Productive Work Teams

Think about all the people that you come into contact with in your work life: colleagues, board members and other volunteers, clients, the general public and so on. With this large network of people connected to your organization, learning how to work well together is vital.

In this Section:

Developing work teams

Teamwork originates with, and builds relationships among, a group of people who share a common interest or purpose. Working in teams allows individuals from different areas (e.g., programs, fund-raising, marketing), with different roles (staff, volunteer, client/consumer/ customer), and perhaps from different organizations to work together on issues of interest to team members.

A team focuses its work on common objectives and finding solutions to shared problems. It uses formal processes such as record keeping, facilitation and scheduled meetings to achieve its objectives.

An effective team will:
  • Retain valuable organizational knowledge that comes with the continuity of staff and sharing of information
  • Enhance the power and feeling of satisfaction of individuals working on the team
  • Establish trust relationships that lead to better sharing of knowledge and understanding
  • Achieve objectives because individuals are working together
  • Hold team members accountable to one another
  • Combine the talents of many individuals and therefore contribute more than the sum of its parts
  • Create an environment where the input from people at all levels is valued
  • Create new knowledge through working and learning with others
  • Provide a process and place for multiple perspectives to be applied to complex problems and issues
  • Generate new ideas and insights
  • Turn knowledge into practical results that improve the organization´s services
  • Use a variety of communication processes (including technology) to support the sharing of information, knowledge and experience
  • Create a climate where innovation and new ideas are supported and members listen to diverse points of view
  • Multiply impacts while maintaining or reducing the resources needed to do the job
  • Promote a culture that questions the status quo and looks for innovative ways to improve services and reach goals
  • Empower individuals, the team and the organizations

Building successful work teams and groups

Be clear about your objectives

What do you want the team to achieve? Consider the potential roadblocks and opportunities. Be realistic about how a team will help you find solutions. Make sure that all team members are aware of the objectives and how the team will reach them (and don´t forget to celebrate when the team achieves a milestone!). Identifying a team leader can help the group stay on task.

Determine who needs to be on the team

Once you know your objectives you can decide who needs to be on the team. Consider whether you need to include staff members, board members, volunteers and/or clients/or other stakeholders. Choose people who have a good understanding of the issue. You may also want to include people who have limited knowledge because they will bring new perspectives and ideas, and will learn from this process. Also consider politics. Who is connected to management or leadership? Who can clear the way of organizational obstacles? Who gets along with whom? Who will be disruptive or uncooperative? Don’t be afraid to add new members as the process continues.

Establish a time frame for completion of the team’s work

Remember that group work can often take longer than individual work.

Empower the team to work well together

Be sure the team members have the skills and resources they need to work well together – for example, facilitation skills, finances, support staff, executive support, access to technology and the skills to use it.

Identify how the team will communicate

You will need to establish a process for the team to report on its efforts and results. The team will have to establish how it will communicate internally and how it will communicate its work to others (e.g., through minutes of meetings, e-mail, web site and list-serves).

Other helpful tips
  • Effective teams need to focus on both the group and the task.
  • All team members need a clear sense of their collective task.
  • Encourage team members to set and take ownership of goals.
  • Write down and regularly promote the group’s task so everyone remains focused.
  • If individual conflicts arise, review and negotiate them in terms of the task that needs to be completed.
  • Encourage all team members to participate.
  • Keep a written record of group decisions to avoid returning to the same discussion.
  • Establish group norms that everyone feels comfortable with and hold group members accountable.
  • Handle feedback and debate fairly and look for alternative strategies that still fit with the group’s task.
  • Recognize group effort instead of individual effort.
  • Focus on solutions – it’s easy to identify the problem but more positive to focus on finding a solution.
  • Be mindful of verbal and non-verbal communication.
  • Affirm the importance of keeping commitments made to the group and by the group.
  • Have clear expectations and communicate them throughout the group.
  • Recognize positive contributions to the group.
  • Affirm that constructive conflict is ok, but personal attacks are not.
  • Provide training in problem-solving and conflict management to group members.

Understanding group dynamics

Groups, like individuals have three basic interpersonal needs, namely: inclusion, control and openness [1]. These needs determine how we treat other people in the group and how we want others to treat us. Understanding and identifying behaviours you observe in yourself and in your group members will help you communicate what is happening in the group, gain influence and help the group become more effective and productive.

[1] “About Schutz, W.C, – A Three Dimensional Theory of Interpersonal Behavior”, in Dimock, H.G, How to Observe your Group, 3 ed. (1993).

There are three basic development needs of individuals and groups: inclusion, control, and openness.

1. Inclusion: refers to individual’s need to share, include and involve others in activities. It also refers to the individual’s need to be acknowledged, connected and accepted by others. For example, if you have ever wondered why a facilitator has asked you to share your name at the beginning of a meeting, it is to help achieve the right amount of contact between participants and create a sense of belonging.

  • Key concern:  Who is in or out?
  • Feelings experienced:  anxiety, anticipation, hope, hesitation, discomfort
  • Behaviours expressed: overly talkative, watchful, inviting, supportive, guarded
  • A tip to help work with this need: Pay attention to who is over- and under-participating. This can become an issue in the group as big talkers try to pressure the quiet member into talking more.

2. Control: refers to an individual's needs to influence, be responsible, feel competent and have authority over others. These needs can create a period of turmoil and upheaval as some members try to dominate, while others resist or withdraw. For example, you have asked the group to make a decision about an action item and one of the members avoids the decision-making process to discuss another point.

Important:  Often, this period in the group’s process is avoided, glazed over or is considered bad. To have the need to control is not a bad thing; not unlike conflict, if worked through and participants have the opportunity to influence the group’s process, you can begin to relax and have fun in the group.

  • Key concern:  Who gets to decide what for whom?
  • Feelings experienced:  frustration, stuck, incompetence, powerlessness, apathy
  • Behaviours expressed: resistance, competition, avoiding, challenging, bickering
  • A tip to help work with this need: Notice if your group is preventing any decision-making procedures from being established. This can leave a group powerless and stuck. Try to establish an agreement on how your group will make decisions and define how and who will take on leadership.

3. Openness: refers to an individual’s need to trust, give emotional support and be authentic. It also refers to the need to feel safe and experience friendship. Think back to one of your optimal group experiences. How did you feel? For example, you have a unique gift of drawing and have kept this to yourself. But now, you feel safe and comfortable in the group to want to offer this skill as a resource.

  • Key concern: How do members feel about each other?
  • Feelings experienced: satisfaction, trust, warmth, safety, enthusiasm
  • Behaviours expressed: sharing, problem-solving, active listening, collaboration
  • A tip to help work with this need: As a sense of togetherness develops, observe if extreme or rigid interpersonal behaviours are displayed, since some members can appear impersonal or the opposite – too personal. Some members might act reserved, cautious or distant, while others are overwhelming and regularly personalize situations and issues. By cultivating an environment of acceptance and trust, each member is known and treated as an individual, and her or his unique abilities can be used for the betterment of the whole group.
When thinking about group dynamics, it is important to note that there are three levels of need that could potentially impact productivity and flow:
  • Team needs (building and maintaining of the team)
  • Task needs (getting the job done)
  • Individual needs

Pay attention to these three levels and make sure they are mutually taken care of and recognized. By doing so, the depth of work and commitment of members will undeniably deepen and strengthen.

It is highly probable that if you are feeling something in the group, most likely other members in the group are feeling it too. By speaking out and sharing your feelings or thoughts with the group, you can act as a catalyst to move the group into a more mature and productive phase. The development of your group is contingent on resolving these needs as they arise. If left unresolved and unattended, the group becomes stuck and stagnates.

As a manager leading or participating in a group, the key question to can ask yourself in service of moving the group forward is: What can I do to bring the whole group to a productive state?  Bringing a diverse group of people to work together on a task naturally implies complexity and fluctuations, so learning more about group dynamics enables you to bring the group back to "equilibrium" and stability.

Is your team healthy?

Working in a group can be enjoyable or frustrating, perhaps both. These feelings are linked to the health of your team. Not unlike an individual, a team needs to grow and develop in order to increase its effectiveness and confidence. As a manager, how do you know if your group is doing well and is healthy? What are some of the areas of development that you can work on with your team members? Here are five areas of development in teams to work with:

  • Climate
  • Involvement
  • Interaction
  • Cohesion
  • Productivity

By observing, understanding, and giving attention to these five areas, groups can improve their processes, accomplish more goals and provide more satisfaction for the members.

Climate: This includes both the physical and the emotional climate that are important to the well-being and growth of the team. Seating arrangements, lighting, ventilation and closeness of members can affect the group. Emotional climate determines the security and ease of the members. There is a feeling of “something is in the air” when you walk into the room that can help you determine your team’s emotional climate. Is it formal or informal? Friendly? Competitive?

Tip: Table and chairs can create a separation between the members. Try an open circle of chairs to facilitate more personal communication and free expression.

Involvement: This is determined by the draw of other members in the team to each other and to the activities or product of the team. Some key questions in assessing involvement are: Why are the members here? What level of commitment do they have to the team?  Levels of involvement show up in lateness, absenteeism and lack of energy. 

Tip:  Allow for opportunities for members to participate in setting their own work goals and procedures.

Interaction: This is a key dimension in your group’s health. The more members interact with one another, the more likely the team will develop and accomplish its task. Key questions in assessing your group´s level of interaction are: What is the distribution of participation?  Who has the power in the group? Are there sub-groups or cliques? What is the balance of roles in the group (see note below)? Are people listening and building on the idea of others?  Emotional climate and interaction are closely linked. Members who feel secure and accepted can express their feelings freely and frequently.

Tip: Encourage group decision-making activities, small group projects and coffee breaks to promote closeness and discussion.

[2] Dimock, H.G, How to Observe your Group, 3ed. (1993)

Note:  An analysis of your team members’ roles offers a concise snapshot of your group’s interaction and health. A group needs both task and group building participation from the members if it is to grow and become fully productive. Groups generally tend to over-identify with one way of working such as: high task/low group building OR high group building/low task. Both approaches produce minimal output teams. Download the Roles of Group Members definition sheet to find out more about each role (Dimock, 1993, p. 44).

Productivity: The accomplishment of goals provides motivation and pride for the group as a whole. Productivity involves areas of goal setting, goal clarification, gaining member commitment, and implementation.

Tip! A simple step to help your group reach its goals is by following up and planning ahead. If decisions from previous sessions were carried out then your group can create momentum by planning ahead for the next session. In the best circumstances, you can trust that group members will be able to do additional work that will have an impact on the overall goal.