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Teams – keep coming back to basics

In working with teams across industry sectors and at different levels I still find that they frequently fail to get the basic building blocks of effective team working right. For me this always starts with three core areas:

  • Shared goals

  • Autonomy

  • Interdependence

Teams often assume they have shared goals but may not be sufficiently explicit about what they are, or they fail to review them regularly. These should be well defined, and what success will look and feel like when you attain them should be shared. The emotional part of this is important. The key is sharing the expected emotional response to goal attainment. Sharing achievement driven feelings within the team when they occur, and discussing their anticipation, can play an important part in sustaining shared goals and team cohesion. Ideally shared goals will be sufficiently stretching to be motivating but not so ambitious that they are considered completely unachievable. There is nothing wrong with having a range of goals some of which are more stretching than others. The important point is that they are properly shared. As well as sharing in terms of understanding there also needs to be shared commitment. This can be a stage which fails to receive sufficient attention. Assuming a shared level of commitment is dangerous. However, discussions about this need to be open and authentic. Just asking “are we all on board then” and watching nodding heads is rarely sufficient. If there are objections or uncertainties regarding team goals they need to be aired and resolved.

Teams need a level of autonomy. Autonomy enhances the team working knowledge, skills and ability that members bring (Leach et al., 2005). To reach their potential teams need to understand where they have control and autonomy and also the limits to this. Too little autonomy, perceived or real, will prevent the team reaching its potential. The distinction between perceived and real limitations is not always easy to draw. Ultimately if the majority of the team believe they are limited in some way then they are: perceptions are reality, but they can be changed. For example, a sales team may believe they don't have the remit to significantly change the customer offer or proposition. However, a useful initial test of this is to challenge them to recount examples of where they have tried to do so. There is a high risk of self-limiting beliefs developing in teams, particularly those that have been stable in their composition for a substantial period of time.

Interdependence is probably the most important and least well understood determinant of effective team working. This relates to working on problems that can only be solved by team members working together to do so. Many problems can be solved without the need for teams. In fact using teams to address some problems is wasteful and inefficient. Linear problems which can be broken down into discrete component parts are better addressed by individuals working independently and then collating their efforts. Teams should spend most of their time on complex “wicked” problems that can only be solved through constant interaction between team members.

As the range of team building interventions continues to broaden, it is fundamentally important to ensure that we get the basis right and to keep revisiting them through the team’s life cycle. Otherwise the risk of wasting a lot of time and money is high and many interventions will promise much more than they deliver in terms of team effectiveness.


Leach, D.L., Wall, T.D., Rogelberg, S.G. and Jackson, P.R. (2005) Team Autonomy, Performance and Member Job Strain: Uncovering the Teamwork KSA Link. Applied Psychology: An International Review 54(1), 1-24.

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