What is a Team?

Published: January 7, 2020

How do you define “team?” Your workplace colleagues? Your romantic partnership? Your book club? Your neighborhood? Your recreational sports buddies? Your family? Perhaps all of the above? Defining teams is both simple and complex. The complex view is an interdependent ecosystem of complementary roles advancing a common mission through shared values toward a clear vision. The simple view is two or more people collaborating on a goal. Let’s break down the simple definition into its key parts.

Two or More People Collaborating on a Goal

Two or more

Once you move from the “me” to the “we,” everything changes. Life is easier when you can be the center of your own universe. What if someone else is the center? What if there are multiple centers? Learning to see the world from perspectives other than your own is difficult. Sacrificing your own priorities in favor of a teammate’s is not a natural act for all but the most altruistic humans. The more humans you add to the team, the harder it is to protect the “me.” “We” is a generous concession.

People

No one exists in isolation regardless of their roles on various teams. We are all connected by invisible systems that reach back generations and across cultures. Our rich histories are delivered to the present in every interaction. Just because someone is not in the room with you doesn’t mean he or she is not present in your heart and mind. The actual, countable members of any team represent innumerable others whose spirits and memories influence our every action. There are always more people in the room than there are chairs. It’s easiest to see in the metaphor of a forest. In the woods, no single tree exists independent of the community. Below ground, intricate root systems feed and heal neighboring trees. Trees communicate above and below ground by sharing reciprocal resources and responding to threats in partnerships. When you apply the metaphor back to your team, consider all the teachers, mentors, ancestors and influencers who might also be in the room.

Collaborating

Linking diverse talents into a whole greater than its individual parts requires a platform of safety and accountability. Collaboration is an outgrowth of generosity. Giving is natural when connection glues teammates together. Connection is the consequence of passing a continuous sequence of trust tests. Those who extend themselves unselfishly to others are more likely to receive gifts back. Creating goodwill between teammates promotes a culture of sharing.

on a Goal

Team goals can only be reached together. Unlike individual goals that can be achieved by focus and work ethic, team goals require interactional competencies. Team rise or fall together. Any contribution of strength elevates everyone. Individualism subtracts from the group’s effort. When you know your actions will impact your teammates, you make utilitarian choices. What is the greatest good for the greatest number? What can I contribute to move us closer to our objective? How do my actions help or hinder everyone else? Rather than simply working harder or running faster, I’m more likely to coordinate, compromise, negotiate, sacrifice and share. These are the actions that will bring our common goal closer to fruition.

What is a team? Virtually every interaction you engage in when you are not alone is a form of teamwork. Perhaps the exchange of coffee and money with the barista is a stretch but only in terms of its importance in the priorities of your countless other teams. Yet, when you treat every exchange with the gravity of your most central team, days flow with more ease.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst College where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.