When Teamwork Isn’t the Answer

Dan Doerksen

teamwork, workplace culture, leadership, management, employee

“Dream a dream, form a team.”

This was the mantra at an organization where I used to work. Teams were the answer to every question:

  • Have an idea? Form a team.
  • Need to solve a problem? Form a team.
  • Want to create an event? Form a team.
  • Need to change the coffee filter? Form a team.

Although I have great respect for the leaders who implemented this program and, to their credit, a team was the solution more often than not – this wasn’t always the case.

When Teamwork Isn’t the Answer

Teamwork has become trendy among leadership circles, and for good reason. At ACHIEVE, we’ve even discovered it to be one of the top six priorities when it comes to building a healthy workplace culture. However, both research and experience show that there are distinct situations in which teamwork is not the answer. Sometimes you might have to let the Lone Ranger be a lone ranger.

Here are the top ten scenarios where you may want to reconsider your decision to form a team:

1. A simple situation with a straightforward and obvious solution.

If everyone knows what the right, and perhaps only, decision needs to be, don’t worry about convening the council. Unless an innovative, nonobvious outcome is desired, just make the call and assign someone to do the work.

2. The tasks necessary are highly independent of each other.

When one person can complete their work without having to wait on someone else, let them do it. Don’t create dependencies where there are none.

Both research and experience show that there are distinct situations in which teamwork is not the answer.
3. There is little to no psychological safety among potential team members.

When Google studied their own teams, they found the number one aspect of a high performing team was psychological safety. If this isn’t present and people feel insecure or embarrassed to be open with each other, you won’t get the results you need. Teams require members to feel safe enough to take interpersonal risks.

4. The work can be done better by one person.

Some tasks really are designed to be completed by an individual. Truly creative endeavours, for instance, are hindered by increased collaboration.

5. Employees work more productively and are happier on their own.

Not every personality thrives in a team setting. Rather than socially shaming them into being someone they’re not, recognize their strengths and place them in situations where they can shine.

6. One person is undoubtedly the expert.

If the knowledge and authority of an employee in a particular instance are readily acknowledged, then asking them to engage in a team-based decision-making process would be a mistake. They may still benefit from consulting with others, but in the end, let them make the decision.

7. The project clearly falls under one person’s area of responsibility, and they’re not the ones forming the team.

This is pretty specific, but sometimes the person who should rightfully initiate a project  isn’t the one putting the team together. For example, if a manager is trying to help an employee who is struggling with their performance, forcing a team around them isn’t the right solution.

8. There isn’t sufficient time for a team to learn how to work together.

New teams make 50 percent more mistakes than established teams. Teams take a good deal of time to form properly and work through the stages of development. Throwing a team together on short notice could create an unnecessary risk of failure. If you have to crash to quickly complete a task, ask an established team to take it on.

9. There is little to no interest in an issue.

When only one person is passionate about a project, they will continually be frustrated by the other members if they don’t show the same enthusiasm. Alternatively, an existing team may have lost its original spark and therefore needs to disband.  Don’t let one person’s passion keep a team around longer than it needs to be.

10. When the organizational systems aren’t supportive of teamwork.

Most workplaces are set up well to direct, reward, and correct individuals. Teams require shared reward systems, group coaching models, strong communication systems, and shared authority. As SAAB discovered when it transitioned to teams, without the right supporting systems you can knock people out of alignment and actually slow down productivity.

Don’t Give up on Teams

Despite all of this, teams can still be a powerful solution to an organization’s problems. But like any medication, dosage and application are key factors.

If you want to build a healthy workplace culture, learning when and how to create peak performing teams is an important skill to hone as a leader. Don’t let this list needlessly hold you back – rather use the scenarios above to become a more thoughtful leader and increase the chances of your team’s success, if and when you choose to form one.


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Author: Dan Doerksen
Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership

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