Are You a Group or a Team?

By Andy Johnson

This year we witnessed the second NBA championship in the last three years for the Golden State Warriors. In many ways, this is not surprising when simply looking at the current team roster. The team was already a who’s who of elite superstars. With the addition of Kevin Durant this season, many expected the outcome that is now franchise history, another championship. This was another instance of a so-called “dream team.” Would the Warriors, with their existing cast of superstars, be able to find room for and merge Durant into the flow? It appears they did. One of the key aspects of the culture of the Warriors was likely the leading factor for the ease with which they brought KD into the flow of the team. Selflessness, valuing the whole over the parts (evidenced in hard data such as numbers of assists), is a clear cultural value of the Golden State team. This team approach has a lot to do with the outcomes they have experienced. Other teams act less like teams and, in some ways, more like groups. Let me explain.

Groups and teams are different. It is helpful for us, in a sports or business context, to determine which we are, in order for us to properly manage ourselves with the appropriate strategies, expectations, and mental models. In Pushing Back Entropy, I discussed the differences between the major terms used to describe people who are connected in an organized manner. Each term carries slightly different connotations. Organizations are collections of people who are structured, “organized,” managed for the purpose of trying to maintain hierarchies or processes, to systematize authority and power. Groups are collections that are connected for the purpose of mutual support, belonging, and acceptance (think “support group” or the difference between “in-group” and “out-group”). Tribes are collections of people who share common language, culture, and history, to provide shared meaning and significance. Lastly, teams normally include aspects of the other three paradigms and adds the pursuit of common goals, shared results, shared purpose, and intrinsic and extrinsic consequences for the collective. Here’s how I depicted it:

In my discussion, teams differed from groups in regard to the higher level of shared purpose and results that a team pursues as opposed to a group. Others see groups slightly differently, but also distinguishable from teams.

In their book, The Rocket Model, Gordon Curphy and Robert Hogan discuss, in particular, the difference between “teams” and “groups.” Their thoughts are helpful. For them, a “team” consists of 3-25 people who:

  • Work toward a common set of goals
  • Work jointly, performing interdependently
  • Share common leadership
  • Share a common fate dependent on the performance of the team
  • See themselves as being part of a team with common goals and a shared fate

A “group,” for Curphy and Hogan is different; not less than, merely different. They define group as follows: “A group is a cluster of people that do not share the five characteristics of teams mentioned above.” Their example of a group that is not a team is a regional sales “team.” In Pushing Back Entropy, I used the example of a tennis “team” as opposed to a basketball team. In both regional sales teams and tennis teams, each individual or dyad seeks to win their own matches or to meet their individual sales goals. Largely, they succeed or fail on their own. Once we have obtained their individual results, we can then sum the individual results to describe collective results and see which collective wins. There is no interdependence required to create the overall sum, but rather multiple individual efforts simply added together in a linear fashion. There is no synergy that results from team members working together to achieve results that could not have been obtained individually, except perhaps in the case of the doubles’ teams on the tennis court. Other examples of teams that aren't “teams” in this clear way include: golf teams, swimming teams, track teams, and gymnastics teams. In these cases, one plus one equals two. Scores can be added without a multiplier. In synergistic teams however, one plus one equals more than two.

In Pushing Back Entropy, I suggested that there are six essential aspects of teams:

  • A team is identifiable. You can tell who is part of the team and who isn’t. The boundary isn’t blurry.
  • A team is rightly sized for the shared task. The size fits the context.
  • A team is organized. If it lacks essential team organization, it’s not a team but one of the other collections of people.
  • A team is interconnected. Agreeing with Curphy and Hogan, a team is inherently interdependent, performing, winning or losing in an intertwined reality.
  • A team has rules or norms that govern its behavior as a collection of people.
  • A team has common objectives that the members together share the responsibility for achieving.

I went on to build on this minimum definition of team to add clarity about healthy versus unhealthy teams. There is no point in trying to discuss team health, however, if “team” is a misnomer. Teams, true teams, must meet these threshold definitional parameters or need to be more accurately reclassified as something else.

To add to this discussion, Robert Bruce Shaw’s book, Extreme Teams, informs us of some common mistakes in the workplace that are based on incorrect assumptions about teams. He reminds us of three important realities:

  1. It is a mistake to use a team when a team is not needed, when the work is better done by individuals, not working as a team but independently.
  2. It is a mistake to try to operate as a team without providing the support, systems, and organization, a team needs to be successful. Just putting people together on an org chart doesn’t create a team.
  3. It is a mistake to assume that a “team” is an “easygoing,” soft, or comfortable place to work. Healthy teams keep intrinsic and extrinsic goals and gains in balance.

The first key is to discern which we are or should be in the context of the current situation and needs. Are we better defined as a group or a team? Are the desired goals better obtained by a group or a team? “If members do not share a common goal, operate autonomously, or do not share a common fate, then leaders should manage them as a group. If members have shared goals, need to work interdependently to achieve them, and either win or lose together, then operating as a team is the better approach” (Curphy & Hogan). If we determine that we are better defined by the term “group,” the need for good management still exists. “Leaders in charge of groups need to ensure that members operate under the same assumptions regarding customers and competitors, possess the right skills, stay motivated, share information, have adequate resources, achieve their individual goals, and resolve differences quickly” (Curphy & Hogan).

One more picture may help. Teams are well illustrated by the realities of crew. As Whit Mitchell reminds us in his book, Working In Sync, for crew members there is only one boat, a tippy, 61-foot shell that only weighs about 220 pounds. We win or lose together. Our oars must enter the water and pull in sync. Our fate is most definitely shared. If we don’t all listen to the same leader and follow the same count, working in perfect synchronicity, our chances of winning are slim.

The Warriors have been able to build a team culture of selflessness, sharing the ball for team success at one of the highest levels ever observed in the NBA, a venue filled with celebrity status and ego. When required by the context, teams do outperform groups. They require, however, a much deeper level of interdependence that is sometimes hard to develop in our individualistic Western society. Becoming a team is difficult and takes lots of hard work, practice, and some selflessness. Many so-called teams don’t meet the threshold criteria for this interdependent paradigm. They may do better to call themselves something else.

The Warriors, this year, achieved both intrinsic and extrinsic success. In fact, it was the intrinsic development of selflessness that perhaps most contributed to their extrinsic success and victory. This is often how the world works. Softer, cultural, healthy team gains lead to harder, financial, bottom-line results. This is certainly the case for teams that operate as teams. Knowing who we are and how we can best function is where the process of collective identity development begins. The first step may be to take a fresh look in the mirror and reevaluate what we see. Our reflection should show the reality.