“[…] The essence of a team is common commitment. Without it, groups perform as individuals; with it, they become a powerful unit of collective performance. “
Some weeks ago, as a group we played a couple of nice games together. They put us in a circle, gave us a ball, and asked to toss it around. When launching it, the name of the intended recipient had to be pronounced aloud. Classic teambuilding, in short. Then they gave us two, then three. This is also a classic, it’s like when you played volleyball in a circle in school and the group was too good there was always the funny guy who proposed – fellas, let’s try two -. Volleyball, with two balls, stops working, but regarding the little balls we have a series of bright examples, as from the world of circus arts: we, a group of ball-throwers, therefore started in an advantageous position compared to the school kids. I remember that I had to say “Laura”, and it was a very regular Laura: every 5-6 seconds, then three, two. Laura, Laura, Laura. The aim of the game was to keep all of them in the air – I do not remember how many exactly, maybe five, six? If we succeeded, we would have been officially proclaimed a team.
The rhythmic pronunciation of these names became like the sound of the gears of an assembly line. But our experiment in collective juggling, sadly, turned out to be too difficult: with the gears going out of time, the balls following various parables, everything ended up collapsing.
As far as I am concerned, this volunteering of mine, whose hybrid and changing nature does not fail to surprise me every day (“it’s work but it’s not”), is in fact my first experience where I found myself clashing with these concepts of group, team and whatever. As a good linguistic graduate, in an attempt to explain what differentiates the group from the team, I immediately went to look up for a definition.
And here they are, straight from the Cambridge Dictionary of English:
The first thing we notice is a certain semantic hierarchy: while “group” is considered to be part of the A1 linguistic background, that is absolute beginner, “team” is placed in the A2 band. In other words, the group is a word that is part of the Basic Vocabulary, which means: necessary to define the concept of team, but not vice versa. Despite a certain broadness of meaning in the examples presented – where group can be used as a synonym for team – the connotation that emerges from the choice of verbs in the definition is decisive: group is “put togheder“, team is “do something togheder / working togheder “. The dichotomy is therefore that of an essentially passive connotation (put togheder, inplicitely by external forces) versus an active one (the “do something”). We can see how this “do something” is soon evolving into “working”: in fact, the relationship of group / team concepts has the working environment as its most fruitful field of application. Regarding this, widely quoted text in the literature is “The Discipline of Teams”, by Jon R. Katzebach and Douglas K. Smith, published in Harward Business Review for the March-April 1993 issue.
The question the article aims to answer is: “what makes the difference between a team that performs and one that doesn’t?“. What is feauturing, in the article, is the definition and connotation of defining a group of workers as a team: “[…] real teams that perform, not amorphous groups that we call teams because we think that the label is motivating and energizing”. The concept of team is, of course, connected with teamwork. Most leaders and top executives encourage this practice, and rightly so: teamwork represents a set of values which is ethically configuring as positive; embracing listening and responding constructively to views expressed by others, giving others the benefit of doubt, providing support, and recognizing the interest and achievements of others.
Such values clearly help teams performance, and they as well encourage individual performance.
To work effectively a team needs a meaningful purpose to believe. This purpose is often seeded by higher management: the team, afterwards, needs to be left “independent”, in order to build a natural ownership and a “sense of belonging” and enforce emotional affection to the given cause. Giving performance goals will help to make the team more effective.
And how do you achieve that? How do make a group believe in a higher purpose? Trainings and teambuilding activities, meant as individual and group action, are then the pratices. Though, reading business reviews articles we learn that the main purpose of offering training to the employees is often not concerning educational issues, but it configures itself as part of a bigger package that it is meant to show that the upper management is taking into consideration their employees, their needs, their personal development: in a few words, to show the workers that they care.
Beyond the less noble connotations that this type of practice can mean in the working world, I can say that, from my little point of view as a user of a working group, that I appreciate and consider important teambuilding and training practices. Especially thinking about more introverted individuals, struggling to integrate themselves in a new environment, they can represent an occasion to “break the ice” with the coworkers in a safer / most relaxed environment, which is a fairly rare occasion in the roaring business. Also about trainings: they implies a self-reflection effort that many individual, being something not strictly connected to the pragmatic objective of achieving the work goal, might label as “time-waster“. A training represents a moment to empty your mind, in a way, meaning a sort of framing your experience in a meta-context. I often have the impression that many internalize a feeling of disconfort – in the workplace as well as in life – as something necessary and inevitable: the classic “it is what it is, what can you do, suck it up, bite the bullet. But, stopping for moment, thinking aloud about oneself: it is a little spark. It sounds perhaps banal, but we are living and and we work constantly immersed in this enormous wave of cognitive overload, that thinking is often something we just do not think about. About overselves, even more.
And that is one of the values of trainings: because it is like stopping to have this guided conversation with yourself, doing this little mental clean-up. I understand that they can be labeled as “silly” in the sense that they do not produce a material effect: but it is awareness that is fueled, and, for those who say they do not need it, maybe they have a fear of discovering something they wouldn’t like about their inner selves and their motivations.
And then, let’s continue to toss that ball, to write ideas on those coloruful post-its. The balls falling down are not a problem, not a defeat, because that is the usefulness of these kind of things: being something which is working out even when it doesn’t.
Article written by Giulia Gotti