How To Tell If You're Managing a Team (Or Just a Group)

Are you managing a team, or a group?  It may seem like semantics, but the distinction is important in how you manage the people who report into you.  If what you have is essentially a group (or, more likely, more than one team), managing your employees as if they are on a team will frustrate them and create unnecessary inefficiencies in your operations.  On the other hand, if you do in fact have a team but allow them to act as if they are independent, you won't be able to achieve the same results you would get from a well-functioning, interdependent team.  Getting clear on the situation will help you be more strategic in how you approach meetings, communication, and even team-building activities.

Just because employees have the same supervisor doesn't mean they're a team.

Organizations are divided up in all kinds of ways, for all kinds of purposes.  Your employees may report to you because they do the same kind of work, or because they need a supervisor and you are the most logical (or available) person.  The fact that employees report into you does not make them teammates.  What does make them teammates, then?  Shared goals.  And I don't mean "provide excellent customer service" kinds of shared goals.  I mean "deliver product X to customer Y" kinds of shared goals.  Does their work intersect in any way?  If not, they may not be a team, at least not in relation to that work.  

I was once on a team where each member of the team managed a separate portfolio of courses.  We all followed the same procedures, but we operated completely independently.  We did, however, work together on things like the annual scheduling process.  It made sense to bring us together to discuss scheduling matters; it was tedious to sit through meetings where each person gave an update on their courses that had absolutely no relevance to anyone else in the group. 

Groups need "building," too, just not in the same way as teams.

There are many reasons that team-building gets a bad rap (ropes courses come to mind), and one of the issues is that managers apply team-building practices to groups.  That doesn't mean "group-building" doesn't have a place, though.  It just looks different.  With a group, the focus should be on fostering a shared culture and finding ways to connect that might not necessarily be about the work, at least not the granular level of day-to-day stuff.  Groups should have a shared mission and values, though the implementation of those may look different within the sub-sections of the group.  Members of a group should be aware of what the other members do and how their work contributes to the overall mission, but they don't need to get regular status updates.  

Tips for leading more effectively:

  • Map out all the people in your span of control, and identify where their work does and doesn't overlap.  Who is in a team, and what is that team about?  (Example: my team above was "about" scheduling, not overall course management.)
  • Structure your meetings to ensure that they are relevant to everyone present and that they cover things that cannot be covered in any other context.  (Hint: this usually means discussion and idea-generation, and not much reporting or updating.)
  • Identify opportunities to foster shared culture within the group.  Structured group gatherings probably shouldn't occur more than once a month, and each gathering should include time that enables group members to get to know each other better as individuals and as contributors to the group.

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