Calling a Group a Team Doesn’t Make it So

Kevin P. Dincher

Several of my clients in recent years have insisted on referring to their employees as a team and have pointed to how well their employees get along with one another as the metric of their effectiveness as a team.  This always reminds me of a story about Abraham Lincoln in That Brings to Mind, a collection of anecdotes (most of them probably apocryphal) complied by Ralph L. Marquard.

The Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, was asked by a congressman why he hadn’t freed the slaves earlier in his term of office.  Lincoln replied that the time had not been right; he wouldn’t have been able to enforce the proclamation. The congressman was puzzles and didn’t understand what the president meant.  Lincoln explained with a question, “How many legs will a sheep have, if you call the tail a leg?” “Five,” responded the congressman.  “Not so,” said Lincoln wisely. “Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it so.”

Calling a group of employees a team doesn’t make them a team, no matter how well they get along.  They may just be a group of workers who really like one another—or at least have learned to pretend to like one another.

When does a “Group” become a “Team”?

A group becomes a team when:

1.  The members share a commitment to common purpose or mission with shared goals and objectives.

Members of a group generally have a common interest in goals that are given them by management, but team members share a common commitment to purpose.  Groups and teams have differing relationships with their reason for existing; that difference is this:  while management establishes the mission of the team, the teams establish ownership of their purpose and usually spend a great deal of time establishing and clarifying their purpose.

2.  Team membership is determined by skill sets rather than by position. 

In order to function as a team, members must possess complimentary skill sets—and all the skills needed to accomplish the team’s purpose must be included on the team.

3.  The members’ performance is measure by both individual contributions and collective work outcomes.

In groups, performance is generally measured by the work of individual members.  The performance of teams, however, depends on both individual contributions and collective work products—the joint outcome of team members working in concert.

 4.  The members hold themselves and one another accountable. 

Groups and teams have different relationships with management.  Group members respond to and are held accountable by management.  Managers determine specific goals, timing and the approach that the group will take.  By contrast, once management establishes the mission of a team and sets the challenge for the team to accomplish, the team possesses the freedom to manage itself.  Although the team needs to be responsive to demands from higher up, the team is free to establish its own goals, time and approach.

Since the 1960s, leaders of organizations have increasingly embraced the potential of teams and teamwork.  They have increasing relied upon teams to increase performance.  The conventional wisdom is that teams enable organizations to do things better, faster and cheaper—and in an era when employees seek more control over their work lives, working on a team increases employee satisfaction and retention

Teams are getting a great deal of attention in the workplace today.  But are you really working on a team—or is it really a work group just called by another name?


Kevin Dincher is an organization development consultant, professional development coach and educator with 30 years of experience that includes not only OD consulting but also work in adult education,  counseling psychology and crisis management, program and operations management, and human resources.

LinkedIn: Kevin Dincher

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