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Working In A Team

Creating A Team

Playing By The Rules

Avoiding Injuries

Getting It Right

Getting It Wrong


Working in a Team

In general terms, communication with the other members of a team is no different from communication in any other situation. However, the team context needs to be understood in order to use existing communication skills to best advantage. Therefore, I decided to include a brief discussion of the nature of teams.

Creating a Team

What really defines a team? Will any group of people do? Certainly, a team requires a group of people. However, not every group is a team. Perhaps the essential difference lies in the collective responsibility and action found in teams. The members of groups which are not teams need not work collectively, and they need not take responsibility for the actions of other members of the group.

By contrast, in a team, although individual members inevitably make individual contributions, the ultimate responsibility for decisions and actions is carried by the team as a whole. In that sense, a team can plan as a single entity, and act as a single entity. That is what makes it a team, rather than just a group.

The following statement attributed to the famous nineteenth century industrialist Andrew Carnegie is still relevant today. "Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organisational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results".

What about the number of people in a team – does the size of a team matter? From a linguistic viewpoint, fewer than about three people would rarely be called a team, while more than perhaps ten or twenty would probably more often be called a committee or an association. From the viewpoint of efficiency and quality, though, small teams tend to suffer from insufficient collective knowledge and skills, while large teams tend to be expensive to run and unwieldy in action.

The ideal size for a team has been debated ever since the French agricultural engineer Maximilian Ringelmann discovered that when more people pulled on a rope, each person pulled less strongly.[1] This tendency, to let others do the work as a group becomes larger, has been called the Ringelmann effect, and appears to apply to all aspects of effort, not just pulling on ropes. It is also referred to as social loafing.

The ideal size for a team almost certainly depends to some extent on the context in which the team exists, and especially on the problems it needs to solve and the actions it needs to take. Suggested "magic" numbers often fall in the range from five to nine, but of course the number of members is not the only factor which determines how well a team works.

Regardless of size, teams usually work better if they have a leader. However, the amount of influence exerted by a team leader varies greatly. In some cases, leadership may emerge informally from within the team. In other cases, a person is specifically appointed as Team Leader, or perhaps as the Chair[2] of the meetings held by the team.

Collective responsibility and leadership are easily noticed in sporting teams. Individual players may shine, but only the team can win a match or a grand final. The way in which the players work together is co-ordinated by the captain of the team, and the importance of this role is easy to see. However, the same general features can be seen in non-sporting teams.

Playing by the Rules

The fact that the members of a team are working together does not mean that no rules are necessary. Indeed, the relative lack of hierarchical governance characteristic of teams makes some basic rules essential for their efficient running. Some of these rules may be explicit, such as the rules governing the conduct of any formal meetings which may be held.

However, many of the rules governing the behaviour of the members of a team are unstated. These rules are nevertheless understood by most or all of the members. An example might be an unstated rule against taking individual credit for the work of the team, either by publishing it oneself, or submitting it to management as personal work.

Both the formal rules and the unstated rules will vary with the type of team, its particular membership and its purpose. They may also vary through time, partly because the members may develop an increasingly co-operative rapport and partly because specific issues may have arisen which were not easily resolved by applying the existing rules.

Sometimes, rules which are primarily beneficial can be exploited for other purposes. An example might be the vexatious use of "points of order" to prevent a decision from being made in a meeting. In such a situation, unstated rules regarding excessive interference with the team's intent might be brought to bear, usually in the form of social pressures.

In a team which is working well, the existence of its rules is virtually unnoticeable. However, this does not mean that those rules have been jettisoned. Nor does it mean that they are unnecessary. On the contrary, it probably means that the invisible rules are being very effective. Indeed, they may be one of the main reasons that the team is performing so well.

Avoiding Injuries

Although it can be very rewarding to work as a member of a team, there are also some potential dangers. Some of these dangers are simply the opposite side of co-existing potential advantages. For example, if the team is a monumental failure, it will reflect badly on all of its members; but, on the bright side, success will reflect well on all members.

A slightly different aspect of inheriting the team's results is that the risks associated with failure, or the benefits associated with success, are diluted by the size of the team. It is better to be a member of a team which has created a disaster than it is to be solely responsible for that disaster. Conversely, it is more advantageous to be the sole architect of a success than it is to be a member of a team which has created a success.

Meetings can pose unexpected dangers for individual team members. Some teams have formal meetings, during which minutes are taken. Whatever you say in such a meeting may not only be considered critically by a number of people, but also recorded for posterity. You may not know some of the people at the meeting very well, but some of them may exert considerable influence over your future employment prospects!

Even when a meeting is "brainstorming" (throwing up suggestions without filtering them, in the hope that something useful may emerge) there is not an absolute guarantee against censure. Another thing that is often different in a meeting is that many of those present may not have full access to your non-verbal output, because they may not be able to see it well. In that case, they may easily miss it or misinterpret it.

If there is a general conclusion that can be drawn here, it is that it may be a good idea to join a team with competent members, when that is possible, but teams with incompetent members should definitely be avoided! It is also worth remembering that there are benefits (and risks) to be found in working alone.

Getting it Right

A team clearly has a great advantage in being able to draw on the resources of a number of members. Not only will more knowledge and skills be available, but more ideas are likely to be generated in team discussions. Of course, a single administrator could delegate the various components of a complex task, without the need to create a visible team.

This type of delegation is not as popular, either with managers or employees, as it once was. "Horizontal" administrative structures with vague or absent leadership are increasingly used. In some cases, this choice may be based on an ideological preference. In other cases there may be a real or imagined benefit to productivity.

Apart from a need for multiple skills or a preference for a less hierarchical mode of work, there are some other possible reasons for preferring a team environment. There is a sense of safety in numbers which, though not necessarily correct, is nevertheless reassuring to those team members who feel it. In addition, communication within a team is sometimes simpler and more immediate.

There is also an opportunity for social interaction before and after team meetings. This opportunity often extends beyond the meetings, and also beyond the workplace. In many cases, there may also be an exchange of services, information and views, unrelated to the work of the team, which might not have occurred without the physical and conceptual proximity caused by membership of the team.

However, as discussed under the next heading, teams are not perfect; so, is a team always the best way to get a job done? I think teams are most useful when the task in hand is simply too difficult for a single individual to complete. Then, the value of drawing on knowledge and skills from a number of different fields overrides the greater simplicity of individual work.

Getting it Wrong

Whether the overall results achieved by a team are good or bad obviously depends to a great extent on the qualities of the members of the team. However, it also depends on how well the members of the group work together. If some members, either consciously or unconsciously, undermine the team's work, an adverse effect on results can be expected. This problem can often be ameliorated by appropriate rules, but it can be very difficult to eradicate it completely.

If a synergistic interaction develops between the members of the team, the effect is usually beneficial. Unfortunately, though, teams which work well together do not always make good decisions. Just as an individual can be individually foolish, it appears that groups, including teams, can be collectively foolish. The aspect of the behaviour of teams which allows perfectly sensible team members to arrive at a remarkably silly team decision has been called "groupthink".

One interesting type of groupthink occurs when a group decides on a course of action that is against the wishes of every single member of the group, simply because each member mistakenly believes that course of action to be what the others want. This has come to be known as "the Abilene paradox", after an anecdote about an unwanted trip to Abilene, Texas, related by management expert Jerry B. Harvey.[3]

Another potential drawback of the team approach was mentioned at the outset when considering the optimal number of members for a team. The phenomenon of social loafing in teams can severely reduce their efficiency. When noticed by other team members, it is also likely to lower morale.

In summary, then, working in teams requires some caution. If a team of about five to nine members is created for a task which is not appropriate for an individual, there is certainly a good chance of getting good results. A good leader and sensible rules will considerably improve that chance. However, it is always necessary to watch carefully for the emergence of problems as these are not uncommon.

All of the communication skills discussed in this book may be relevant when working in a team (except, perhaps, some of the end of life issues discussed in the next chapter). Alongside these skills, team members need to maintain a steady focus on the task in hand and its progress, combined with an awareness of the available resources within (and also outside) the team. Lateral thinking and constant vigilance for possible threats to the team's effectiveness are also essential requirements.

(Click the number of a footnote to return to its reference in the text)

[1] Ringelmann, M. 1913. Recherches sur les moteurs animés: Travail de l'homme" [Research on animate sources of power: The work of man]. Annales de l'Institut National Agronomique, 2nd series, vol. 12, pages 1-40.

[2] The Chair (or Chairman) is the person who presides over a meeting and ensures its orderly conduct according to agreed rules. The role is analogous to that of the referee of a sporting contest. Between meetings, the Chair acts as the representative of the group, unless specific office bearers exist.

[3] Harvey J. B. 1974. The Abilene Paradox and other Meditations on Management. Organizational Dynamics 3 (1): 63.


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