Working with groups and teams: Is there a difference?

I remember the first time I had to do a workshop for 30 or so bright-eyed students on the subject of teamwork. I had to explain the difference between a group and a team and how to form a group into a team. Up until this particular workshop what I have known about the group concept and the team concept could have been summed up like this: “a bunch of people coming together to do something.” Sure, it is not something you would put on a flipchart and call it a definition right? After some research, I realized I wasn’t entirely wrong.. but I was not right either. There is a lot more behind the group/team distinction and knowing the difference does matter when you deliver a training on group dynamics or teamwork, or you need to assemble a working group or a marketing team to do the job. The question is why does it matter?

The group vs. team dilemma

Remember those meetings or workshops where people only wanted to do their own tasks without taking into consideration everyone else’s? When decisions were made by those whose voice was the loudest? When people would drop out because they did not see where they could contribute? These unpleasant experiences are not uncommon in the workplace or at a training, but knowing what to expect from a group and what to expect from a team might help to prevent such incidents.

Although there are several distinctions between a team and a group, there are 3 main guidelines which differentiate the concepts from one another. The first one is dependence. Groups are consisting of people who are independent of each other and all of the group members have a different set of tasks that are usually carried out by one individual. The tasks are clearly defined and not dependent on each other. Let’s take the example of passengers on a flight. They are all on the same plane though they have very different reasons to be on that specific one, therefore they are just a group. On the other hand, a team consists of individuals and tasks that are interdependent and rely on each other. Sometimes team members share similar roles and responsibilities. Just like the cabin crew on the plane: their primary reason to be there is to make the journey comfortable for the passengers. (Brounstein n.d.; Lee, 2009)

This shared responsibility notion brings us to the second category that helps us understand the differences between teams and groups: accountability. Since group members are working individually their work is also valued individually. The opposite is true for a team. As the saying goes: “The team is more than the sum of its parts.” They are dependent on each other, share the responsibilities and are collectively judged (Irving, 2014; Lee, 2009). So when a passenger misses the plane it’s only her to suffer the consequences. However, if the plane is not leaving on time because a stewardess doesn’t find the objects to perform the safety check and others don’t help her out, it is very likely that the whole cabin crew suffers for the fault.

Finally, the last distinction point is time. For groups, the “lifespan” is usually longer, not really specified (though in some cases there are definitive starting and ending points). In the example of passengers that means that some of them reached their destination when the plane lands, while other might continue their journey as passengers. Teams, however, come together for a stipulated time which ends when the goal is achieved by the team (Brounstein n.d.). For the cabin crew, the goal is to ensure a comfortable journey for the passengers. When the plane lands their job is done.

Let’s recap what we know about a group: it consists individual members who are concerned about their own individual tasks and outcomes, the members are judged by their own independent work and thus usually the lifetime of a group is specified In comparison team members are co-dependent, share tasks and responsibilities, work closely with each other. The team itself as a whole is responsible for the outcome and judged collectively. The team’s life ends when they achieved their goal.

From group to team – The 7 principles

Knowing what makes a group or a team is a good starting point, but it is hardly enough. The next step would be to decide if you need a group or a team to carry out a plan. There are several factors that could be important, e.g. timeframe, nature of the task, or competencies, but usually, it is better to go with the “group’s more productive unit“ called team. Sadly to simply call a group a team instead, does not make the trick, but according to Maddux (1990), there are seven principles to keep in mind and in check when aiming to form a team

  • There is a shared understanding between the members that personal and team goals can be achieved best with mutual support.
  • Members feel a shared ownership of their work and the team’s goals and are committed to the commonly established (explicit or implicit) rules.
  • Everyone can contribute their personal or professional competencies to the success of the team’s goals.
  • There is room to express ideas and opinions, and team members are making effort to understand each other.
  • Nobody feels threatened by conflict and conflict is viewed as a normal aspect of teamwork.
  • There is an atmosphere of trust and encouragement, and members are encouraged to improve their skills and competencies.
  • The decision-making process is participative and no one is left out or unheard.Surely these principles don’t appear overnight and it takes time, conscious effort and some activities to form or build a team. However, if you start to notice that finally everyone is active during decision making or conflicts are settled relatively easy you can be sure that a team was born.

Stay tuned for our next post where we would focus on the more practical side of how to use various facilitation techniques to help a group become a team. If you have an opinion on the subject, share with us in the comments, we would love to hear it!