What Makes a Team Work?


First, let me start by saying that I don’t think it’s fair to assume that everyone knows the difference between a group and a team. So, I’ll start with explanations of both. A group is a collection of objects (in our case, people). A team, on the other hand, is a group that collectively strives toward a common goal. If you simply gather a group of people together without a clear goal, they will do what a group of individuals tend to do, which is look out for their own interests. However, if you give that same group a common focus, they will begin to organize and figure out how to achieve it. In short, they will become a team. It’s a phenomenon that social scientists have been studying for decades. However, just having a common goal doesn’t make a team effective. Although many leaders know this, quite a few avoid doing what’s necessary to optimize team performance. As a result, their team may struggle despite having talented people, a clear focus, and strong directives.


We see this happen in sports all the time.  The NBA has 30 teams that are filled with extremely talented players. Yet, a few teams seem to dominate the post-season. Fewer still are the teams that win the championship. (At the time of with article, The Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics have both won the NBA championship 17 times.) Some might erroneously think that having the best player guarantees a championship. However, it just isn’t so. Consider Michael Jordan. Despite making a tremendous impact with the Chicago Bulls, it took seven years for them to win the NBA Championship. It seems that a team is only as strong as its supporting members. On the surface, this makes a lot of sense. It’s clear that it takes more than a star player to make a team effective. Arguably, most teams in the NBA have about the same amount of talent. So, the question is: What differentiates the teams that have achieved elite status in an organization full of talented players? Perhaps the following anecdote will shed some light on the answer.




Some years ago, a couple of friends and I decided to start playing 3-on-3 pick-up basketball at a local park. To be clear, none of us played basketball in high school or college, but we were all athletes, loved the game, and really liked winning. We all figured that it would be an effective way to keep in shape and break us out of the monotony of our usual exercise routines. However, what started out as a whim became a daily obsession as two of us would head to our friend’s house right after work so that we wouldn’t miss a minute of daylight. Truth be told, our first few games didn’t go so well. We all thought that we would be unstoppable from the moment we stepped onto the blacktop. The park regulars had other plans. Needless to say, our first few weeks brought us back down to earth. These losses were usually punctuated by us blaming each other about even the smallest indiscretion.


One day, after we suffered a particularly bad loss, we decided that instead of blaming each other, we should talk about what went wrong. We started by discussing our individual strengths. We stopped emphasizing what an individual did wrong, but what they did well. We spent time dissecting our successful plays and talked about how we could recreate them. We then had a candid discussion about our weaknesses and how each of us could improve. Finally, we created rules that all three of us had to abide by. Here’s the list:

  • Help each other out – If your teammate gets double-teamed, the free man should move toward him.
  • Expect help – If you’re the one double-teamed look for the open man (he will be heading in your direction).
  • *No selfish play – If you’re not in your favored position, pass the ball to a teammate who’s in a better position. 
  • Stick to the plays that work (Aka: stick with the plan).
  • Improvise only when you are stuck – Try something new when you find yourself in trouble.
  • If you notice a pattern that the other team has, share it with your teammates.


Armed with new rules of engagement, we went back to the court. Personally, I was more than a little worried that all our planning had been a waste of time. Our first few possessions of the game didn’t go so well. It was clear that we were having a hard time letting go of old habits. However, after a few frustrated time-outs, we started to find our groove. By the time we were ready to leave the court, we had won a majority of the games we played. In fact, we played so well that a few of the teams (who routinely thrashed us in the past) thought our newfound winning streak was a fluke. One particularly frustrated team actually demanded a rematch. We obliged and beat them even worse the second time around. 


Of course, we didn’t win every game, but we improved dramatically. By the end of the summer, we had become one of the teams that others wanted to compete against. At this point, you might be saying, “That’s an interesting story, but how does that relate to the teams that I work with on the job?” Well, in a few ways. For one, the same elements apply to creating any effective team. Here are four core components:

Create common goals – Teams need something to rally behind. Whether it’s improving their overall performance on a project, or striving to be the best in their industry, having a common focus keeps everyone moving in the same direction. Because most people have some self-serving reason for working, the more an individual personally relates to goal, the more they will give of themselves. Successful leaders, know this and look for ways to connect each member’s needs and desires to the team’s goal.

Exhibit strong leadership – Contrary to popular belief, strong leadership is not about constantly being on the lookout for errors and blasting team members when they get something wrong. It’s about using the appropriate approach for each particular situation. Strong leaders do more than scan for errors. They connect emotionally with team members, encourage them to improve their skills, and allow them to embrace reasonable risk-taking. The most effective of these leaders inspire key team members to become leaders in their own right by giving them opportunities to take on more responsibility. Doing so allows the team to self-organize and lead itself.

Communicate with purpose – Effective teams know its vision and what success will look like. Whether it’s trying to solve a particularly difficult issue, build rapport, or introduce a new project, effective teams communicate well because they know, without question, what they are trying to accomplish.

Deal with conflict in healthy ways – Conflict is a part of collaboration. Effective teams don’t shy away from conflict. Instead, they create space for team members to express opposing ideas and concepts in ways that surface real issues without launching personal attacks.


Of course, there are other things that could be included on this list. The list above represents “entry level” attributes of effective teams. Great teams do the following:

Create a shared language that embeds shared values (boldly and visually) – Language has power. It builds community and fosters attachment through its exclusivity.

Focus on specific, performance-based behaviors – The very best teams don’t just ask, “What works well?” They focus on the specific aspects of performance that make the new behaviors more effective.

Anticipate issues using “what if” scenarios – Great teams look beyond the present in an attempt to come up with solutions to problems that are likely to occur. Doing so allows the team to meet uncommon situations with anticipation, instead of fear.

Hold individuals accountable for agreed behaviors – Another hallmark of great teams is their willingness to call each other out when someone is deviating from the acceptable behaviors. Having difficult conversations is not for the faint of heart. However, the best teams know that accountability is necessary for unity.


Like many leadership concepts, there are some common misconceptions about teams. Of course, exploring those is beyond the scope of this article. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one popular misconception: the idea that great teams have at least one star. While having a star can be helpful, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee a team’s success. In fact, having a star on your team may be detrimental if that star is more concerned with their individual performance. An added complication is that some leaders are often reluctant to call stars out on negative behaviors or poor performance for fear of upsetting them. This lack of feedback can cause a star performer’s skill to atrophy or give rise to behavioral issues. Conversely, the team itself should be the “star,” with individual behaviors aimed at making the entire team shine.


When cultivating team behaviors, certain leadership practices are more effective than others. A common mistake that leaders make is rewarding individuals on the team for their stellar performance. Although this may seem like an appropriate idea, it inadvertently conditions people to seek their own self-interest. Instead, leaders should reward the entire team, making sure that they emphasize the team-focused behaviors. Remember, teams differ from groups in that they have a common focus. It can be difficult for someone to put the team first when they are thinking about how they can make themselves look better than their colleagues. That being said, if you’re determined on rewarding your star player, create two awards. You can create an award for the entire team and a Most Valuable (Team) Player (MV[T]P) award for the individual whose contributions has made the team better. The overall team award should be for the achievement of the team’s stated goal (the reason the team was put together in the first place), while the MVTP would be awarded to the person who embodies exceptional service principles (selflessness, effective communication, conflict resolution, leadership, etc.). It’s really hard to be selfish when you’re serving others.


As I mentioned earlier, quite a bit goes into making an effective team. And, although the ratio of ingredients varies, the best teams create shared language, focus on team behaviors, anticipate the future issues, and hold people accountable for the behaviors that affect the team. Additionally, these elements need to be supported by a leader who understands how to layer these attributes on top of what the team is attempting to achieve. Getting the mix just right can mean the difference between having a team that is mediocre or great.