What Do You Mean By Teamwork?

Think of all the corporate town hall meetings and newsletters stressing the importance of teamwork. Picture the array of teamwork posters lining hallways and office walls. If teamwork is held up as the sine qua non of good organizational behavior, why do so many organizations struggle to define it?

As the CEO of Corporate Collaboration Resources, it’s my job to help the clients and companies I work with figure out what teamwork means to them. Generally, I’ve found the word “teamwork” means different things to different people in different circumstances. For instance, to some it means an attitude of rolling up your sleeves and doing whatever is required to succeed. For others, teamwork is about fitting in, going along to get along, even if that involves doing something the individual feels is not right. In other cases, teamwork is a, “you-know-it-when-you-see-it” phenomenon, an ambiguous good that depends on who’s involved. It all depends on who you talk to.

This ambiguous interpretation of teamwork is a problem because it almost always leads to disappointed expectations. As a leader, if you want to foster teamwork in the workplace, you have to first be clear with others about what the term “teamwork” means to you and your company.

Here’s an example of the teamwork trouble I’m talking about:

Think about a job interview. You inform your candidate that teamwork is highly important to your company.

How would most candidates respond? Eager to demonstrate that they understand your expectation, you’ll likely receive a lengthy response talking about how much they value and practice teamwork, and about what a great team player they are.

For you, the interviewer, teamwork involves everyone completing their individual tasks to contribute to the overall success of the company. Your candidate, however, is referring to teamwork as group projects and collaboration.

It’s a problem that interviewees rarely ask, “What do you mean by teamwork?” It’s a bigger problem that as employers we don’t take the time to clarify what we mean. In businesses, we pay and reward people for doing what’s expected, or for exceeding those expectations. If our people aren’t clear what the expectations are, we are setting them up for failure. This wastes both your employee’s time- and yours.

Two confusing issues

So how do you reform the way you talk about teamwork? In my experience as director of organization and group effectiveness at the Mars, Inc., I was able to narrow down two related issues at the root of confusion about teamwork:

  • First is the lack of agreement about what a team is. I am often asked, “Is it the entire company? A person’s division? Their immediate superiors and colleagues?”
  • Second is that leaders and team members alike rely on an over generalized definition of teamwork that causes more confusion than results.

The solution I’ve found addresses both these issues.

‘Units of collaboration’

I tell my clients to stop worrying about what constitutes a team. Leave the word “team” to colloquial conversation. Instead look at what I consider to be the simple heart of teamwork: “units of collaboration.” This  change of vocabulary is important because a unit of collaboration is well-defined: It’s the task or project that requires collaboration and the people involved in the job.

Whether there is one “team” or many at your company, the key is to help employees understand exactly what goals and tasks actually require teamwork, rather than championing a universal, mysterious team identity This means they can then focus their collaborative time and energy on those specific projects and tasks.

The idea of “units of collaboration” also leads me to a solution to the problem regarding the over-generalized understanding of teamwork. Quite simply, if an organization and its leaders expect teamwork, they have an obligation to define in unambiguous terms what they mean by it. By challenging employees to identify their units of collaboration, both employee and employer become clearer about what is actually expected of the employee in terms of teamwork.

Article Continues Below

Most importantly, mapping units of collaboration anchors the notion of teamwork around a precise set of well-understood elements of collaborative work. Groups that work this way also know where collaboration isn’t needed and allow individuals to do what they know how to do, unimpeded by obligations to phony, vague teamwork.

About that job candidate we imagined above, the one who eagerly testified to their teamwork? They were hired, only to hear at their first performance review, “You’re doing fine… but I think you need to be more of a team player.”

If that poor employee is unusually lucky, they may get some clearer explanation of what their manager means by that phrase, but don’t hold your breath. Instead of allowing this miscommunication to escalate all the way to a performance review, as leaders we can address it before the problem has even begun.

The key is defining precisely what we mean when we talk about teamwork – who is directly involved, what the result should be, what’s expected and what’s not. We can clearly and consistently explain our collaborative expectations, yielding a triple benefit: Teamwork becomes not a vague solution to organizational dysfunction; collaboration can be a tool to be used only when appropriate; and every single individual can feel good about their efforts as an independent worker as they do within the identity of the company as a whole.

Carlos Valdes-Dapena

Carlos Valdes-Dapena is an author, speaker, consultant and the founder of Corporate Collaboration Resources, LLC, an organization effectiveness consulting firm. In Lessons from Mars, he shares his insights from 17 years as Director and Senior Organization Consultant at Mars, Inc.. where he worked with brands like M&M’s, Pedigree dog food and Uncle Ben’s. Before Mars, Carlos was an executive coach and consultant at IBM supporting the top 35 global leaders including CEO Lou Gerstner's direct reports. He began his career in consulting with DDI where we worked with clients like AT&T, Pfizer and General Motors.