Managing Teams at Work

Managing Teams at Work

By Aoife Harrington (MSc, Reg. Psychol. PsSI.)

Teams are the crux of business life. Working in teams not only gives people a sense of belonging but it allows complex issues “that require a wide range of skills” to be addressed, thereby improving businesses’ technical and organisational quality. The benefits of working in teams have been well documented and can include better decision making, more effective problem solving, greater work commitment, increased bottom line returns and essential transfer of knowledge.

Team working is not an automatic process, however. Unless teams are properly managed there are likely to be process losses that can take away from the effectiveness of the teams work and particularly crucial is the role of the manager in ensuring that such potential losses are identified, minimised and managed accordingly.

First and foremost, teams do not just materialise overnight. Managers have an important role to play in team formation ‒ particularly at the norming stage ‒ because once cohesive groups are formed it is very difficult to successfully change the attitudes and behaviour of that group. While group norms are important, as they give group members a sense of belonging and they guide the actions the group will take, they can be destructive if they become too strong or if they segregate the team from other work groups by creating a perception of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Several ways of combating over-cohesiveness in teams at work have been identified, including;

  • Focusing on the task and not on interpersonal issues
  • Sharing alternative perspectives from within and outside of the group
  • Aligning team goals with greater organisational processes and procedures
  • Promoting more group diversity
  • Rotating members among different work teams


Setting clear and specific goals for the team is one of the most important aspects of effective team management. At a very basic level meaningful goal setting will lead to meaningful commitment by individual members to the group. Goals must not only address the organisations critical strategic priorities but they should be congruent with members own values as research has consistently found that teams are more likely to achieve goals that their members believe in. Developing super-ordinate goals that emphasise those aspects of team performance that are applicable to a number of departments within the organisation can also be useful as they create a sense of affiliation with a larger group within the organisation. Equally so, managers need to set goals not just at a team level but also at an individual level, as this makes people personally responsible for their performance and reduces the likelihood of Social Loafing (a phenomenon whereby people tend to contribute less in a group than if they are working alone).

Other useful strategies for reducing the likelihood of Social Loafing in teams include;

  • Making each team member identifiable within the group
  • Clarifying – in oral and written terms – each team member’s role
  • Allocating rewards on the basis of individual performance (as well as team performance)
  • Explicitly informing the team of the importance and relevance of the work they are undertaking


Not only is goal setting an important function of the team leader but so too is providing regular and specific feedback to team members. Feedback can help identify areas that were found to be problematic or unsuccessful and steps can be taken to ensure that the same mistakes are not made again. More importantly, however, managers must ensure that they provide feedback to the team on their level of success in achieving goals and objectives as positive feedback is one of the best morale builders in teams and also promotes a sense of loyalty and unity among team members. Sharing the credit for wins and acknowledging individual effort in teams in likely to instil pride and encourage commitment to the teams’ goals.

Decision making in teams is another area where process losses can occur and an area that deserves requisite attention from team leaders. The concept of group polarisation was first introduced by psychologist and researcher Stoner, who found that when people were required to make a decision that involved taking a risk, their decision became significantly more risky when it was made in a group context (Stoner labelled this the ‘risky shift phenomenon’).

Group Think is an extreme form of group polarisation and one which can be very detrimental to the effective functioning of teams at work. To elaborate, Janis investigated the decision making processes of high-profile teams where an incorrect decision was made by the group with negative consequences. He found that in all of the cases examined, the same group characteristics occurred again and again; the group was very cohesive, there was great pressure for uniformity, there was significant time pressure, the group were insulated from outsiders, and the leader had a preferred solution.

Managers can, however, take steps to offset the possibility of Group Think, including;

  • Actively encouraging divergent points of view from outside the group
  • Recognising, respecting and valuing resistance of group members when decisions are being made
  • Not making his/her preferred solution known until after the group has discussed the matter and each member has formed their own opinion


Finally, with their recent surge in growth, the management of virtual teams has become increasingly important in organisations. Virtual teams are, by definition, formal groups with common goals (similar to traditional work teams) but they tend to be dispersed, be it culturally, geographically or temporally, and therefore much of their communication is conducted via I.T. As conflict in virtual teams can be quite high initially, because of teething problems regarding I.T. equipment and role clarification, the role of the manager is crucially important.

In order to support the acculturation process of virtual teams and maximise potential benefits managers should;

  • Bring virtual team members together at the beginning of the project (if feasible)
  • Encourage team members to learn some personal information about fellow members to foster a sense of team cohesiveness
  • Promote regular team discussions and encourage the progressive sharing of information among team members
  • Be aware of any cultural differences, avoid stereotyping and show respect for different views
  • Continually update members on how the overall project is progressing
  • Train team members in linguistic precision of communication in the absence of body language (so that small misunderstandings don’t escalate into team conflict)
  • Encourage the development of trust and respect among team members as this will promote positive and supportive relationships (this is especially important for virtual teams because of the absence of face-to-face contact)
  • Clarify individual member’s roles within the team
  • Set clear and specific goals at a team and individual level and, importantly, provide feedback on level of success in achieving predefined goals


Few people would challenge the proposition that teams produce better quality results than individuals working alone. However, to capitalise on the benefits of effective team working, teams need strong management. This involves setting clear goals, providing regular and specific feedback, assigning accountability and ownership and promoting communication ‒ and this is likely to become ever increasingly important for managers of teams in challenging times.

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Aoife Harrington is a Consultant at DavittCorporatePartners – Corporate Psychologists