Article main image
Feb 8, 2018
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

Editor’s Note: It’s an annual tradition for TLNT to count down the most popular posts of the previous 12 months. We’re reposting each of the top 30 articles through January 2nd. This is No. 5 of the 800 articles posted in 2018. You can find the complete list here.


Everyone worships teams. But, the way most companies operate, is not helping. That’s why teamwork is sometimes an illusion.

What happened to the US men’s basketball team in the 2004 Olympics took everyone by surprise. The “Dream Team” was humiliated by the Puerto Rican underdogs. Having infinite resources including top individual stars like Tim Duncan and LeBron James wasn’t enough for the U.S. team to overcome a more inspired and cohesive opponent. (The team lost three games, winning the bronze, only the third US men’s basektball team in 18 Olympic games not to win the gold.)

A team is only as strong as its weakest link. When your top players don’t know how to work together, their individual talents are useless.

“Ego is the ultimate killer on a team,” as per Patrick Lencioni’s words. That’s the price companies pay when they reward individuals rather than collective achievements. The weakest link breaks when individualism takes over.

A team is as strong as its collective mindset. Your employees’ behaviors are determined by what it is you reward or punish as a leader. No matter how much you praise teamwork, when your actions don’t match your words, don’t expect your team to work as one.

1. You reward individual behaviors, not collective ones

“Great things in business are never done by one person; they are done by a team of people.” — Steve Jobs

Though leaders encourage collective goals, most organizations reward individual merits. Performance review, bonuses, and promotions are individual-focused.

If you just reward individual behaviors, don’t expect people to pursue goals collectively.

The Ohio State Buckeyes football team was in a drought. But in 2001, its new coach changed the reward system and things turned around. Jim Tressel started rewarding every player for collective achievements and wins instead of individual players, as it used to be before. The Buckeyes won a national championship the following year and then became one of the most successful teams in the country ever since.

Feedback is a perfect way to get you started. Start providing team feedback addressing both collective and individual behaviors (in that order). Successful sports teams practice collective open feedback, while corporations prefer individual behind the doors conversations.

2. You hire individuals, not team members

“Be fast, be first, but never be alone. Nothing can replace the value of teamwork.” — Farshad Asl

Take a look at job search ads. Most of them appeal to an individualistic mindset. Very few embrace the search as “Be part of a team bigger than you.” Of course, there are references to “join our team,” but the mindset is not there.

The most critical part when looking to hire a new individual is what role that person will play within a larger group. But all organizations seem to care is if the candidate would fit in.

Don’t just hire cultural fit. Look for cultural fitness instead, as I wrote here (the most shared 2017 article on TNLT HR blog). The new hire should stretch the team’s perspective rather than contribute to group-thinking.

What expertise, personality, leadership styles, experience, and background does the team need? Complement existing assets rather than bring more of the same.

3. Authority is not distributed

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” — ascribed (erroneously ) to Abraham Lincoln

Structuring work by teams requires distributing authority too. How can you expect a team to behave as such when they don’t have the “power” to make a call? I refer to this effect as “the fantasy of being a team.” Team members operate under the illusion that they own the project and when everything is ready to launch, the leader comes at the last minute and changes everything. Unfortunately, this is a widely spread practice.

That decision-making is not distributed is the crucial reason for employee frustration, project delays, and a waste of money.

Zappos, by applying the principles of self-organization, has turned its belief — that no one is better suited to understand client needs than those who are dealing directly with customers — into a practice.

Imagine a soon-to-be bride calling customer service because the shoes she bought online have not arrived yet. At Zappos, an employee can make the call and send the bride a new pair of shoes free of charge with the fastest delivery available. In a traditional organization, the customer representative would have spent the same time offering useless apologies.

You don’t need to go full flesh into self-organization to start distributing authority, as I explained here based on my direct experience.

4. Org charts don’t represent how work is done

“Titles or organizational structures, that’s not the lens through which we see our peers.” — Jonathan Ive

Most work is developed by teams, yet org charts don’t represent this reality. Organizational structures are an overly complicated way to hierarchically link individuals in order to visualize team collaboration.

Modern organizations need a smarter roadmap to clarify how works get done. Org charts don’t represent the fluidity of how teams operate, but rather a rigid, layered-approach to dividing roles into two groups: managers or direct reports. Knowing what people are up to, that’s the mindset behind realistic org charts.

As Aaron Dignan explains in this post, the org chart represents a hierarchical operation that is no longer relevant. As an empowered team of teams carries out the work that matters, a new model is required to capture a self-organized, decentralized, and collaborative way of working.

5. Your organizational purpose doesn’t resonate

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” — Friedrich Nietzsche

Each team needs a purpose of its own. There’s nothing wrong with the overall organization purpose. But people resonate with things that are connected to their day-to-day reality. “Purpose” only means something when your entire company is on board, as Barry Saltzman explains in this post.

That a janitor told President John F. Kennedy that his job was “helping put a man on the moon” is a charming, if probably mythical anecdote to demonstrate the value of a purpose-driven organization. But, most times than not, this is not the reality of the workplace. There’s a huge disconnection between people and their companies’ purpose.

Organizational purposes are important. But having team-specific purposes drive more significant employee engagement. People connect better with the folks that they usually work and the purpose that brings them together.

Also, a company’s purpose might emphasize the beautiful aspect of its business. But what happens to do those who are in trenches taking care of less exciting tasks? A team purpose turns any team into a sexy one.

6. You silence your team tensions

“Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with it.” — Mahatma Gandhi

Many leaders operate under the notion of harmony: they believe that a team that gets along well is more productive than others. A workplace without tensions is an illusion. But managers still see them as something negative. And, when tensions show up, they either act on denial or try to silence conflicts.

Tensions are fuel to keep your team at the top of their game. You can learn to address them. Or ignore them until they backfire.

A study discovered that “grumpy” orchestras played together slightly better than others in which all the musicians were quite happy. People feel satisfied because of what they achieved together, not the other way around. “The mood of the orchestra after a performance says more about how well they did than the mood beforehand,” says Diane Coutu, one of the researchers.

Do you encourage your team to discuss their tensions? Or are you, consciously or not, promoting a culture of silence?

7. Your HR system focuses on individual behaviors

“Individualism is what makes cooperation worth living.” — Henry Ford

Most organizations excel in putting in place systems to manage people. Unfortunately, most of the times there’s a tendency to favor tools that define, coach, and correct individual behaviors.

There’s an ingrained mentality in most HR departments: to find and develop the right people for the right job. The problem is that most C-level executives don’t realize how, the way their HR system operates, hinders teamwork and a collective approach.

That’s why I recommend team coaching over executive coaching. If the team has a problem, it needs to be understood, addressed and solved collectively. Dealing just with the leader won’t get the team unstuck.

Share your thoughts: What things are getting in your way to work as a team?


This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
Get articles like this
in your inbox
Subscribe to our mailing list and get interesting articles about talent acquisition emailed weekly!