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Groups vs Teams

Is there a difference between a working group and a team? What is the difference? Is it a meaningful distinction or just semantics?

In the world of sports, we don’t differentiate in terminology (we only ever speak of teams), but we do differentiate between functional and dysfunctional teams (Who is T.O. playing for these days? They will be next on this list). When I posed this question to the Twitter/Facebook world, one reply I received is that a group is a mass of people and that a team is a mass of people united in purpose. That’s a good start, but I think we need to go further.

Let’s look at two formal definitions…

Team“A team is a small group of people with complementary skills and abilities who are committed to a common goal and approach for which they hold each other accountable” (Katzenbach & Smith, 1994, The Wisdom of Teams).

Group“A group can be defined as a small group of people with complementary skills and abilities who are committed to a leader’s goal and approach and are willing to be held accountable by the leader” (Mackin, The Difference Between A Team And A Group).

Those two definitions are helpful at differentiating between a working group and a team. BTW, this is not to say that one is necessarily better or always preferable to the other. This is noteworthy because many would want to say that a team is better, but that may or may not be the case. For example, building a team takes a lot of time because there are no shortcuts to attaining a place of mutual accountability and trust. Sometimes a working group is the preferable solution if for no other reason than a shortened timetable.

To dig further into the difference, consider the following chart from Katzenbach & Smith’s 1993 article in the Harvard Business Review, The Discipline of Teams.

Groups vs Teams

While each of these points is interesting (see efficient meetings versus open-ended, problem-solving meetings), but I’d like to highlight the first three items in each list.

Follow the leader: Working groups typically have strong leader that drives the agenda of the group. Conversely a team shared the leadership tasks, recognizing that one member may be the expert in one area, but deferring leadership to another team member for his/her area of expertise.

Accountability: In a group, each member is accountable to him/herself and to the organization as a whole. On a team, there is a mutual accountability. 

Purpose: A group’s purpose is put out before them by the leader/organization. A team, however, develops their own purpose that allows them to move toward larger organizational objectives. 

For more of my research on teams, visit High Performance Virtual Teams.

Interact: Under what scenarios is the extra effort required to build a team preferable?


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