Why Your Team Is Not The Same As Teamwork

Let’s spell out what teams are and what they are not.

A team is not the same as teamwork. The former is illustrative of a working group where people show up and use the “team” moniker as a feel-good backdrop. "Oh, I'm part of XYZ team." The team name is a source of social identity but not necessarily a true team. The latter, however, is the result of trust, a willingness to face conflict and hold others accountable and align their behaviors toward a shared purpose. Let’s tackle the first two elements of trust and conflict.


Building trust in the workplace is a challenge for many companies. Trust can be broken down into two components: character and competence. We trust other drivers on the road that they won’t turn their cars into kamikaze-mobiles and take us out because they had a bad day at the office--we trust that their intentions are positive. That’s character.

We also trust that their driving skills are up to par and that they are competent enough to travel from point A to point B without causing injury to themselves or others. We don’t know who these people are other than faces behind a wheel, but we trust them nonetheless because we understand the expectations of what it takes to drive, and since we see others how we see ourselves, it’s natural to assume (a basic level of ) competence.

Problems arise in teams, however, when there are unclear expectations between what one hopes to be right and what actually is, or, when the inputs are in no way feasible of matching the outputs due to genetic makeup, geographical dispersion, personal values or beliefs. Being part of a team is one thing; executing as a team is something else.


But can’t teams be built, you ask? Of course, but only to the degree that there’s trust in each other’s character and competencies to execute, to tackle the hard stuff and to carry the load. Without the foundation upon which further competencies can be built, the team’s potential is limited.

And what about adaptability? Isn’t adaptability part of the storming phase of the Tuckman stages of teamwork? To adapt is to be the right “thing” at the right time, but “right” will never arrive if the capacities to execute are never there to begin with.


Facing Conflict

Patrick Lencioni discussed the importance of facing conflict in his bestselling book The Five Dysfunctions Of A Team as a means to uproot the hallway conversations and grumblings that eat away at the team’s integrity. I’m not going to rattle off the seven best practices for delivering bad news. That’s what Google’s for. What I will share, however, are two best practices to pursue  when tensions rise:

1. Nip it in the bud—immediately. Don’t let uncertainty fester. Fear of the unknown is one of the number one fears on people’s list of things to avoid, and that’s exactly what facing conflict entails. It’s the uncertainty of knowing:

  • How the other party will react  
  • What he or she will think of you

If you don't deal with the situation immediately then that uncertainty only proliferates throughout the group, and that's when the climate becomes toxic.

2. Leverage a team coach. Meetings entail an inordinate influx of information that our cerebral cortices simply cannot navigate fast enough to interpret accurately. The verbal and nonverbal exchanges parried back and forth coupled with the data presented pose enormous challenges for leaders at the helm of the table who need to be present—mentally and emotionally. If you want to be present then you need to focus on presence, and that means not

If you want to be present then you need to focus on presence, and that means not multitasking the focus of content with behavior, or team dynamics. First off, multitasking is a myth; it doesn’t happen. We may segment our focus according to individual topics but we don’t effectively consume all data and context at once. A team coach (as opposed to an individual or executive coach) absorbs the context of the environment and poses challenging questions that keep the team aligned toward its purpose—questions that fly under the team leader’s radar because he or she is focused on financials or something else.

The other two elements of a team--holding others accountable and aligning behaviors with the purpose--are entirely too much to write about in a 700-word article, so, let's save that for a later date.

The takeaway here is this:

If you’re part of a “team” where trust is in question and where conflict is saved for the post-meeting meeting, then “team” is a label, not a dynamic.

The beauty of the two is that when you face conflict, you build trust. Try it, you'll be surprised.

Originally posted on Forbes here

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