What is a team?

Teams are not a group of people brought together to manage a project. Teams are not a group of people who are members of the same function in an organisation. Teams are not a group of people who receive emails from their team leader with the salutation, “Dear Team”. Teams are not a group of people playing sport for the same organisation, amateur or professional.

Teams are people working together to achieve a common, singular goal.

The goal around which teams form, is not always the goal which is set. I would go so far as to say that teams rarely form around a goal which has been set for them. Teams tend to form around goals which become apparent rather than imposed.

Circumstances change the nature of the goal around which teams form. The nature changes in line with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as the circumstance becomes more acute.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs suggests that unless our base physiological needs such as food, water and shelter are met, then provision of higher levels of needs such as security, social inclusiveness, esteem or self-actualisation will have little effect on our behaviour.

When circumstances change for the worse, people who are motivated by the need for self esteem may tumble down Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to the most base of needs, those of food, water and shelter.

In 1972, a group of rugby players, their friends and families left on a flight for Chile from Uruguay. The plane crashed into the snow-covered mountainside, killing 13 of the 45 passengers on-board the aircraft. The outside world thought that all 45 people on board had disappeared.

Without any provisions, some of those left alive resorted to devouring the dead. Those who refused to eat the human flesh died of starvation. After 70 days in the mountains, 16 survivors were rescued and taken home.

In the most gruesome manner, a group of people banded together as a team with a singular goal of survival.

In a less gruesome environment, management, government, the media and the worldwide public and an occasional pop star banded together as a team to do whatever they could to rescue Brant Webb and Todd Russell from the Beaconsfield mine collapse.

The motivation was different for different people. For Brant Webb and Todd Russell it was the base physiological needs, for television reporters, perhaps more self esteem and for the general public, the need to belong.

In times of adversity, the oddest groups of people band together as a team seeking a common goal. Sporting teams, business teams, families tend to band together as teams when they are threatened to repel the threat. Repelling the threat becomes the clear, singular goal.

Banding together when threatened can, of course, be a problem, especially in business. If the workers feel threatened by management, or one function feels threatened by another, separate teams will develop and compete with each other.

To develop one team, the element of threat needs to be negated.

What makes for a team when there is no sense of threat? What kind of goal then results in groups of people coalescing into a team?

It is not the absence of fear, anymore that provides the common goal. A common motivator provided by a common goal is what drives people towards being a team.

Sporting teams that are successful in professional sport are not spurred on by the money. They are spurred on to win by the euphoric sense of the ultimate achievement in their sport. The sense of self accomplishment through a team, knowing that they can not do it alone, spurs them on to work as a team.

When a positive motivator is required to coalesce groups of people into teams, Herzberg’s motivation/hygiene theory of motivation gives us better guidance.

Herzberg postulates that money, relationships, working conditions and supervision style are hygiene factors. They can be de-motivators if they are not present, but do not provide motivation for people to work as a team.

The type of work, a sense of achievement by overcoming a challenge, promotional prospects, responsibility and recognition are considered to be the positive motivators.

Teams will form around a common goal that provides them individually and collectively, a challenge that they take responsibility for and that can give them increased self esteem and a level of recognition above the norm when they reach the goal.

Developing a common goal around which a team can form needs more thought than developing a goal that is considered to be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Agreed-upon, Realistic and Time based). The goal needs to be expressed in simple language that people can understand and must have a story to tell that motivates people to want to contribute to the goal.

The story needs to evoke in the recipient, feelings, thoughts and a desire to do something that will contribute to the goal.

The story needs to complete a virtuous circle which will give the individual the motivation to contribute to the goal.

For example, assume your goal is to increase repeat business from 10% of turnover to 15% of turnover in six months, as you know the selling cost to repeat customers is one tenth the selling cost to new customers and the margin on repeat customers is 25% higher as they require fewer discounts.

To have a higher probability of success, this clear simple goal needs to connect with all staff so that they are motivated to achieve it. Creating a virtuous circle will help those who are yet to be motivated by company success in reaching a corporate goal.

Tell a story of the increased customer satisfaction that drives increased repeat sales, of the easier selling process with repeat customers, the reduced need to deal with customer complaints, the increased security of employment, the increased ability for the organisation to grow and employ more people, the increased opportunities for promotion and more responsibility in a growing organisation and the increased ability of the organisation to contribute to the local community and indirectly help the families who have people working in the company.

Explained this way, each single contribution to delivering the goal is seen as doing much more than reaching a corporate goal. Contributing as a team has a multiplier effect. The whole becomes clearly more than the sum of the parts.

Setting a goal in this manner and especially if people are involved in the development of the goal and the understanding of the virtuous circle it creates, will not always create a team around the goal. Other environmental factors and personalities may have a strong negative effect.

However, setting a goal which is simple to understand and allows for a convincing story to be told of the virtuous circle which impacts people’s motivation, rather than hygiene factors, has a much greater chance of success of having a team form around it than a nebulous goal that people cannot connect with, or a goal that is imposed with no clarity about ‘what is in it for me?’.

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