Creating a Team

… a core concept in Leadership Skills and Atlas 109

teambuildingConcept description

This concept (effective practice) deals with techniques to help create a team.

Below we draw on advice provided on building a team within an organization and building a team in a community context.

Defining team

In the Encyclopedia of Management (reference below) Stephanie Newell and Hal Kirkwood provide the following definition:

“A team is a collection of individuals organized to accomplish a common purpose, who are interdependent, and who can be identified by themselves and observers as a team.”

Newell and Kirkwood note that:

“Teams exist within a larger organization and interact with other teams and with the organization. Teams are one way for organizations to gather input from members, and to provide organization members with a sense of involvement in the pursuit of organizational goals. Further, teams allow organizations flexibility in assigning members to projects and allow for cross-functional groups to be formed.”

In the context of community work, Phil Rabinowitz (reference below) provides the following description:

“A team is a group of people with a commitment to one another, to the team, to a high level of achievement, to a common goal, and to a common vision. They understand that team success depends on the work of every member. A good team functions as a single organism. Not only do members work together toward a common goal, but they complement and support one another so that their work seems effortless.”

Characteristics of effective teams

Newell and Kirkwood list seven characteristics of effective teams:

  1. Clear direction – Clear direction means that the team is given a clear and distinct goal. The team may be empowered to determine how to achieve that goal, but management, when forming the team, generally sets the goal. A clear direction also means that team outcomes are measurable.
  2. Clear responsibilities – Clear responsibilities means that each team member understands what is expected of her or him within the team. The roles must be clear and interesting to the team members. Each team member needs to be able to rely on all the other members to carry out their roles so that the team can function effectively. Otherwise, one or two team members come to feel that they are doing all the work. This is one of the reasons so many individuals are initially reluctant to join teams.
  3. Knowledgeable members – An effective team will be comprised of individuals who have the skills and knowledge necessary to complete the team’s task. Cooperation is essential at an early stage in inventorying the skills and knowledge each member brings to the team, and working to determine how to utilize those skills to accomplish the team task.
  4. Reasonable operating procedures – All teams need a set of rules by which they operate. Sports teams for example, operate according to a clearly laid-out set of rules about how the game is played. Similarly, work teams need a set of procedures to guide meetings, decision making, planning, division of tasks, and progress evaluation. Setting, and sticking to, procedures helps team members become comfortable relying on one another.
  5. Good interpersonal relationships – Teams are composed of diverse individuals, each of whom comes to the team with his or her own set of values. Understanding and celebrating this diversity helps to make a stronger, more effective team.
  6. Shared success and failures – Everyone wants to feel appreciated. Within a team, members should be willing to express their appreciation, as well their criticisms, of others’ efforts. Similarly, the organization must be willing to reward the team for successful completion of a task and hold all members responsible for failure.
  7. Good external relationships – In the process of building a strong team, groups external to the team are frequently ignored. In order for the team to successfully complete its task, it cannot operate in isolation from the rest of the organization. Teams need help from people within the organization who control important resources. Establishing clear lines of communication with these people early on will facilitate the completion of the team’s task.
Team building

Newell and Kirkwood list five stages of development that successful teams typically go through:

  1. Forming – The stage when team members become acquainted with one another. They also assess the group task and the ground rules that will apply to that task. At this stage everyone is typically very polite and willing to go along with suggestions made by other team members. Team members try to avoid making enemies and are frequently more patient with one another than they might be later in the process.
  2. Storming – As the novelty of being a member of the team wears off, conflict emerges. Members of the team emerge who want to exert greater influence over the process. Leadership struggles begin, as do interpersonal conflicts. Conflicts erupt over the task requirements and the best way to achieve that task. This is the stage at which listening and finding mutually acceptable resolutions to the conflict is most important. The team can either emerge united and ready to take on the assigned task, or divided, with some members taking a passive role.
  3. Norming – In the norming stage team members make an effort to discover what standards of performance are acceptable. What do deadlines really mean? How high a level of quality is necessary? Does every member have to be at every meeting? What about developing sub-teams? If the team can establish harmonious relationships at this stage, they are ready to move on to the performing stage. Some teams, however, disband at this stage.
  4. Performing – At this stage the team is ready to be productive and work on the task assigned. Team members’ roles have been established and clarified. Group interaction should be relatively smooth as the team applies some of the problem-solving skills it learned in earlier stages to the task at hand. If the team has reached this stage without successfully working through the problems and issues of the earlier stages, it may disband or regress and work through those issues.
  5. Adjournment – At some point almost all teams are disbanded, whether their task is completed or a team member leaves. On the one hand this can be a happy stage, with members congratulating one another on a job well done. On the other hand adjournment means the disruption of working arrangements that may have become comfortable and efficient, and possibly the end of friendships.

Rabinowitz provided the following advice on building a team for community work:

Start with the vision – A team needs a vision to be passionate about. This vision can be developed in a number of ways:

  • It may be the vision of a strong and creative leader. A transformative leader has a vision that draws others with it.
  • It may simply be putting flesh on the bones of what the team is already doing. Changing the form of the work of an organization to a team approach, for instance, may not involve a change in vision, but simply a clearer statement of, or a new commitment to, what has already been the organization’s goal and purpose.
  • It may be a group vision. One way to start building the team is to get it to develop its guiding vision. For a team where the leadership is collaborative, the vision almost has to come out of a group process. Where there is a designated leader, she can simply join the group in developing the vision, so it will be hers also.
  • It may come out of an organization-wide or community-wide strategic planning process. The vision may speak directly to the needs of the community or of the target population.

Build team bonds – At the outset, it’s often useful to build cohesiveness through some type of bonding activity appropriate to the nature of the group (e.g., You wouldn’t take a team of seniors on a rigorous wilderness experience.) Some possibilities:

  • A retreat. A full-day or several-day meeting in a place where team members can get to know one another and develop their commitment to the team and its purpose.
  • Specific bonding activities. Activities where success is only possible through teamwork. Where it’s physically possible, Outward Bound-type activities like rock climbing, mountain hikes, or cooperative games can serve these ends. Group problem-solving, perhaps centered on the team’s task, is another possibility. Laughter is an important element here, as well as the chance to work together.
  • Socializing. Preparing and eating meals together, doing some enjoyable activity such as a picnic, making music, going to a play, etc. with or without families, can create ties among team members.
  • Creating team traditions. Eating lunch together, a regular lunchtime or after work card game, fake “awards,” or a continually passed-on e-mail story that everyone contributes to can help cement the team.

Make sure that the concept of a team is absolutely clear, and that everyone understands what that means for themselves.

Involve the team in jointly planning how it will function and what the team and each of its members will do. The more control team members have over their work, the more likely they are to do it well.

Address personal issues. (This may be an ongoing necessity. It should start at the formation of the team in order to try to resolve issues as early as possible.) Any personal issues that get in the way of the smooth functioning of the team need to be confronted and resolved at the beginning. Some of these can be worked out privately with a single person, while others may need the whole group’s attention. Some common issues to address:

  • Conflicts or other issues between or among members of the group. You can’t necessarily make people like each other. But you can insist that they face and resolve conflicts, that they be civil, and that they not let their antagonism get in the way of the work of the team.
  • A need for individual recognition. Individuals may put themselves forward constantly (correctly or incorrectly) as the originators of ideas, the solvers of problems, the driving force behind team successes, etc. There are times when this is appropriate, but if it’s constant, it can destroy the cohesiveness of the team.
  • An inability to compromise or let go of ideas. Flexibility is a prime characteristic of a good team member. It’s important to put ideas on the table, but it’s also important to understand when to let go of them, or to incorporate some aspects of them into someone else’s conception for the sake of progress.
  • Lack of commitment to the work. In order for a team to function well, every member has to believe in what he’s doing, and do his job as well as he can. If folks aren’t committed to the work, that simply won’t happen.

Establish team norms. Teams should be in agreement about the ways members treat one another and how issues are resolved. The team standards should be generated by the team as a whole, and hashed out so that everyone sees them as fair and reasonable. Areas that might be covered include:

  • Civility. Even in the heat of argument, there should be general agreement that name-calling, personal attacks, threats, and the like are off limits. Discussion can be heated, but shouldn’t threaten the glue that holds the team together.
  • Conflict resolution. There should be clear avenues for dealing with conflict that minimize the possibility of leaving it unresolved, or of it resulting in permanent splits between or among team members.
  • Communication. Team members need easy and direct access to one another, and also need to pass information around quickly and efficiently, so that no one is left out of the loop. Establishing systems to maintain this level of communication is an important piece of team formation.
  • Responsibilities. Team members already know their job responsibilities, but they also need to understand their personal responsibilities for maintaining the team. Someone having a problem with another team member’s behavior, for instance, should be responsible for bringing it up in the appropriate way, rather than waiting for the other to change, or for someone else to notice and take care of it. Other similar responsibilities might include helping to keep everyone focused on the task, offering help when others are struggling, calling attention to problems in the work or among team members, etc.
  • Importance of the team and the mission. It can’t be forced, but it adds greatly to team effectiveness if one of the norms is that the collective goal comes first, and if everyone on the team buys into it. If that can be established, the team is almost sure to be successful.

Hash out the logistics of working as a team. How does a team work best? Your team needs to establish how it can do its best work. Who’s going to be responsible for what? (Remember that a good team assigns its members the tasks at which they’re most competent.) What kind of meeting, conference, and consultation schedules can you establish to make sure that everyone always knows everything she needs to know? How can you keep team thinking and decision-making dynamic, i.e. able and ready to change a course of action or an idea when needed? All of these and many other questions must be addressed in order for the team to work smoothly and well.

Start the team with a task that is both doable and requires teamwork to accomplish. As in spring training for baseball, this will give people a chance to practice working as a team on something relatively simple. Starting with a success will help cement the team, and give it a positive outlook upon which to base its work.

On a regular basis, go back over both successes and failures to understand what happened and learn for the future. It’s important to look at errors and failures as chances for learning, not occasions for blame.

Provide both individual and team support. Make sure that everyone has what she needs to do her job. Pay attention to team members’ personal needs as well. They’ll work better if they don’t have other things gnawing at them. If they need flexibility because of the needs of small children or elders, make sure they have it. If it will help the team to have food or amusement, or just space available for breaks, see what you can do about accommodating it. If people need resources such as a library, access to particular Internet sites, etc., try to provide it for them. If someone needs an afternoon off, make sure she takes it. In other words, do everything you can to make people happy, comfortable, and functional. It will pay dividends in quality of work life and quality of work for everyone.

Give people something extra for working as a team. You can pay people more . . . if you have the money to. More likely, you can offer them more flexibility, more power over their jobs, a better chance at successfully achieving their shared vision, better working conditions and quality of working life. Whatever it is, offer something to let people know you appreciate what they’re doing.

Reward accomplishments like crazy. Reward the whole team for successes, and reward individuals for particularly good work. You may want to institute a system whereby team members recommend their colleagues for recognition. Use praise unsparingly, and criticism only when it’s absolutely necessary, and your team will accomplish wonders.


Stephanie Newell and Hal Kirkwood, Teams, Encyclopedia of Business, at, accessed 2 March 2016.

Phil Rabinowitz, Building Teams – Broadening the Base for Leadership, Community Toolbox, at, accessed 2 March 2016.

Atlas topic and subject

Building Resources (core topic) in Leadership Skills.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 10 September 2016.

Image: Bricks 4 Kidz, at, accessed 2 March 2016.