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Building High Performing Teams - Is it a Real Team?

My last piece highlighted the nearly 20 years of research at Harvard University, where Drs. Ruth Wageman, J. Richard Hackman and Erin Lehman found that team leaders can directly influence up to 80% of a team’s effectiveness by focusing on six conditions, three of which are essential and three of which are enabling[1].

The condition I’ll examine in this piece is whether or not a leader actually has a real team. The research shows that as we look at the group of people sitting around the table, we can identify them as a real team if three components are present. These components seem very simple on the surface, although they are routinely overlooked or misunderstood:

1. Bounded – Does the team have boundaries? Do all of the people on the team actually know they’re on the team? Do other observers in the organization know each member of the team?

2. Stable – Do the members of the team stay together long enough to really get to know one another, including strengths and challenge areas?

3. Interdependent – Do all the members of the team have to work together in order to accomplish a compelling purpose?

As I reflect on my military and governmental organizational leadership experiences, it’s easy to recall the times I was on or observed real teams, and the times they really were teams in name only.

The best real teams I recall were very clear on their purpose and had the right mix of organizational expertise on them to accomplish specific goals. They most often had some sort of charter that made sure everyone knew who the members were and what its purpose was. The charter also clarified whether the team was there for information sharing, providing consultation to one or more decision makers, coordinating with each other to accomplish mutually supporting organizational objectives, making actual decisions or a combination of those.[2]

Alternatively, some of the teams I’ve served on were teams in name only. Chaos and frustration ruled the day as different people rolled in and out of team meetings and assigned members routinely skipped attending because they had “other priorities.” Often, members weren’t sure what their purpose was, so team engagements lacked interdependence and served as nothing more than information dumps. Things were made even worse when members and interlopers alike decided that it was time to weigh in on decisions that no one in the room had the ability to make, devolving into frustrated banter and nothing being accomplished.

If my experiences resonate with you, keep them in mind when leading your teams by asking yourself: Does everyone know who is actually on this team? Are we able to stay together long enough to truly bond and learn to work well together? When we come together, are we truly interdependent and focus solely on the most important things that can only be done when we’re all present?

If the answers are yes, then you have a real team with a strong chance of being truly effective. If any of the answers are no, then it might be time to reassess the reason you formed this team.


[1]  Wageman R, Hackman JR, Lehman E. Team Diagnostic Survey: Development of an Instrument. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. 2005;41(4):373-398. doi:10.1177/0021886305281984

[2] Wageman, R. (2008). 2. In Senior leadership teams: What it takes to make them great (pp. 36–38). essay, Harvard Business School Press.

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