Forget What You Learned in Grade School: Five Teamwork Myths

Last Updated Aug 27, 2007 9:56 AM EDT

Since we were all knee-high to a whiteboard, we've been told that we need to work well as part of a team, that the team trumps the individual, that every leader is only as good as his team. Team team team team team. Who didn't ride the pine in Little League so everyone could get a few minutes of playing time?

But now that we're adults, cynics -- many of us full-blown skeptics -- can we really believe that this idea of team is the holy grail of productivity and success? Anyone whose days are spent trying to squeeze in work between all of their meetings can tell you that team unity can sometimes be counterproductive. And it seems that the only people who get anything out of you and your officemates catching a backward-falling coworker is the consulting company that charged $5,000 to show you how to do it.

So just as we adults have learned that you can, in fact, drink too much milk or water, we also must question the grade-school wisdom we've always assumed to be true about teamwork.

Top Five Myths of Teamwork

  1. Teams are always good. Managers confronted with a new task should always consider whether pulling together a team will be the most efficient way to complete the task. Sometimes it's faster and less complicated to parcel it out or delegate it to one or two people, especially if the task is fairly routine.
  2. Teams should come to a consensus. Time spent trying to reach consensus on decisions could be better spent acting on the decisions, as Jon Katzenbach discusses in his book "Teams at the Top." More often than not, the team members who possess the knowledge to make an informed decision should do so individually.
  3. There's no "I" in team. This old chestnut gets trotted out anytime a manager doesn't want to consider the needs of individuals within the team. But keeping the individual members of the team happy, invested in the task, and excited about their job is the only way a team can be effective. They need to know you have their long-term development in mind too, not just the goals of the team.
  4. You must get along with your teammates. Rodney King's famous rhetorical question ("Why can't we all just get along?") was just that. Sometimes your team members' personalities just don't mesh, and this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Conflict actually helps a team stay innovative. Your team members need to respect each other and their respective roles, and follow the team's general code of behavior; they don't have to go out for pints or stand as godparent for each other's kids.
  5. The more the merrier. Though it seems like adding another pair of eyes, ears, and typing hands to a project is always a positive, teams lose some of their effectiveness when they expand past 12 to 15 members. The larger a team gets, the harder it is to keep members invested, informed, on task, and on the same page.