Being A Team is a Choice, Not a Virtue

May 3, 2023 | Article, Building Cohesive Teams, Building Cohesive Teams Public

Lencioni says in The Advantage,

“Becoming a real team requires an intentional decision on the part of its members. I like to say that teamwork is not a virtue. It is a choice — and a strategic one. That means leaders who choose to operate as a real team willingly accept the work and the sacrifices that are necessary for any group that wants to reap the benefits of true teamwork. But before they can do that, they should understand and agree on a common definition of what a leadership team really is. A leadership team is a small group of people who are collectively responsible for achieving a common objective for their organization.”

This may sound strong, but there are so many so-called ‘teams’ that are misaligned on this point. Not everyone has to be a team. But, you must make the choice and understand what the costs and benefits are. Here’s a quick rundown of the most common three choices you can make.

Option A: Run Your Own Silo

Many organizations are not run by teams. They certainly use the word all the time saying things like, “Bob is a great team player” or, “We want to welcome Sue to our growing team.” ‘Team’ is one of the most overused words in organizations. It’s a ‘feel-good’ word.

‘Silo’ is not a feel-good word. But, it’s certainly not a bad word and probably more honest and true to life. Imagine people showing up to the meeting and saying, “I’m here to ask for a few things for my Marketing team” or “I only have 10 minutes and then I have to get to my top priorities over at my Sales team”. This is likely what people are thinking so might as well call it out.

Many organizations are run by their org chart. It’s simple. People doing their jobs and reporting to someone who is doing the same. If they need something, they ask. If they screw up, they get reprimanded. If they succeed in their goals, they get rewarded. At ‘team’ meetings, these organizational leaders try to find out if everyone is doing their job. And everyone else is either there to advocate for something (budget, attention, power, resources, etc.) or get out of there as fast as they can.

This is going to sound unusual coming from a consultant who is passionate about teams. But, silos do ‘work’ (at some level). They are conventional. They are natural. And good, well-meaning people run them. I’d hate to guilt people into being a team if they just want to do their job. It’s not for everyone and every situation.

But to be fair, silos do not mark the most successful, competitive, impactful organizations in the world. It’s hard to accomplish big goals at an organization if the people are all focused on their own goals.

Option B: Be a Working Group

Some organizations see this inherent problem with silos and create working groups. They call them ‘teams’ but they are not really. They are the same well-meaning, hard-working people helping each other accomplish their individual goals. There’s not really a clear commitment to each other. But, there’s a variety of channels to communicate and share resources. They have meetings but often the goals are mixed and unclear.

There are some industries and spaces where working groups almost seem the automatic choice. Law firms, accounting firms, hospital networks, etc. are simply set up as working groups. These individuals run their own individual scope of business and often question the relevance of meetings they have to go to. They could be a team but the natural structure presents some challenges.

Some working groups aspire to be a team, or think they are. This can actually cause some negativity and tension since some will show up one way and some will show up another. So, it’s best to get super clear about whether you really want to be a team or not.

Option C: Be a Team

Here’s one clear way I can find out if a team is a team. I look at everyone around the table and I ask them, “when and where did the leader of this team invite you to join it?” Some look at me funny and wonder where I’m coming from. Others scramble to remember. The leader shuffles in the chair a bit. No worries. Most people cannot answer this question so it’s not a big deal. Then, I re-state Pat’s provocation that ‘being a team is a choice and not a virtue’ and offer them that opportunity in real-time.

First I look to the leader. Most leaders are smart, capable people who can make decent decisions in most situations. Sure they need to ask questions or get help to make decisions, but they could be essentially a team of one. So I ask the leader a few hard questions: 

  • Why do you need a team to make better, faster decisions? 
  • Do you need a team to own the purpose, values, and overall outcomes of this organization? 
  • Are you ready to trust this team and lead it to be cohesive and clear about its strategy, priorities, roles, and responsibilities?

Some give me a look like “I’m not sure that’s what I signed up for when I took on the role of leadership!!” But, many get it and communicate to those around the table with clarity why they need a team and what they are asking for. 

Then I look to the team and remind them of some of the realities of being on a leadership team. They are likely not getting paid any more to be on the team. This is likely not on their job description. And they will be pushed and challenged here more than anywhere else. They will have to debate and challenge their peers and leaders and still support the decisions that are made 100%. This will have to be their #1 team (vs. their department or silo) and cascade messages from here to everyone else in the organization. They will have to sacrifice their loyalties to the stuff they are best at and own areas they might have less experience in. Then I ask them some hard questions.

  • Do you really want to be on this team?
  • If the leader told you that you didn’t have to be here and opting out would not affect your salary, your standing, or your future, would you stay?

Some give me a similar look like “who in the heck is this guy and what is going on here?!?” But, many get it and process the commitment they are making. It’s rare, but I have had a few people opt out right then and there. It wasn’t a negative thing. The rest of the group respected them for it and it was better for everyone. Most get it and know the team needs one common standard. You can’t be productive with a wide range of commitment across the table.

Ok, It’s decision time

Calling out this decision seems unusual to many people. But, this is why silos and working groups exist. It’s better to have this hard conversation and stop calling ourselves a ‘team’ until we really count the costs and understand the benefits. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it if we truly commit to it. And calling ourselves a team and not actually being one can cause unnecessary tension, conflict, and other unproductive behaviors. 

Organizations led by a cohesive, high-performing team tap into perhaps the last great competitive advantage. They are able to minimize politics and confusion. They are able to boost morale and productivity better than any other in their space. And they find and keep their stars while quickly and confidently removing misfits that hinder their health. They grow. They scale. They impact people’s lives. Sounds great, right?! It is. 

But, it’s also a choice. So, take the time to make yours.

  • Do we want to run our own silo?
  • Do we want to be a working group?
  • Do we want to be a team?


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