Stop managing a group and start leading a team

Main idea: Most teams in a work setting are a cluster of individuals forced to work together through corporate hierarchy. This is a significant problem for engagement, productivity, and the mission of the business. More attention and resources must be given to develop and maintain real teams if we’re to see their full potential.

This is the first part of a 6-blog series on teams.

If you think you’re part of a team, you’re probably kidding yourself.

More likely you’re part of a loose confederation of individuals. The group probably has some vague sense of a common goal. There are a few people who actually depend on each other to accomplish their work. And maybe, just maybe, there are a couple folks in the group who actually know and trust each other.

After reflecting on 20+ years of working directly with teams and 5 years researching the attributes of teams I discovered that a real team is actually very difficult to attain and sustain over a long period of time. I’m certainly guilty of using the term team loosely and applying it to any group of warm bodies sitting in a room together.

It feels great to say we’re a team and who wants to be the jerk who says, you’re not part of a team. Well, cut me some slack to be that jerk today. Just know that my passion comes from a sincere place. I love the magic that unfolds when an actual team sets in motion.

I propose committing more time and resources to how teams are structured, supported, and developed.

Investing in teams may be more important than any other productivity initiative you have underway. The increasing complexity and distributed nature of work will only continue to make organizations more dependent on the quality of people working together. If we ignore this we are putting at risk productivity, innovation, engagement, and customer satisfaction.

The act of organizing people together into a formal structure with a manager at the helm is how work is effectively managed and controlled. This is a good thing. The structure is intended to provide an efficient way for communication to occur, standards implemented, and improvements implemented. However, there is more to the structure of teams than just business processes.

Unfortunately, the process of building teams in most organizations often looks more like coaching kids on a soccer field than a well thought out and planned management tool. The problem lies in understanding what is needed to make teams successful and how to ensure teams succeed. Most training programs focus on individual leadership skills or a single attribute of teams such as trust. All of these efforts add short-term value. But, teams are more complex and all the training and coaching rarely passes through to the real world. We have to get tougher on teams if we’re to get better.

A bold organization would save the unique designation of a team as a special honor that is earned and rewarded.

Leaders aggressively working to build a real team, maintain it, and protect the parameters that make it a team should be recognized. Every other cluster of individuals should be acknowledged as simply a group. This is not a bad thing, organizations need effective groups too.

“We’re a group, striving to be a team,” should be the attitude and mantra of every manager responsible for leading a group of individuals.

A challenge is that we’re immune to the value a real team can bring because a high performing team is so rare. Why would we put so much effort into chasing ghosts, if we’re not sure they exist! We hear about anecdotes of great teams, read stories of great teams in popular leadership books. We catch glimpses of them from time to time, but they are challenging to maintain.

Most so-called teams are good enough, and like the parable of the frog in boiling water, we just don’t realize things could be a lot better because we’re immersed in it day in and day out. Consider the volume of conversations you’ve had with your inner-circle of colleagues, mentors, friends, and spouse about work.

What amount of time and energy was drained due to team-related issues?

Disagreements, miscommunication, preferential treatment, mistakes, ineffective meetings, bad information, low standards, missed goals, cliques, politics, etc. Many of these issues come down to the ineffectiveness of a group of people working together, yet the most common response is to single out the leader or an individual on the team as the one being at fault. When teams begin to falter, the hunt for a lone culprit usually begins like a bad crime scene investigation.

If more leaders and their group members understood the conditions required to be a team and the potential benefits it would bring we would see more commitment to becoming a team.

In a recent study by the Gallup organization, they found that 70% of employees are not engaged. A closer look at the study and you will find that a common theme of their questions is related to the performance of the team and the individual’s connection to the team.

It is also difficult to achieve in an organization that is unaware what factors contribute to great teams. There are certainly incredible leaders walking through the halls building great teams, but the organization as a collective culture is typically unaware. This is a tremendous missed opportunity to replicate great teams and reap the benefits of the multiplying effect of internal teams working together.

There are a number of ways to create an organization that creates teams through cultural and operational changes. These suggestions are addressed specifically in this blog series.

When a real team has formed it’s a thing of beauty.

It is most evident in live performances such as sports teams, music, improv theater, and forms of art where a perfectly defined script does not exist, but there is a common goal among the members. Most of us know something special is unfolding because we feel the synergy, the flow, the pace, and what feels like a choreographed movement. The customer is perfectly clear and the conditions to perform their job is optimal in these settings.

High functioning teams operate at a level rarely seen. Multiple layers of verbal and nonverbal language simultaneously happen that allows for sentences to be finished. Subtle gestures can trigger an entire series of movement in unison and decisions are executed with confidence.

In a work setting, it’s far more subtle and often by design, that great teams fall into the shadows because they perform without an audience and occur slowly over time. This is what makes a real team an elusive target and even more difficult to mimic.

Teams are not complicated, but cultures are.

There are ways to create a real team, but most people won’t make the effort and I can’t blame them because the culture won’t allow it. Drucker said it best, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”… and lunch, and dinner. So these recommendations are not for the faint of heart or more importantly, for any one leader. These are recommendations for a cultural transformation by leaders that believe teams are an effective means of accomplishing their goals.

The foundation of my recommendations is largely based on the work of the late, great Richard J. Hackman. He is possibly the single most expert on teams in our lifetime. I highly recommend his book Leading Teams from the Harvard Press. In addition, I would recommend the work of Fank LaFasto and Carl Larson. The results of their fieldwork and practical experience are undervalued. Throughout this series, I also present what I learned from my own research and experience.

I’m committing to going into detail on each of the elements below in the hope that it inspires and enable real teams to be born and thrive. Over the course of the next 6-8 weeks, I'll address the following issues with teams:

Who is really on the team?

Where in the hell are we going?

Is this acceptable?

Y’all got our back?

Where’s the coach?

The journey begins today.

Take Action

Take a tough look at the groups of people you're working with and consider what attributes are helping and which are hindering the full development of the team. What are some of your observations?

Thanks for taking the time to read. I hope you will consider giving the post some likes and shares, it’s the fuel that keeps me writing.

About the author:

Kris Potrafka, Ph.D. is the Founder and CEO of Music Firsthand, a music technology start-up. He is a former operations and HR executive working with leaders to solve complex organizational development challenges. Follow Kris on Medium and connect with him on LinkedIn.

Originally published at

#teamwork #leadership #trust #teams #change

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