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  About Team-Building-The Manager's Role

There has been much made of the importance of teams in the workplace. Whether you are implementing TQM, or just want to increase effectiveness or employee morale, developing effective cohesive teams is a good tactic. But teams ain't simple. We are going to devote the PSM supplement to examining some principles related to team-building with particular emphasis on the role of the manager or supervisor.

What Is A Team?

Mark Sanborn, an expert on teams, outlines a few characteristics of a team.

First, Sanborn defines a team as being composed of a highly communicative group of people. Poor communication means no team.

Second, Sanborn suggests that a team must have members with different backgrounds, skills and abilities, so that the team can pool these things to be effective. In other words a team with no diversity in it will be unlikely to work in an innovative fashion.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, a team must have a shared sense of mission. Whether we are talking about a temporary work improvement team, or a branch, all members must share the sense of mission.

Fourth, a team must have clearly identified goals. A team must be able to gauge its success, and know what it is trying to accomplish.

How Does A Team Differ From A Work Group?

Sanborn suggests the following differences:

On Competition:

Work groups tend to compete inwardly, with members competing against each other for favor, recognition, etc. High performing teams compete, but with those outside the organization.

On Focus:

Work groups tend to be task-oriented and characterized by members who follow their own personal agendas. High-performing teams are goal-oriented. Members work towards the achievement of the team goals and agenda, rather than pulling in different directions.

On Style:

Work groups tend to be autocratic and hierarchical in nature. Teams, on the other hand, tend to be participative and self-steering within the goals of the team.

On Tolerance:

Work groups tend to tolerate each other, while teams tend to enjoy each other. Differences in teams are welcome and encouraged, while in work groups, differences and disagreements are suppressed.

On Risk:

Work groups tend to avoid risk and maintain the status quo. High performing teams tend to accept risk.

The Manager's Role

It is unfortunate that many managers want to stimulate the development of high-performance teams, but do not see themselves as active players in the process. Sometimes, this comes from a mistaken idea that a team should be self-contained and owned by the team members. In fact, teams should be owned by its members, but the manager or supervisor plays THE KEY ROLE in setting the climate for the development of teams.

We can't overstate this point. If you want to encourage team functioning, it is very likely that you, yourself will have to change. If you don't, any team approach is doomed to failure. If you look at teams in other contexts, you will quickly realize that leadership determines success. A sports team has a coach, a symphony orchestra has a conductor. These teams don't spontaneously develop without effective leadership, but develop and grow with the help and guidance of a leader whose job is not to control, but to teach, encourage, and organize when necessary. A good way to describe the role of the manager is a catalyst, a force that causes things to happen for other people, and the team.

Not only is the manager's role critical, but it changes over the lifespan of the team-building process. In the beginning of the process of team-building, the team members may need a good deal of help developing their mission and purpose, identifying what they want to accomplish, and, more importantly, with the development of interpersonal and group skills such as conflict resolution, meeting management, etc. They may also need constant reminder that the manager is serious about the team, meaning that its activities and decisions or recommendations will be implemented wherever humanly possible. The manager may even be called upon to act as a mediator, when conflict cannot be resolved by the team members.

As a team grows and matures, the manager might become an equal team member, or may find that the team doesn't require ongoing involvement. Or not.

Some Critical Leadership Factors

We can describe some important leadership factors that will affect the team building process, and its success. While these are particularly applicable to the formal work unit leader (i.e. the manager), they apply also to team members who are performing in a leadership capacity.

  • Highly developed inter-personal skills and understanding of some basic psychology regarding what makes people commit to, and perform.

  • Must recognize the importance of balancing between tasks (getting the job done) and people (ensuring that team members are satisfied with the process of getting the work done).

  • Willingness to listen and ability to communicate. Leaders must have a preference to listening and understanding rather than controlling and talking.

  • Show Constancy of Purpose. Leaders must commit themselves to the team, and not give up when the going gets rough, or success is slow to come.

  • Show Consistency in Behavior. Leaders must behave in a consistent manner regarding team work. Leaders who sometimes encourage team process and sometimes bypass the team confuse the hell out of everyone. When this happens, nobody takes teams seriously.

  • Model Desirable Team Behavior. The team will take its cues from its leader, or the manager. You cannot break inter-personal rules, not listen, and use autocratic prerogatives, and expect members of your team to believe that you REALLY value working together.

  • Be Able To Deal With Problem Team Members. Sometimes a team does not have the internal resources to deal with a member that is uncooperative or so unskilled in group behavior that he or she becomes a barrier. A manager must be able to coach when necessary, problem-solve, establish consensus and mediate.


In this month's supplement we have outlined a few of the basic elements of a team, and have suggested that the manager must be able to contribute to the establishment and maintenance of the team. We have only scratched the surface, and will return to the issue in future editions of The Public Sector Manager.

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