, policy development, curbing turnover or improving performance, there are key areas to address or the team is likely to fail. Just as architects use a blueprint to guide them through a project, teams also need a model from which to work and guidelines to keep them focused on fulfilling their goals and ultimate purpose. Although team building can be hard work, companies cannot leave a team's success to chance.

One way to bolster success is to debunk the myths or popular beliefs surrounding team building and teamwork. These beliefs are inaccurate and contribute to the collapse of many teams. Using accurate methods when constructing and supporting teams creates an environment that allows teams to flourish. Here are some of the most common myths:

Myth #1: Teams are the panacea to all problems
Many corporate executives believe teams are the panacea for everything wrong in their organizations. Teams do save organizations money, increase productivity, streamline processes and contribute to improved quality of services and goods. Yet, Robbins and Finley, authors of, The New Why Teams Don't Work: What Goes Wrong and How to Make It Right, state that "teams that are a mechanism solely for saving money tend to wear out sooner, their juices flow intermittently at best, and in their frustration, members tear into one another." Teams cannot fix all the issues inside an organization. Another common fallacy is that problem employees can be "cured" by placing them on teams. Unfortunately, this does not work. Even those who occasionally make sound contributions still tend to cause problems for the organizations and the teams on which they serve. Teams work best when their purpose for existence is tied to a specific challenge, and they have the appropriate membership and support.

Myth #2: Mixing successful employees guarantees a successful team
Simply choosing the most capable people and putting them in a room together does not guarantee that they will function as a high-performing team. While the appeal of successful teams is their combined intellect, experience, resourcefulness and problem solving skills, this does not happen easily. Even the most well-intentioned people will run into problems when the right foundation work is not in place to support their efforts. Teams are most successful in achieving their goals when they are equipped with the right tools, guided by clear goals and a supportive environment and made up of trustworthy, dependable members.

Myth #3: Teams can produce results overnight
Organizations cannot create a team on Monday and expect results by Friday. It takes time, nurturing and growing pains to produce a successful team capable of generating outstanding results. Teams need time to meet together to create genuine buy-in to the team goals. Taking the necessary time to lay a firm foundation allows a team the opportunity to become high performing. In other words, go slow to go fast. "It takes time, it's not going to happen overnight, and it needs constant reinforcement," says Elisabeth Ekman, VP of Engineering for Zilog, builders of semi-conductors located in Campbell, California. "We have been at this collaborative team building effort for nearly two years, and now it's pretty much running itself. But what's important is to stick to building the team effort consistently." When organizations are patient with their teams' efforts, the teams have a higher chance of fulfilling or exceeding their mission.

Myth #4: Any group of people is essentially a team
There is a tendency to use 'team' for labeling many different group efforts. For example, a customer service department might label its employees the "customer service team." Yet, while these employees are doing something collectively, they may never interact with each other, or have interdependent goals. In other words, they are working colleagues, not team members. In the book, Wisdom of Teams, Katzenbach and Smith define a real team as "a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable."

Other groups that are not necessarily teams include committees and work groups. Work groups, unlike teams, have individual accountability and work products. After a sufficient number of meetings and discussions, the members of a work group decide and then delegate. In contrast, teams have mutual accountability and collective work products. They have open-ended, problem-solving deliberations before making decisions and then decide how to accomplish their goals. While teams may be more trouble initially, they are frequently worth it as collectively, team members possess more experience, understanding, and knowledge to solve challenges than any one individual.

The Team Essentials Model©

Using a teambuilding model gives team members a blueprint for successfully achieving the team's purpose. For example, the Team Essentials Model© consists of four crucial elements that help team members create a commitment to a common vision:

  1. Supportive Environment. A team needs internal support from management or the team effort may fail. Team members require the essential resources to get the job done, such as materials, research capabilities, software and human resources.. Senior management should ask and receive regular briefings on the team's progress as well as recognize and appreciate a team's effort toward achieving corporate strategy.
  2. Clear Goals. "Teams fail when their reason for being is unclear," according to Robbins and Finley. Clear goals provide a structure and direction for each individual member of the team and they create the context in which team members can make their day-to-day decisions. Team involvement in goal setting will increase each member's buy-in and commitment.
  3. Operating Agreements. These explicit agreements detail how each member of the team will behave, and how the team will work together, make decisions, communicate, share information, and support each other. Creating agreements early in the team's existence serves as a team-building process that enables the members to experience immediately how well they can work and communicate together.
  4. Competent, Dependable, Trusted Team Members. Teams have the most difficulty with this part of the equation. All members need to feel confident that the others are trustworthy and that they will fulfill their ends of the "bargain" (by keeping the team agreements). Any team member who breaks an agreement must understand that he or she is breaking the trust. Conversely, when team agreements are kept over time, they build trust between the team members and in the team process. This model helps build a strong team by establishing a foundation upon which they can achieve their goals. The Team Essentials Model© is adaptable to any kind of team (single function, cross-functional and virtual), in any industry and with any kind of problem.

Guidelines for Building Strong Teams
The Team Essentials Model© gives direction for building strong teams. Additionally, here are some simple, but effective guidelines to assist teams in using the model and in achieving their goals:

  • Support the time it takes to build a team. Patience is crucial. It can take months or even years before a team's impact is felt.
  • Include leadership roles on the team. Add middle management and executives to teams, but be wary. If the team "chief" makes all the decisions solely, the team is a fake. The leader must have credibility throughout the team to keep its vision alive.
  • Create agreements about how the team functions and manages meetings. Develop a process for making decisions and communicating in and outside of meetings. Doing this means nothing is left to question and helps eliminates potential obstacles.
  • Incorporate and encourage open communication among team members. In some organizations, it is beneficial to involve customers in the team's decision-making process.
  • Design a plan for how the team will commence. Teams fail when they lack vision for the future and a mission for getting there. When teams have a plan, they work to achieve it and no time is lost on 'next step' discussions.

Building strong Benefits/Compensations or Human Resource teams is not an overnight process. Teams become high performing when company leaders take the necessary time to genuinely support and build them accordingly. And, when teams are successful, there's no question about the payoff. There is an incredible sense of exhilaration and synergy that drives organizations closer to achieving their goals.


Randi S. Brenowitz is principal at Brenowitz Consulting, a Palo Alto, California-based Organization Development Consulting firm dedicated to improving productivity through teamwork and collaboration. For over 20 years Brenowitz has worked in partnership with her clients to develop teams, team leaders and team members in order to create collaborative work environments and increase corporate productivity.

To subscribe to Tools for Teams, her electronic newsletter, email newsletter@brenowitzconsulting.com. For more information, contact Brenowitz Consulting at (650) 843-1611 or visit her website at www.brenowitzconsulting.com.



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