When is a Team not a Team?

Somehow, after a few glasses of wine on Friday night, I found myself in a discussion about teams. My friend, a very accomplished and successful business owner, believes that there are no true teams in a business context – that everyone is inherently selfish and does what’s best for them. Naturally, my first instinct was to disagree. We didn’t continue the conversation to its conclusion as it was that good sort of evening where more amusing topics out-trump the ‘heavy’ ones. But it did get me thinking – could he be right??

The concept of teams comes from sport, where the common goal is extremely clear (or should be, putting betting scandals to one side…). I’m talking about football, rugby, hockey – the kind of sport where each team member is reliant on each of the others to play their role effectively to gain the optimum result. In these ‘true’ teams, selfish play is unhelpful and more likely than not to negatively impact the final result.

When we talk about teams in a business context, we typically either mean a group of people working together on a specific project, an area of business (what used to be called a ‘division’ perhaps) or a “management team”. It seems to me that some of these teams are ‘truer’ than others.

Teams working on a project are both working to a common goal and tend to be interdependent – for example, if one person misses a deadline, this could have a knock-on effect that impacts the whole project. Selfish behaviour in this context would be the opposite of what you see in sport ie. not doing stuff instead of doing too much (hogging the ball). But the result would be the same – the failure of the team. In project work, an individual team member may have to put aside something they would rather be doing to accomplish tasks that will keep the project on track.

At the other end of the scale, is this necessarily the case when we talk about a management team? The common goal here tends to be either a revenue or profit target. As each manager may head up a separate division, they would be expected to maximize the financial results of their area, which would be expected to benefit the final company result. So, in this circumstance, selfish behaviour may have no impact or even benefit the final performance of the management team. Where there are clashes of interest – for example, the Ops or Finance Directors driving costs down at the expense of quality or new developments – then the Chief Exec is there to take the decisions and set priorities. So, with so few interdependencies between team members, in what way is this actually a team, rather than a group of people getting on with their jobs?

I put this out there as food for thought. My current state of thinking is that ‘true’ teams need to have some degree of interdependency. As for being selfish, perhaps we all are. Everything we do gives us something, even if it is for our soul only and not apparent to anyone else. So the trick in business is to make each team member want to do what they need to do in order to meet the team objective.

Ultimately, the selfish sports player will not build a successful career unless the team wins games!


0 thoughts on “When is a Team not a Team?”

  1. Andy Drake says:

    Hi Cath

    I get where you are coming from but my sense is often management teams do not deep down believe that they are
    ‘on that team’ i.e the Executive team is not really their team their dept reponsibilities are where their loyalties lie. For me it is
    all interconnected….the leader needs to make clear that the Executive team is their primary team, he/she needs to engender
    true levels of trust that allow people to challenge and contribute not only in their ‘subvject matter’ area but across depts/functions.
    Ultimately, I think this about leadership and trust, clarity that ‘your team’ is the Management team and the selfish behaviours
    you mention unfortunately often drive the silos, egos and dysfunctional behaviour that we all know exists. Often inability
    of leadership to engender true trust in their teams add to the factional nature. I think the Managmnet team and sport team
    parallel is appropriate for business but the only way to get it operating in reality is to build trust in the team and make it clear
    the true purpose of Management teams , which should extend beyond revenue and margin (they are outcomes). Those that
    dont want to play ball with the wider view of Management responsibility would in mind ‘fail the fitness test’ and not make the

  2. Catherine says:

    Having pondered on this further, I think the problem with many management teams is that there can be no real incentive to build teamship apart from the messages their Chief Exec/MD gives them. So, yes, it absolutely is about leadership, but the team structure has to support it as well. A good strategy may be to create dependencies within the team so they actually have to work together and build the relationships and the trust. This may be by getting team members to work together on other projects, if there are no ‘natural’ dependencies. Where there is an element of competition (between internal teams), there is often a negative impact on trust (thanks to Mark Van Walwyk for clarifying this in conversation!) so a good leader needs to overcome this to get the management team working effectively.

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