Rethinking ‘Team’ In The Business World

It’s fashionable to draw analogies to sports when talking about the concept of teams, but there are other ways to think about the term that are not so focused on short-term performance.

Just about every internal work email we send starts with “Dear Team.” In fact, we talk about teams all the time in the workplace, even relabeling many of our “committees” as “teams.” For example, we no longer have an Executive Committee. We have an Executive Team. We’re all in on team spirit.

However, a conversation with a former colleague recently reminded us that we need to be mindful of how we use the ubiquitous term “team” and what it really means in some companies. Thinking of and referring to our company as a “team” full of smaller, constituent “teams” is nice and sounds great, but, depending on a person’s perspective, that term can have vastly different meanings in the business world.

In speaking with our former colleague, who now had the experience of working in different environments, we gained an additional insight that now seems obvious to us but was not at the time: the term “team” can be interpreted narrowly as performance- and results-based and potentially can even hinder more personal and meaningful connections among co-workers.

To examine this concept and the various interpretations of a team in the workplace, let’s review the dynamics of professional sports, which are also organized around teams. As each season begins, teams get ready to break training camp and trim their rosters to league-mandated roster limits. The coaches and managers assess who is performing and who is not, and every veteran, regardless of tenure or contribution, risks losing their place on the roster to a competitor who has shown more promise or who “fits” better into the short- and long-term plans for the team. This is the harsh reality of the professional sports world.

Many successful businesses operate along the same lines—or at least try to. They tout their competitiveness in their hiring practices, promote internal competition, and respond harshly (they say “with discipline”) to those who don’t make or support “their numbers”— actions made easier through depersonalization and a cold focus on numbers and boxes (also known as “seats”) in organizational charts. They live by the code of “hire slow and fire fast.” After all, it’s for the good of the team, which shouldn’t be held back by those who can’t keep up.

It’s become quite fashionable to draw analogies to sports teams when organizations talk about the team concept. But, in the business world, there are other ways to think about being a team that are not so focused on short-term performance and see their members more holistically than a sports team might see them. Other types of teams can be successful by providing a different environment that values not only the ability to work long hours and produce great financial results but also individuality, perspectives, differences, kindness, meaning and happiness.

We don’t mean to be absolute about this. It’s not a this-or-that distinction, and, while you can probably surmise our leaning, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t continue to be a highly efficient and effective team. Of course we should, and we should continue to focus on strategy, accountability, and results—including ones expressed in numbers.

What we do mean is that there are many different types of “teams,” and that term can mean different things in different organizations. It is possible on one end of the spectrum to think of a team along the lines of a professional sports team that is only as strong as its weakest player. And, on the other end of the spectrum, it’s possible to think of a team as full of members contributing in multiple, complex, and sometimes subtle respects so that, in basic math terms, group performance reflects not a lowest common denominator but a group average of sorts.

Billy Beane showed us in Money Ball that statistics are inarguable, but they don’t fully measure the heart and soul of your players. Heart and soul can matter too, and when a business thinks of itself as a “team,” it need not be governed solely by numbers. Sorry Billy, but we think it’s better to focus on finding a balance between both approaches.