Can Teams Really Work?

FollowFollow on FacebookFollow on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterFollow on LinkedInFollow on TumblrPin on Pinterest

Maybe; but it takes some skills and a bit of work.

Let’s start with a few questions:
• What are your expectations for what we call ‘teamwork’?
• How do we come to our assumptions as to what constitutes a ‘team’ and what we believe ‘teamwork’ is?
• What has happened that causes us as team members to disengage from a meeting or the concept of what we believed would be a ‘team’?
• When a group does really work well (dare we say, as a team?), describe what is happening? What is not happening? How are decisions made? What are the quality and the speed of the decision? How are differences handled? How is power used? What results are achieved?
To do our ‘jobs’, most of us have had some training in the skills about what it is that we doing.

Whether this ‘what’ involves taking a blood sample, providing ICU patient care, or teaching a particular topic of expertise-we often gain the knowledge from formal training and/or education and we gain the skill through practice.
For many of us the skills in ‘how’ we do our work are predominately learned from experience and what we ‘see’ in our workplace. This ‘how’ we do what we do is at least as important in achieving the desired results as it is to know the ‘what’ of the problem or issue. Not convinced? How frequently do you encounter a situation where someone else knows the correct answer, but how they go about communicating this answer offends another person, or worse, leads to the action not being taken? Or take a group (team?) that is responsible for diagnosing a need and the discussion is dominated by 1 or 2 ‘know it alls’ who actually do not know what the problem is. And no one in this group challenged the two people dominating nor did the two who dominated the discussion ask for other perspectives.
So why do groups fall short of our expectations?

Surely bringing together the best minds, hearts and perspectives will guarantee a better outcome- won’t it? The answer is, of course, no. Bringing people together to form a team does not guarantee a better result. The results may even much less than optimal. But why?
I am convinced that we do not have enough experience of groups working really well that guide our own actions when we work in groups. For far too many of us our knowledge and skill for group, or team, work is developed on the job with little or no time to learn from our group experiences-after all learning means taking risks, asking questions, and considering the impact of our individual and collective behavior. You said what? After being silenced when we spoke out, who is willing to take risks? And who wants to be vulnerable to ask questions? And we don’t have time to do this stuff. So we continue with our broken, ineffective way of learning how to work in groups. No wonder we tire of being placed on a committee or groan when we hear the term ‘team’.
We do have the knowledge of what it takes for groups to truly work as a team. Understanding the basics of group development, effective interpersonal communication, understanding and the ability to work with many types of ‘difference-age, experience, communication and decision making preferences, how we use power and conflict, group decision making tools, learning to pay attention to both the what and how of a group, and providing group leadership and membership roles to support the group and its work.
If this sounds like a lot to keep track of, perhaps it is. But this is where the power of an effective group (team) truly becomes the asset that promises the benefits of a team. The roles, perspectives, and leadership can be provided (I might even suggest need to be provided) by group members other than the formal, or designated, leader.
So if you are a team leader, you can breathe a bit of a sigh of relief- you do not have to do it all. If you are a team member, you may have to ‘step up’ your game and responsibility as a team member. Group leaders’ roles do change, however. Group leaders’ responsibilities shift away from being a content expert (the what the team is grappling with) to more of a process expert (the how the group works). This means the group leader provides roles that may shift over time as the group develops; it also means group leaders will play a significant role in ensuring individual team members do engage, do share their perspectives, and provide ways for the team to make effective decisions that all can support, even if they disagree.

Peter is a consultant with over 25 years of experience with organizational and team effectiveness, conflict management, strategic planning, and coaching. He runs the Organizational Consulting Program, a training program for consultants. Clients include over 85 non-profit and for profit organizations. His experience includes 20 years as a faculty member and Director of the Organization Development Certificate Program with Antioch University New England.
To learn more about how you can become a more effective team leader and team member, go to and click on Group Effectiveness Workshop for information on a 2 day skills building training. The next workshop is scheduled for Oct. 30-31, 2012 in Portland, ME.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
This entry was posted in Communication in Healthcare, Complexity in nursing, Diversity, Nurse Leadership, Teambuilding and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Can Teams Really Work?

  1. Meg says:

    …….I think.teams can work…….if (however) the folks with power titles like “doctor” “manager” and that are also not expected to fully understand what makes a team and allow the “team” to work out the kinks……just ‘cuz people carry these titles does not also automatically make them leaders..get my meaning

    • Beth Boynton says:

      I absolutely get your meaning, Meg! Docs, NPs, PAs, and in a way all of us in healthcare are leaders in some capacity. Staff RNs or LPNs may be supervising Nurse Assistants or collaborating with family/patients. Healthcare professionals who don’t have these skills can actually be quite counterproductive or at times destructive to workplace dynamics and teams. As we know, in healthcare this can result in poor communication, medical errors and workplace violence.

      Jennifer Olin, BSN, RN wrote a great piece combining research and experience that touches on the issue from a different angle I think:
      RN Study Finds Links Between Nurse Burnout and Patient Infection Rates

      Teambuilding skills, in my opinion, are crucial for providing safe, kind and even cost-effective care in today’s healthcare system. In fact, I think Pete’s article is a great step forward in that it highlights where the gaps are, “…Understanding the basics of group development, effective interpersonal communication, understanding and the ability to work with many types of ‘difference-age, experience, communication and decision making preferences, how we use power and conflict, group decision making tools, learning to pay attention to both the what and how of a group, and providing group leadership and membership roles to support the group and its work…”

      Sometimes, in my per diem role as a staff RN on a dementia unit, I get exasperated with what I perceive as an inability to use expertise in group dynamics to address team issues. For example, making time for and teaching conflict management skills and/or acknowledging team membership changes and stages of group development. We are always in a crisis mode it seems and although I’ll readily admit that some of this is the nature of the beast, but I believe we need to seek an increase focus on these teambuilding competencies.


    • Hi Meg-Titles do NOT convey leadership- you are spot on with this observation. It is possible, sometimes necessary, for leadership to come from people other than formal, designated leaders. For leadership to be effective from those with out the titles requires group members (including formal leaders and other participants) to be willing to allow leadership behaviors to influence the group. Sometimes the most effective thing we can do is ask questions: ‘What is your understanding of our team’s purpose? or our decision/agreement?; How can we address this issue given the reality of our hectic work environment? What are the consequences of us continuing to work the way we currently work?

      Asking questions can provide the team with a way to re-direct its discussion and generate a new way to see and act. These questions can come from any of us….and others need to be open to these questions for this to work.

      Meg, you touched on another point- allowing the team to work through its ‘kinks’. As you most likely know, the kinks are a normal and healthy part of team development. Whether the kinks are clarifying roles, purpose, or how we communicate with each other- working through these differences and difficulties are essential to establishing a high performing group. The reality is many people are uncomfortable with even acknowledging the ‘kinks’ as something to deal with. It often looks like conflict and many are not comfortable with conflict, nor do they have the tools to deal effectively with the expression of differences-both their own and others. This means we deprive ourselves, and the group, of real learning and even better outcomes.

      We are all served better when we recognize each of us has skills and perspectives that enable us to work really effectively as a team. This means formal leaders may not have all of the skills needed, and that is OK if others are allowed to lead in ways they can help the group.

      Thanks for your post! Hope this is helpful for you and others.


What are your thoughts?