Why Teams Don't Work

Article by team building expert Vilis Ozols, MBA


The focus of the material is towards the reasons that work teams don't succeed in many organizations, what circumstances often preclude having successful teams in organizations and what organizations can do to deal with the issues that contribute to dysfunctional teams. This paper deals with some of the foundations of team successes and failures and gives an overview for some of the causative factors in dysfunctional teams. The author welcomes any readers to share dysfunctional team experience or strategies for overcoming them.

Teams Are The Way We're Doing Business

The team philosophy has taken hold of North American businesses and organizations like a catalyzed chemical reaction that starts with an external influence, accelerates under its own impetus, reaches critical mass, and continues unimpeded having irreversibly changed the form of the original substance. Teams have truly become the way that we do business. They started as social-technical-business experiments, were catalyzed into the North American business environment by the Total Quality Management movement and have now become the standard acceptable structure for a majority of organizations today.

A Training Magazine (1) article states that 73% of organizations (all types and sizes) have at least some employees organized as teams and in organizations of 10,000 employees or more, 86% have some employees who are members of a working group identified as a team. Even further, the article went on to state that in these organizations, on average, 51% of all employees are in teams of one type or another. The acceptance of teams in today's business environment has become pervasive in all areas of organizations. Task forces, steering teams, quality teams, work area teams, self-directed teams, skunk works teams, pilot teams, process analysis teams, project teams, cross-functional teams, to just name a few.

"...51% of all employees are on teams of one sort or another."

However, some organizations so believe in teams that they set them up just for the sake of having teams. Anyone who has been on a team of this sort recognizes the folly of this approach. They intimately encounter the realization that the team concept doesn’t make sense and that it is a waste of time and resources, in an environment where time and resources are precious commodities. When so many of us are being conscripted to do more with less, ill-advised teams structures do not make sense. Organizations get parasitism, rather than the desired synergism.

There is no shortage of literature available that expounds the virtues of teams. Teams that have decreased error rates from 40% to less than 5%, or teams cutting order processing times from 14 days to one day. Teams that can manufacture components in 40% less time than a traditional organization can - and with 50% less scrap than the competition. Organizations that earned $2 Million in profit during their start-up period with teams, instead of the expected $2.3 Million loses anticipated from past experiences (2). Claims of decreased theft, decreased absenteeism, decreased sabotage. Wow! What management group wouldn't want teams with those carrots at the ends of the sticks?

The fallacy of many team start-ups is often in approaching the equation (shown below) from the wrong side. We initially look towards increasing productivity, increasing quality, decreasing cycle time and improving many other management or organizational measures. These constitute "organization wins." The reality of team success is that these productivity increases will only be a by-product or result of several more important "employee win" measures. Many organizations unknowingly transpose these important measures.

The Secret Of Team Success:

The important measures that any start-up of teams needs to address first are the employee-based measures that constitute the "employee wins" category. Once these employee-based measures are attained the management results do follow. However, if teams are set up with the sole intent of achieving the management results without answering the intrinsic success-based questions such as "What’s in it for me?" organizations will find that their teams are not accepted, successful or enjoyed. This is a major reason that teams fail. They are started with the expressed interest of getting more from employees in terms of results, without giving anything back to the employees in terms of job satisfaction, empowerment, recognition, decision-making and authority, to name a few areas.

Teams are successful when the employees "win" as a result of being on teams. Only then, when the employees "win" will the organization subsequently "win." The downfall of too many teams occurs when organizers expect teams to win, but they establish structures so this can only occur at the expense of the employees. This expense is often in terms of longer hours, extra work (sometimes even at home), more meetings and expecting the same output in less production time. In this environment, any team success that is experienced can only be short-lived because it precludes any employee buy-in to teams. Too many organizations believe that they can get something for nothing with teams. Teams can only succeed when they are primarily established as an investment in employees, first.

"Too many organizations believe that they can get something for nothing with teams"

Putting "Employee Wins" First:

The secret to team success is a simple one: When the team or employees wins, management wins. So what are these employee-based results that must always precede the organizational results?

Training and Benefits:

Employees win when teams and team members receive training and additional skills to allow them to be more effective. The personal resumés of team members must be enhanced. Many traditional management structures treat training as a "thin air" management perquisite. It is given only when one is promoted into the thin air of the management structure. In many organizations the only soft skills training that employees receive occurs when they are promoted to the supervisory ranks. Too often, front line employees receive only essential technical (hard skills) training. Successful team organizations train and educate front line employees with skills and resources that might be formerly called "management skills" in a traditional hierarchical structure.

"Employee Wins"

Some of the intrinsic team benefits, skills, training and tools that team members must receive for teams to be successful include:

  • Benchmarking skills
  • Project management skills
  • Benchmarking opportunities
  • Strategic planning
  • Fact-finding at off-site locations
  • Problem solving
  • Decision-making
  • Conflict management
  • Facilitation skills
  • Communication skills
  • Negotiation skills
  • Group dynamics training
  • Quality measurement
  • Functional cross-training
  • Strategic planning
  • Project management
  • Diversity training
  • Leadership training
  • Job satisfaction
  • Sense of accomplishment

The Inner Circle:

Employees win when teams and team members are admitted into the "inner circle." The inner circle is the circle of influence that previously only management was privy to in terms of being involved in decision-making and the sharing of information. Any successful team endeavor must as a benefit draw teams and team members into this inner circle. Too often, organizations expect that a result of teams will be that employees will be empowered. Employee empowerment cannot be a goal of teams - it needs to be the structure around which teams are built.

Similarly, many organizations mistakenly expect that a result of teams will be increased organizational communication. Once again, increased organizational communication cannot be a goal of teams - it must be the structure around which teams are built. In the book, a clearly defined organizational communication strategy will be discussed that is critical to team success. It is not enough to simply say that "communication" must be better in a team environment. A structured, multi-level team communication strategy must be established that addresses intra-team issues, inter-team issues, management information needs and organizational team awareness.

"Employee empowerment" and "better organizational communication" cannot be the goals of a team program - they must be the structure around which teams are built!"


Employees win when teams are empowered appropriately. Many teams are established to provide a vehicle for employee input into operational decisions. Employees, and team members are astute enough to realize when they have been put into a vehicle that has no gas. This occurs to teams when they make recommendations that are categorically ignored, discounted or simply turned down. This type of lip service to teams is another causative factor for dysfunctional teams. If teams are to be successful they must be allowed to make decisions and be allowed to implement those decisions.

Learning From Mistakes:

Employees win when teams are allowed to make mistakes. In many organizations mistakes are treated punitively and teams learn very early in their life-cycle not to make mistakes, not to take risks and not to try new things because they might be punished. Errors must be treated as learning opportunities. A central coaching theme in working with work teams must be to address error or mistake situations as developmental opportunities, and not to react punitively. This is an area that is truly in the category of "easier said than done." Having lead people, supervisors and managers trained in interactive coaching skills is imperative to work team success. Training programs (such as our "From Manager To Coach") utilize proven athletic coaching strategies and analogies that organizational leaders can integrate into their work team environments.

Winning Teams Have Coaches:

Employees win with coaches. Teams need management mentors. Too many organizations believe that establishing teams means removing the supervisory influence. The reality is that this influence must be re-directed as a developmental or coaching influence. Someone who can let them know when they are on the right track and when they are straying from viable pathways. Someone who can identify needed resources for the team, and arrange for these resources. Someone who can eliminate some of the organizational barriers that the team encounters. Organizational coaches are people who can essentially do for the team those things that the team through its own resources cannot do for itself.

Valid measurements:

Employees win when they "know the score." Many teams are commissioned to obtain specific results in terms of productivity, efficiency, quality, or service. Unfortunately, often the teams do not determine the specific measurements that are valid or that the team can really impact. When teams don’t impact their score card they lose momentum. Sometimes they don’t even get moving because they don’t know where to go. Teams need to have visible, incremental measures of their progress, successes and accomplishments.

Clearly Defined Goals:

Employees win when they have very clearly defined goals. Almost all organizations have mission statements. Many dysfunctional teams suffer through meeting after meeting as members inwardly ask themselves, "What are we supposed to be doing here?"

Yet, as you read this, how many of you can rhyme off your mission statement right now? Painfully enough, few of us can. It can be legitimately asked then: "Why do we have mission statements?" The answer lies in one of America's first mainstream introductions to mission statements; the 1982 Tom Peters and Rob Waterman business classic, In Search Of Excellence (3). The message America pulled from them was that great organizations have mission statements. However, if we go back and re-read their book we would find the message slightly different: In the truly excellent companies, every employee, from the executives down to the front-liner laborer, understands what the organization is about and what they are trying to accomplish. This is what is articulated in a mission statement.

Many teams fall into this trap, too. They write team mission statements only because they are "supposed to." These statements are vague and general in nature and these teams suffer from a distinct lack of direction. One of the first investigative actions when dealing with dysfunctional teams is to investigate team understanding of their mission and goal - mission statement notwithstanding.

Teams often don’t know what level of decision-making, problem-solving or implementation is expected of them.

Authority and Accountability:

Employees win when they know their limits and boundaries. Teams often don’t believe that management will let them do this or that. Teams often don’t know what level of decision-making, problem-solving or implementation is expected of them. They don’t know if they are allowed to spend money, or how much they can spend, or how do they determine what to spend it on. Authority and accountability on teams are dynamic issues, not static barriers. While the changing nature of team authority and accountability makes it difficult to define these limits and boundaries for, it is a critical success factor and must be addressed as clearly as possible.

Team Values:

One of the ways to determine team boundaries is to establish the values for the team in terms of their goals or performance objective. It is sometimes useful to redefine the "values" buzz word as "what’s important." Team values as they apply to a project might include such "what's important" issues as "quality versus quantity," "cost versus service," "return on investment," "time investment versus anticipated returns," "employee satisfaction versus cost savings," "safety versus efficiency," and issues of "how much, how fast, how long, how often."

Reward, Recognition and Celebration:

Employees win when they know that their efforts are appreciated. Organizations need structured reward, recognition and celebration activities. Teams need to know that someone recognizes their efforts and cares about them. A paycheck does not do the job of saying: "I know and I care." Teaming and working in teams takes a great deal of time, effort, commitment, and emotional investment. Teams need to know the answer to the intrinsic question, "What’s in it for me?" That answer is often an intangible, something like "I feel good about my contribution." Organizations must send the message that team efforts are recognized and rewarded.

Organizational Support:

Employees win with visible organizational support. While we hear of examples of individual teams thriving in environments where little or no management support exists, the reality of team success is that they need visible and sustained management support if they are to prosper. A team member is a very intelligent and discerning being. They can tell almost immediately when they do or do not have true management support of their team structure.

Showing support is a difficult management challenge. Employees can always tell when management support falls into the category of lip service. Unfortunately though, even with sound management support the employee perceptions can be negative. Actions in our organizations can belie their intent. It is like the old saying: "We judge others by what they actually do. We judge ourselves by what we intend to do." Even when management is truly committed to a team structure, supporting the teams is simply not enough. Management must visibly and continuously support the teams ... an important distinction. This is not unlike the sales training adage: People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Supporting teams in organizations is liking riding a bicycle uphill. One must continuously pedal or the backward momentum rapidly exceeds the progress. In terms of visible management support, as in cycling uphill, there is little forward momentum. If organizations try to "coast" in their visible support of teams they will lose ground disproportionately. Management support of teams must be constant, visible, and sincere.

Have A Plan:

Employees win when they are involved in an overall strategic plan. For this to occur, management needs to have a strategic plan that involves the team structure as a component of that plan. This is a critical component for success.

The Obligation of Leadership:

Employees win when management knows what they are doing and what they have gotten themselves and their organizations into in terms of teams. Organizations have a moral obligation to know what is involved in moving to teams. They must know all about the training requirements, the management commitment, the employee commitment, the costs, the organizational changes necessary, the time commitment and the emotional investment, to name just a few issues. To many, this is simply common sense. Surprisingly, some organizations will implement drastic re-structures to a self-directed team structure or to a cross-functional team structure, and the implementing groups have never even seen or experienced a self-directing team in action.

If teams are so great then why do some hate them so much?

The answer probably lies somewhere in these preceding issues. The real challenge is not to identify why is it that your teams aren’t working. Most members of dysfunctional teams can probably already do that, and not at the heady price of an expert consultant. The real challenge lies in identifying and solving the issues associated with dysfunctional teams. Once again, most team members can usually also give some of answers that we need to make teams work in our organizations. Therein lies the nature of the success of the team structure: the people doing the job are the ones in the best position to make the decisions. Any good consultant knows this and includes employee input as a component of their work. There is wisdom in the well-worn definition of a consultant: A consultant is someone, who, when you ask them what time it is, looks at your watch to give you the answer ... and then gets to keep your watch.

References and Resources:

1. Training Magazine, October, 1994, Lakewood Publications, Minneapolis, MN

2. Teampower, by Clay Carr, 1992, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, NJ

3. In Search Of Excellence, Tom Peters & Robert Waterman, 1982 Warner Books, NY

4. The Team Handbook, by Peter Scholtes, et al. Joiner Associates, Madison, WI

5. Implementing Self-Directed Work Teams, by Loren Ankarlo, CareerTrack Publications, Boulder, CO (800)334-6780

6. Overcoming the Top Ten Self-Directed Team Stoppers, By Darcy Hitchcock. Journal for Quality and Participation, December 1992: 42-47

About The Ozols Business Group

The Ozols Business Group is an international motivational speaking, leadership training and business consulting organization based in Niagara Falls, NY. Vilis Ozols provides speaking services to a wide spectrum of organizations ranging from U.S. Fortune 500 companies to associations conventions/conferences to small entrepreneurial businesses.

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