“Collaboration” and “teamwork” are the catchphrases of the contemporary workplace. Since the 1980s in the U.S., work teams have been hailed as the solution to assembly line workers’ alienation and disaffection, and white-collar workers’ isolation and disconnection. Work teams have been associated with increased productivity, innovation, employee satisfaction, and reduced turnover. Additionally, teams at work are said to have beneficial effects on employee learning, problem-solving, communication, company loyalty, and organizational cohesiveness. Teams are now found throughout the for-profit, non-profit, and governmental sectors, and much of the work of the field of organization development (OD) is devoted to fostering and sustaining teams at work.

In his recent article “Stop Wasting Money on Team Building,” Harvard Business Review, September 11, 2018, Carlos Valdes-Dapena, argues that teams are less effective than many believe them to be. Based on research conducted at Mars, Inc. “a 35 billion dollar global corporation with a commitment to collaboration,” Valdes-Dapena argues that while employees like the idea of teams and team work, employees don’t, in fact, much collaborate in teams. After conducting 125 interviews and administering questionnaires with team members, he writes “If there was one dominant theme from the interviews, it is summarized in this remarkable sentiment: “I really like and value my teammates. And I know we should collaborate more. We just don’t.”

Valdes-Dapena reports that employees “…felt the most clarity about their individual objectives, and felt a strong sense of ownership for the work they were accountable for.” He also shows that “Mars was full of people who loved to get busy on tasks and responsibilities that had their names next to them. It was work they could do exceedingly well, producing results without collaborating. On top of that, they were being affirmed for those results by their bosses and the performance rating system.” Essentially, Valdes-Dapena, argues, teams may sound good in theory, but it is probably better to tap individual self-interest, if you really want to get the job done.

In “3 Types of Dysfunctional Teams and How To Fix Them,” Patty McManus says that there are different types of dysfunctional work teams. She characterizes these different team types as: “The War Zone,” “The Love Fest,” and “The Unteam.” In “War Zone” teams, competition and factionalism among members obscure or derail the potential benefits of teamwork. In the “Love Fest” team, there is a focus on muting disagreements, highlighting areas of agreement, and avoidance of tough issues in the interest of maintaining good feelings. “The Unteam” is characterized by meetings that are used for top-down communication and status updates, and fail to build shared perspective about the organization. In the “Unteam” members may get along as individuals, but they have little connection to one another or a larger purpose they all share.

McManus claims that the problems of teams may be overcome by what she terms “ecosystems teams,” i.e., teams that surface and manage differences, build healthy inter-dependence among members, and engage the organization—beyond the mere confines of the team.

Matthew Swyers also sees problems in teams at work. In “7 Reasons Good Teams Become Dysfunctional,” (Inc. September 27, 2012,) Swyers writes that there are seven types of problems that teams may experience:

  • absence of a strong and competent leader
  • team members more interested in individual glory than achieving team objectives
  • failure to define team goals and desired outcomes
  • disproportionately place too much of the team’s work on a few of its members’ shoulders
  • lack focus and endless debate, without moving toward an ultimate goal
  • lack of accountability and postponed timetables
  • failure of decisiveness.

Each of these writers highlight the vulnerabilities of teams at work. Although the work of these writers doesn’t foreclose the positive possibilities of team organization at work, they raise important questions about both the enthusiasm for, and the effectiveness of, teams. Additionally, each author suggests that with enlightened modifications, organizations can overcome the liabilities of teams and begin to reap the benefits of team-based employee collaboration. That said, none of these writers, and few among the other U.S. based writers who have engaged this topic, treat the underlying assumptions of workplace reform—that work can be made more habitable and humane without the independent organizations that have traditionally represented workers’/employees’ interests in the workplace. For discussion of models of workplace reform that genuinely represent workers’ interest in more humane, collaborative, and ultimately, productive working environments, we will need to look elsewhere.


Workgroups vs. Teams

“Importance of Teamwork at Work,” Tim Zimmer

“Importance of Teamwork in Organizations,” Aaron Marquis

“What Makes Teams Work?” Regina Fazio Maruca, Fast Company

“Stop Wasting Money on Team Building,” Carlos Valdes-Dapena, Harvard Business Review, September 11, 2018

“3 Types Of Dysfunctional Teams And How To Fix Them,” Patty McManus, Fast Company

“When Is Teamwork Really Necessary?” Michael D. Watkins, Harvard Business Review, August 16, 2018

“7 Reasons Good Teams Become Dysfunctional,” Matthew Swyers , Inc. Sept 27 2012

“Why Teams Don’t Work,” Diane Coutu, Harvard Business Review, May 2009

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