Collaborating to build an Effective Team

Ray Luechtefeld



A team has two defining characteristics – it consists of two or more members and it engages in purposeful activity. An effective team will produce results that are superior to the simple sum of the individual contributions. An ineffective team may produce poorer results than that possible from a single individual. Effective teamwork depends on four basic processes.




  • Setting team goals and priorities;


  • Developing operating guidelines for the team (e.g. allocating work);


  • Building interpersonal relationships;


  • Improving team procedures and processes.


Setting Goals and Priorities

An essential part of building a team is ensuring that the members have a clear understanding of the main goal they are trying to accomplish and that the team clearly defines and assigns priorities to the sub-goals needed to support the main goal. Setting goals early can reduce disagreements that may arise later because of a lack of agreement on what is to be accomplished and how it is to be accomplished.


Though there are a lot of ways to help a team come up with goals and sub-goals, a simple approach such as the following will probably be sufficient.


Each member of the team should privately write down the main purpose or goal of the team; that is, members should state what each person thinks is the main problem the team is to solve or the product the team is to develop. This main goal should serve as the framework for determining the sub-goals and the team priorities. Share each individual goal statement with the whole team. Then, as a group, discuss the statements and create a single goal statement that accurately reflects the individual statements. You should probably be able to accomplish this in a fairly short period of time. During team discussions, this central purpose statement should serve as the standard to evaluate whether the team is moving towards its goal.


After the main goal is clearly specified, team members should work on clear statements of sub-goals needed to accomplish the main goal. These might be based on design requirements or other goals that need to be met, for example, power requirements, load bearing ability, dynamic characteristics, etc. Or they might be based on steps in the process that need to be accomplished in order to reach the goal, for example, put together and test components, determine materials to be used, generate overall design parameters, etc. Each person should privately write down what they feel are the three or four most important sub-goals needed to accomplish the main goal of the team. Then they should share these with the rest of the team. One of the most important things to look for at this point is the potential for tradeoffs that might need to be considered. Tradeoffs might be indicated by conflicting sub-goals, for example between strength, weight, and cost, or between design complexity and ease of implementation.


Once sub-goals and tradeoffs have been determined, the team can prioritize the sub-goals two ways. First, they may be prioritized in order of importance (e.g., assign "1" to items that absolutely must be included, "2" to items that you would really like to have but might be able to leave out, and "3" to items that would be nice but aren’t really necessary). Second, they may be prioritized according to what needs to be accomplished first, second, third, etc. If there are disagreements it is important that team members understand as well as possible the different reasoning behind the disagreement and come up with a synthesis acceptable to all members.



The main goal, sub-goals, and priorities should be agreed on and recorded since they will act as the basis for future work. At this point, the team is ready to move to the next step.


Developing Operating Guidelines

Operating guidelines define how the team will work together. Several issues should be explicitly discussed at this point in order to promote productive interaction. These issues are decision processes, work allocation, and progress assessment. The resulting guidelines form the set of norms, or shared beliefs, that the team feels are important to function effectively. Table 1 illustrates some norms and related decisions the team might need to make regarding them.


Reporting progress

The rest of the team has no idea what one member is doing. How does the team handle it?


Team discussion off-track

The team is spending a lot of meeting time on non-essential subjects. What should be done?


Unequal work load

Some members are assigned much more work than others. What can be done?


Failure to meet commitments

A team member isn’t fulfilling his or her responsibilities. How is this handled?


Balancing individual and team work

The team seems to be either too much a group of individuals doing their own "thing" or trying to make everything a team project. How do you determine the balance?


Unable to resolve disagreements

The team can’t come to an agreement on an issue. How can you approach this problem?


One issue is deciding how the team will make decisions. The team might choose to decide by majority vote, consensus (working on a problem until a decision can be reached that everyone is happy with), or letting the person with the most knowledge in the subject area make the decision. It might also choose to make certain types of decisions by majority vote and others by consensus or some other means. Also, the team should determine how to ensure that everyone gets to provide input on the issues and concerns that are important to them. There will probably be differences of opinion during the life of the team, and establishing ground rules early about how to handle these differences will make them easier to deal with when they do arise.


Another issue that will arise is the determination of roles and responsibilities each member of the team will perform. Decisions about the roles and responsibilities will probably be largely based on the different skills and interests of the team members. The team should take some time to discuss the roles and responsibilities they are willing and able to do, and should ensure that someone is responsible for each of the sub-goals recorded from the previous section. In addition, someone should be designated as a recorder, and be responsible (possibly on a rotating assignment) for documenting the ideas and decisions for the group. Another person should be assigned the role of facilitator and be responsible for making sure that the team stays on track and does not veer off the assigned topic of discussion.


Finally, there need to be procedures in place that will help the team complete their work. At each meeting, someone (possibly the recorder or facilitator) should ensure that, for each task to be done, the questions "Who, What, and When" are clearly specified. That is, one person should be clearly responsible for completing the task, the task should be clearly summarized, and a deadline for completing the task should be determined. It might be helpful to put together a rough overview showing a schedule of when major tasks need to be completed so that the project is finished on time. Reports of what has been accomplished may also be helpful at the beginning of each meeting. If the assignments do not get finished on time, the team will have to determine ways to reassign and reprioritize tasks.


Building Interpersonal Relationships

Appropriate relationships among team members are crucial to effective team work. Symptoms of problems with interpersonal relationships may surface during team meetings. For example, team members may complain about and find fault with one another or express suspicion and distrust of select members of the team. In some cases, some team members may blow up, withdraw from group interaction, or exhibit some other signs of dissatisfaction. In other cases, the relationship problems may be expressed indirectly. Team members may seek endless details about major and minor actions of the team, resulting in taking too much time to make decisions. They may seek changes in decisions about tough issues after they had apparently been settled.


A facilitator’s job is to improve team effectiveness by focusing on relationships and keeping the discussion and interaction focused on the task or topic and moving toward a decision or action. The facilitator should intervene in the discussion to help team members maintain respect, trust, and support, to help them to express their ideas, opinions and feelings openly, and to help team members manage differences so as to arrive at an integrated decision. The facilitator should tactfully prevent any single team member from dominating the discussion or from being ignored by the team, and to assist the team in using the variety of skills of team members. Finally, the facilitator should seek to bring resolution to discussions so that decisions may be made within particular time constraints. If the team is unable to bring a discussion to a close within the time limits, team members should decide whether to continue the discussion at the expense of other items of business or to delay discussion to another time.


A group may be thought of as going through four stages of development – Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing. A facilitator’s job is to help the team move through the stages to begin performing as quickly as possible (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Stages of Team Development


During the Forming stage, team members are usually concerned about being liked and accepted by their fellow team members, the ground rules the team will work within, and figuring out what they are supposed to do and how they are supposed to do it. They may look for a leader among them who will guide the team and have only superficial discussions.


During the Storming stage conflicts usually arise within teams. These conflicts may focus on the way that the team is being led, how team decisions or rules are determined, and how tasks and workload are allocated. Team members may have a tendency to judge and evaluate the actions of others, resulting in difficulty making decisions or completing work. At this stage it is important that conflicts are brought to the surface and resolved in a way that everyone on the team can accept. A lack of conflict may be an indicator that the team is avoiding unresolved issues or might be working only as a group of individuals rather than as a true team.


During the Norming stage, the team members will begin to feel comfortable with one another and work together on important task functions. They may feel a sense of relief at having survived the storming stage and will feel good about their relationships with other team members. Unfortunately, there may also be a reluctance to bring up areas of disagreement or conflicts, which will keep the team from reaching peak performance. Members may withhold negative reactions to maintain a pleasant atmosphere, at the expense of doing things more effectively.


Finally, during the Performing stage, members begin to act as truly interdependent members of a team. There is a strong emphasis on productivity and members are not afraid to raise issues that may temporarily upset others in order to help the team work more effectively. There is recognition of the distinct skills that make up the group and how each individual contributes to the overall success of the team. Team members challenge one another and seek feedback in order to improve the way that they work together.


Improving Team Procedures and Processes

A team environment is dynamic. Situations, activities, relationships, and sometimes the main goal itself evolve. An important part of working together as a team is finding ways to improve the procedures and processes the team uses to accomplish its work. Improvement tools include meeting agendas, member feedback, and shared understanding.


Besides answering the "Who, What, and When" questions for task assignments, one of the simplest and most helpful tools to improve team effectiveness is the creation and use of an agenda for team meetings. An agenda at its simplest is merely a plan for what the team is going to accomplish during its meetings. It usually includes a list of important topics to be considered and decisions to be made during a meeting. For small teams, the agenda may be informal consisting of a list of action items. (Note that informality does not imply that the agenda is unorganized or vague.) For large groups, more formal agendas are needed. A formal agenda should be distributed prior to meeting and members should have the opportunity to add to the agenda or comment on it so that a final draft can be passed out at the beginning of the meeting. Agendas serve two purposes, they help the team plan for discussions so that they have enough information to prepare and they help the team stick to topics that need to be resolved. The designated facilitator is usually charged with keeping the conversation aligned with the agenda. Formal agendas usually indicate the items that are to be covered during a meeting, who is going to be leading the discussion for each item, and how much time is allocated for a particular subject. A sample agenda is illustrated below.


PROJECT TEAM _______ DATE _______

  1.   Begin meeting

  2. Review agenda (5 minutes)
  3.   Status reports on assignments and responsibilities (10 minutes)


  4. Other presentations and discussion of items (5 minutes)
  5.   Review status of project (15 minutes)


  6. Give assignments for follow-up activities (20 minutes)
  7.   Review items on action list (10 minutes)


  8. Review items on future action list (5 minutes)
  9.   List agenda items for next regular meeting (10 minutes)


  10. Adjourn




Feedback is another very useful tool for improving group and individual effectiveness. At the individual level, people who actively seek out feedback on their performance consistently learn to perform better than those who do not. This is the case in virtually every type of activity where feedback has been studied, from athletics to management. For this reason, teams should put in place some procedures for providing feedback to itself, both on how the team as a whole is doing and on how well individuals are contributing to the group. Setting time aside during some meetings to reflect on team performance is one way to do this. Individual feedback can often be threatening to the receiver, so the group may want to consider carefully how it wants to handle this kind of feedback. It’s worth remembering, though, that the ability to deliver and receive frank, open feedback is one sign that the group has reached stage 4, the Performing stage of group development.


Feedback needs both a sender and a receiver. Skills at both giving and receiving it are needed for it to create real change. Though feedback may be used as a way of punishing or getting back at others, it is correctly used to give constructive information so that the other person can improve performance. Used this way, the person giving feedback should have the goal of making it as nonthreatening as possible, because the more defensive the receiver becomes the less likely it is that he or she will understand the feedback. A person receptive to feedback can enhance performance more rapidly than one who is unreceptive. However, this does not mean that all suggestions are valid or should be unquestioningly applied. Since it is so valuable, guidelines for both giving and receiving feedback are given in Table 2.


Giving Feedback

Give it immediately. Feedback is much more effective when delivered immediately.

Be descriptive rather than evaluative. Describing what you see (‘When you said that, Joe was embarrassed’) is much less likely to make someone defensive than assigning an evaluation to it (‘That was wrong!’).

Focus on behavior, not personality. It is better to state directly observable behavior (‘You were late twice last week’) than make assumptions about another’s attitudes (‘You don’t care about your job’).

Be specific. "Your performance has slipped" is not nearly as useful as "You missed deadlines three times last month."

Avoid advice-giving. Advice, like "Why didn’t you do X?", limits the amount of choices available to another and reduces the exploration of alternatives.

Focus on something the other can change. If the receiver can’t control the behavior, feedback is not useful.

Make sure the person (and the relationship) can handle feedback. Unwanted or unwelcome feedback is less likely to be effective, and may damage the potential for working together in the future.

Receiving Feedback

Listen carefully. Clarifying, asking questions, and trying to understand the other person’s point of view make feedback more useful.

Try not to be defensive. An open, analytical approach makes feedback more effective than planning a rebuttal.

Gather additional information. Check out information from other sources to help you evaluate the feedback. You might try changing to the suggested behavior and seeing whether it is effective.

Seek feedback. People who are more mature and effective are more likely to go out of their way to gain feedback. Feedback seeking has been shown to have significant performance enhancing effects.

hared understanding is created when team members are open about themselves, their own feelings and perspectives. Increasing the amount of shared information is a final tool for improving effectiveness and performance in a team. It improves relations by helping people see each other’s point of view and reducing the potential for miscommunication. For example, people who are not open in expressing their own perceptions and feelings nor good at helping others express them are often perceived as uncommunicative, terse, or aloof. On the other hand, people who are very open in expressing their own perceptions or feelings, but are not good at helping others express them are often perceived as autocratic or arrogant. Relationships and communication are best when people both open about expressing their own feelings and encourage others to be open as well. This expands the "Open self", the area of shared information. A model of shared information and how feedback and openness can effect our perseption of ourselves and others perceptions of us is show in Figure 2. (This framework for analyzing interaction is called the "Johari Window", after its developers, Drs. Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham.)









Open self


Blind self


Known to others




Concealed self


Unknown self


Unknown to others



Known to self

Unknown to self




Creating a collaborative work team is not nearly as exact a science or engineering, but knowledge of these four processes should prove helpful.


The overall framework and portions of this material were drawn from "Organizational Communication" by R.W. Pace and D. F. Faules, 1994, Prentice Hall. Additional information was adapted from "Communication in Organizations" by Dalmar Fisher, 1993, West Publishing.