The Basics of Working on Teams

What is a Team?

In the best of all possible worlds, teams are formed deliberately and carefully to meet work needs that an individual or a group of individuals cannot meet as effectively. Although many groups are called "teams," not every work group is a team. In a work group, performance is a function of what its members do as individuals. The focus in a work group is individual goals and accountabilities. A team's performance is measured primarily by the products produced collectively by the team.

Teams share certain characteristics, including a clearly defined purpose (mission) and goals. Teamwork is defined by a shared commitment both to the team's process (how the team works together) and to its product (what work the team accomplishes). This commitment to team process is demonstrated through the development and use of team norms and groundrules, a willingness to pay attention to group process, and a sense of mutual accountability both to the members of the team as individuals and the team as a whole.

Types of Teams

Project teams are usually time-limited teams formed to complete a particular task. When the team completes its task, it disbands. Standing teams (sometimes called "intact" teams) are formed as ongoing organizational units. Teams that bring together members from different departments or functions are called cross-functional teams.

What Makes a Team Successful?

There are several factors identified as key to a team's success. They include:

  • Shared understanding of the team's mission
  • Commitment to the team's goals
  • Clearly defined roles and responsibilities
  • Agreed-upon groundrules
  • An established decision-making model
  • Effective group process including commitment to open communication, mutual accountability and appropriate self-evaluation (see the Communicating with Others learning topic for more on open communication)

Working on a successful team (sometimes called a high-performing team) can be an exciting and empowering experience. When a team is working well, each member knows that they are part of something bigger than the individuals involved - that the team is greater than the sum of its parts. Team members in high-performing teams have a sense that the team can overcome obstacles and realize its goals. Communication is open; members can state their opinions knowing that differences of opinion are valued. Most importantly, successful teams don't just "feel good," they get their work done, meeting deadlines and achieving their goals. For more on building new teams, see our article Important Steps when Building a New Team.