When Is Teamwork Really Necessary?

Before embarking on any team-building activities or even setting up team meetings, leaders must ask themselves this one question.

Most leaders assume they need to foster teamwork among the people who directly and indirectly report to them. Teaming is now seen as the workplace equivalent of motherhood and apple pie – invariably good.

The problem is when leaders try to drive the wrong kind of collaboration on their particular teams.

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Ask yourself: Am I managing a high-performing group of individuals or a high-performing team?

The result: wasted time and unnecessary frustration.

Consider the example of Nicolas, a regional sales vice president at a medical devices company. When promoted to his new role, he inherited a group of district sales managers responsible for selling to hospital systems in their respective geographies.

Although his one-on-one meetings with these reports, which involved progress reviews, motivation and coaching, were highly productive, his monthly team meetings weren’t. People often wondered why they were in the room.

Catherine, a senior marketing director leading a cross-functional product development team at the same company, provides a contrasting case study. Although she sometimes needed to work with team members individually, most productive work happened in weekly meetings – to which she brought focused agendas and effectively facilitated discussions about key issues.

The participants rarely felt they were wasting their time.

Tailoring efforts

Before embarking on any team-building activities or even setting up team meetings, leaders must ask themselves one question: Am I managing a high-performing group of individuals or a high-performing team?

Having evaluated the extent to which your reports need to work collectively, the next step is to identify the focus and how the work will be accomplished.

Here are eight common roles that your reports may need to play together:

Setters: define and communicate strategic direction and priorities

Integrators: ensure integration and make tradeoffs across units

Execution Drivers: drive planning, execution and accountability

Talent Developers: attract, assess, develop and retain talent

Diplomats: build alliances internally and shape the external environment

Role Models: shape the values, behavior and culture of the organization

Architects: design and transform the organization

Trailblazers: foster organizational learning, innovation and adaptation

Groups of executives who lead companies or divisions or major functions need to balance leading their own teams and leading the enterprise together. Often, they must play all eight roles to some degree.

However, it’s important to clarify which role needs the most emphasis, given the specifics of the situation. In turnaround situations, for example, the most important roles for the team often are Agenda Setters, Execution Drivers and Architects (leading required organizational transformation).

Recognizing shifts 

Recognize, too, that the roles the group most needs to play together may shift over time. As an organization moves successfully from turnaround into more stable growth, for example, the collective focus of senior executives could shift toward Role Models (shaping behaviors and culture), Talent Developers and Diplomats.

As a team leader, you can certainly start this process by making your own assessment of the required extent and focus of teamwork you need. But then plan to have people give their own opinions on both issues and engage in a group discussion to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Teamwork efforts must be tailored to each group and situation. By taking a more limited, focused approach to collaboration, you’ll be able to lead your people much more effectively.

This article originally appeared on Harvard Business Review and was republished with permission.

Michael D. Watkins is a professor at IMD, a co-founder of Genesis Advisers and the author of "The First 90 Days."

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