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What if a staff member asks you, “What is a Team?”

I’ve asked leaders this question and they’ve felt stumped. We use the word ‘team’ in our everyday conversation and we expect staff members to know what it means. In my opinion, it is essential to be able to explain what a team looks like, sounds like and feels like, especially if we want to model excellent team behaviors and give constructive feedback when members of our team fail to live up to our entity’s expectations.

Common Goals

Both teams and groups share common goals. If we do not know where we are going and why we are going there, it is difficult to expect buy-in from staff members.


One of the biggest complaints I hear is that “You can’t trust our staff to keep issues within the team.” Members fear hearing stories from their associates or in the community. When trust breaks down, so does the team.

Ego Safety

You can never know everything about me. Therefore, it is vital to criticize what I am doing but refrain from judging me as a person. When a person thinks that it is unsafe to be vulnerable or that it is impossible to make a mistake, they begin to operate from a position of fear. Fear stymies output, promotes the facade of harmony, and has the potential to diminish commitment to other members of the team. Individuals avoid taking on responsibility to avoid personal attacks and may lower their standards to stay safe.

Emotional Bank Account

It is impossible to withdraw from an empty account. Therefore, it is important to ask what you have deposited in each person’s emotional bank account. Individuals who feel supported, trusted, and recognized that most of their work is acceptable are more open to constructive feedback.

Hierarchy is Not Essentially Unless

Think of your team as a wheel and each person is a cog. If a person does not perform, their cog shortens and the wheel cannot turn. If another becomes too competitive, critical of others or takes credit for other’s work, their cog lengthens and the wheel stops. If members of your team operate from a win-lose philosophy and cause disharmony, you cannot focus on your work. Your energy becomes focused on human resource issues and other aspects of your role may suffer.

Members Help Each Other

Sometimes people resent having to help a colleague. They like to separate their role from that of the team. When this happens, people may decide to stay to themselves, avoid team work, and only interact when absolutely essential. In a team, each person articulates how their role impacts others, honors their commitments, and is supportive when their colleagues experience distress.

Problem Solving Voice

Team members do not:

  • Speak as if their opinions and ideas are the only acceptable ones
  • Have a need to be ‘right’
  • Avoid expressing their truth
  • Hold to their ideas when new evidence is presented
  • Expect other to be there for them all the time and avoid helping others.

Team members acknowledge the issue at hand, ensure they understand it clearly, and focus on solving it. They do not spend their time dominating discussions, ignoring the situation, or demanding that their needs are met first.

Values are Practiced

Many teams assert having values, coming in as single words or short phrases. If you ask your team to outline the behaviours equivalent to these values being practiced, you may find that you will hear many different answers. Would that lead to effective team behaviour? Usually not. That is why it is critical to ensure that all team members know what the values look like, sound like and feel like in practice.


Being vulnerable is not easy. What conditions enable your team members to be vulnerable? Jeff Polzer, a professor of organizational behavior at Harvard, reports that being vulnerable gets the static out of the way and lets us do the job together, without worrying or hesitating( https://ideas.ted.com/how-showing-vulnerability-helps-build-a-stronger-team/). In order for me to express my vulnerability, I need to know that I can trust you, you are open to my vulnerability, you are willing to support me or help me find the supports I need, you will not judge me or talk about me behind my back, and that you would accept my support if you were in the same position.

Work is Seen as Seamless

Because we see a team working as a wheel, I accept that my performance will affect someone else. It may affect our ability to:

  • Meet clients/customers expectations
  • Meet or maintain company standards
  • Engage in process or product improvement
  • Meet or exceed established goals or targets, or
  • Present accurate current information in a timely manner.

When a team sees work as seamless, they want to know how their outputs affect others’ performance. They feel connected to each other.

It is much easier to work as a team than as a group. It is much less effective in the long run. As a leader, your verbal and non-verbal behaviour strongly influences how individuals’ function. Working in a team environment feels healthier and safer.

Do you want to

  • reduce stress and achieve harmony in your personal and professional life?
  • be a more effective and efficient leader in your workplace?

If you want to be on top of your game, then you will benefit the most from coaching. I am offering a free 20-minute consultation to help you decide which coaching package is best for you. Click the button below to schedule a call.

Dr. Brenda Kelleher-Flight