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Is Your Team Really a Work Group (and why you should care)?

Photo by Joseph Shemuel

Photo by Joseph Shemuel

Every group of people in the workplace seems to be called a team, but every group that works together isn’t a team.  This is important because as managers, we’ve learned a few things about how to manager teams and about how teams form and die etc etc, and these things don’t apply to work groups, which may be one reason why some middle managers aren’t getting the results they want.

“It’s semantics!  Team…work group…. who cares” is the comment I get most often.

The answer is I care.  Language distinctions are important because language is not only the way we stay on the same page (or not) with one another, it’s how we program our brain.  Language shapes how we think.

What is the difference between a team and a work group?

A work group is a group of people who come together to work towards a similar goal.  The individuals work mostly independently, contributing their piece to the whole.  They may meet a lot, but in reality, there is very little collaboration or interoperability amongst the members.  In my technology background, most of the so-called teams I worked on were really work groups.  That included project “teams”.

A team is also a group that works together for a common goal, and the distinction is that there is group ownership of the outcome.  There’s collective accountability and a higher level of ownership.  Teams share and build on ideas.  Well performing teams are highly interoperable, which is why that together they truly are more than the sum of their parts.

Where we run into trouble is when we want the team behavior, and we have a work group.  Think about project “teams” don’t report to the project manager.  It can be hard for those individuals to take responsibility for the overall outcome of the project as opposed to their piece.  That’s the project manager’s job.  See where I’m going with this?

Another place we run into trouble is when we want to pool intellectual capital.  That’s requires a team because it requires the safety and trust for people to collaborate and to voice their disagreement.  Ever been in one of those brain storming meetings where no one or few participate?  Ever been on a team when something has gone horribly wrong and that guy in the corner saw it coming and never said anything?

When we call a work group a team, we have a set of implicit expectations.  All of that Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing stuff doesn’t really happen in a work group.  And, we expect our teams to have some collective accountability, and some of us get downright cynical when that’s not there.

So, what do you work on?  A team or a workgroup?

Be Your Best You Today,


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