What is teamwork?


While two people who collaborate and synergize are a team, most of us think of teams as larger groups. And it is these larger groups - executive teams, management task forces and committees … - that this is about.

There are at least three ways in which the word 'teamwork' is frequently and wrongly used. To some teamwork is what happens when a group:

  • Meets and talks about business
  • Votes on an issue
  • Of people 'get along' with one another, when they work without friction.

All three notions miss the main point. Holding a meeting, voting, working in harmony - any of these can happen without true teamwork. A team, obviously, is a group that generates teamwork. This does not necessarily mean it holds lots of meetings (it may hold very few), or votes on important issues (it may rarely vote, and its votes may not be binding), or functions without friction (disagreement and tension may be fairly common).

Teamwork is managed, planned, systematic coordination of efforts by a group with a common goal, for the purpose of achieving that goal in an optimally effective way. Let's examine this definition:

  • Managed: it does not just happen. It happens because one or more people are in control, guiding and channeling the group's efforts. The control need not be formal; in groups without an official 'boss', it may be informal. But control there must be; somebody must direct the group's activities
  • Planned: this does not mean everything the group does is laid out ahead of time. It means the group's overall functioning is planned. Teamwork is rarely haphazard; it is the result of organization and preparation
  • Systematic: in a systematic operation, the component parts work together as a unit. If any part fails to do its job, the whole unit may break down. Teamwork is a systematic operation; all members are interdependent, and the group relies on all of them for its ultimate success
  • Common goal: there can be no teamwork where people pursue 'private agendas' or work at cross-purposes. Teamwork depends upon all members having a shared purpose. They must all have a goal or goals that require collaboration and interdependency.
  • Coordinates: it may not always succeed, but a team tries to optimize benefits compared to cost
  • Effective: a team does what an effective executive does, it optimizes deployment of resources to achieve the business objectives.

The hallmark of a team is that it is a group -of skilled individuals- with a purpose and that it is organized to function collaboratively and interdependently so as to achieve that purpose effectively.


The importance of individual skills

Let us start with the obvious. You cannot build a high-performance team unless some of its members, at least, have mastered interactional skills. A group in which nobody thinks about receptivity, nobody listens, … cannot be shaped into a high-performance team. This does not imply that everyone on the team must have mastered interactional skills to the highest degree, although that would be ideal. But certainly, some members must have: these will be the catalysts who help the others move closer to the expected team behavior. Without a few such catalysts, the team dynamics may prove very difficult.


Team Building

Team building is not a one-shot affair. It is a continuing process. Teams should meet periodically to re-diagnose their interactional patterns, write new and more potent prescriptions if necessary, and update and -if experience warrants- modify their business goals. We try not to make flat assertions, but we will make one now: team building must never stop. When we talk about team building, we are not referring to the 'natural' out-growth of a group working together over time. Obviously, as a team stays together and works together, its productivity should improve, especially with appropriate leadership.

However, team building is a special process, a clearly-defined task that a team deliberately undertakes for the purpose of making itself more effective. It is not something you hope will happen sooner or later as a by-product of everything else the team does: it is something you can make happen now. There are a number of ways to build a high-performance team, all of which have proven to be effective. Team building is basically a two-step process:

  • Diagnosis: the team (e.g.. the leader and team members together) examines its patterns of interaction. It places itself under 'a social microscope'. Like a good microscope, this should magnify the interactional patterns, which nobody may have noticed before, and makes it possible to deal with them.
  • Prescription: once the diagnosis is complete, and the team knows what, if anything 'ails' it, the members can work up prescriptions for intensifying its strengths and curing its 'defects'.

Both diagnosis and prescription should be done in meetings set up for this purpose alone. We repeat: team building is a special process.

All real teams are 'mixed' teams; they display counterproductive, ineffective, tolerated and highly effective behavior. A 'pure' team is a mental construct, nothing more. Teams usually admit that their behavior, on the whole, is far from being most effective. As a rule, less than half of the teams are effective. The gap between ideal and actual is frequently significant, and the size of the gap, once perceived, should motivate effort toward higher performance team behavior. A team that wants all or nearly all of its behavior to be effective and that admits its real behavior is some distance from that ideal, has work to do.

Team building is a 'special' process, that is deliberately planned and carried out. Groups do not develop into synergistic teams simply by mouthing their good intentions; they do it by hard, deliberate work. The team must correctly diagnose its operations and then prescribe ways to improve. To do this, it must be determined, it must develop goals and it must work out detailed action plans. All of this is difficult. All of it is time-consuming. All of it is absolutely necessary.



Team building is facilitated when each member tells the teammates how one thinks the behavior is affecting team effectiveness. If you are wondering whether giving such feedback entails a risk, the answer is 'yes'. The person on the receiving end may become angry, defensive, sullen, and so on. But, over the long haul, the process will very probably make the team more collaborative. As long as the feedback is constructive, candid, and based on observed behavior, members are likely to realize that it is for their benefit, and that they stand to gain much more than they stand to lose by listening and following through.

In observing teambuilding activities over the years, we have rarely found feedback to be troublesome or divisive. On the contrary, it bonds teams together. What happens during feedback is that the entire team begins to realize its potential, a process analogous to self-realization that might be called team-realization. All the members of the team communicate constructively, contribute, listen, and stimulate one another's growth. In the great majority of instances, this is a binding experience.


Business goals

Sooner or later, members are sure to ask: Why? Why are we bothering with all this jawboning about team processes? Why are we spending so much time and effort diagnosing our behavior and prescribing better behavior? What is all this for? These are good questions. After all, a team's interactional patterns are means, but means must have ends or they are going to inspire nothing more than a sense of futility.

"What for?" is a legitimate question, and the legitimate answer is - or should be - "For the purpose of attaining the team's business goals". That is why team building must conclude not only with the setting of interactional goals but also with the setting of business goals. Business goals are instrumental not only for team processes, but also for the team's business purpose. They are goals that will bring the team closer to fulfilling its mandate; they are part of the business results expected from the team.

The team is most likely to synergize after its interactional problems have been thrashed out, the air has been cleared, and candor has reached a high level. In other words, by discussing its interactional and behavioral problems, the team prepares itself to do a better job of discussing business goals.

Genuinely challenging business goals are likely to be set only when the team synergizes. A team that is not synergizing may settle for the first goals that come to mind; these will probably be either boringly easy or unrealistically difficult. What is needed is a discussion in which the team sets optimal goals. This requires synergism.


If you want to test your perceptions of effective team behavior,

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