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Building a Team

So you have a group project to work on! Be thankful! Workplace collaboration is growing in importance and the people who are good at it have the best chances for success in it. This page is intended to help you through the phases of coming together as a team for any project.

Working in Teams

Why Teams?
Teams are formed to coordinate smaller tasks to accomplish a larger objective. Typically, those objectives are part of some larger goals. Effective teams produce work of far greater quality than most individuals could manage.

In business, teams come together to work on projects, such as developing a Web site, that will further the corporate goals of their company. As students, you could be doing a presentation in a course as one part of the personal development your school wants to encourage.

Understanding these two things helps you get motivated. You need to have a clear sense of the purpose of your Why are we having this meeting?group. Is it to develop an interactive presentation or report on some research? Is it to present academic research or personal opinions? You can’t stay on track if you don’t know what track you are on.

Then, what is this project’s relationship to the big picture? If the Web site is a large part of corporate strategy, you are part of something important. It is valuable to keep in mind both the short- and long-term goals of your team project so you don’t get mired in the trivial details.

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Communications & Team Building

We all have styles of communication which may enhance or hamper the development of effective team solutions.

Listening is the most important communications skill in any situation, but it is essential in teams. Active listening is the skill of focusing on the words and feelings of the person speaking and trying to tie their ideas in to the team purpose. Rather than impatiently Feelings are part of communications.waiting to get your two cents worth in, you think about what the person is saying and feeling.

We are discussing feelings because they often must be dealt with to move on to the group’s goals. If we feel people are not listening to what we have to say, we can become angry or alienated from the group. Generally, the more a group practices active listening, the more effective it will be.

In contrast, aggressive, manipulative or competitive styles of communications create division and reduce the effectiveness of the team. For some tips on effective listening and avoiding poor communications practices, here is some good listening advice.

With a sound communications climate in place, a team can be built. Team building lets the group move towards its goal by understanding the team and the task. To understand the team, it is helpful for each person to identify their strengths, weaknesses and goals. In baseball, where the idea is to get players on the bases and then get them around all the bases, some players are good at getting on base, while others are good at driving them around the bases to score.

Here is an online survey to help you identify your personal team player style. Read the instructions carefully and think through the issues it presents. You will get a self-assessment which you can then explore.

Use this assessment to determine your strengths and weaknesses as a meeting participant, as well as what you bring to the needs of the team, such as specialized knowledge or experience. Other self-assessment tools are available in our resources page.

Teams function best when they interact supportively, use facts as much as possible, communicate effectively and move the discussion along to its goal.

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Running a Meeting

To be useful and effective, meetings must have a clear sense of purpose, value and leadership (discussed in next section).

To establish purpose, an agenda is essential and should be sent out before the meeting. An agenda sets out when and where the meeting is to be, what is to be discussed and what preparation is required. This helps ensure you accomplish all the things you set out to do. The first order of business at your meeting should be adopting the agenda; that means everyone agrees that this is what you should be discussing.

In formal meeting rules, any item that is not on the agenda should Meeting chairs must be good listeners.not be brought up, except with the approval of all members. If discussion strays from the agenda, any member has the right to call for discussion to return to it. The idea is to accomplish what you set out to do and not get sidetracked. If something new has come up just before the meeting it should be added to the agenda at the start so everyone knows where they stand. For a sample agenda for a student group project, see this Word document.

Team members need to know their work has value. There is nothing worse than being asked to work as a team on something, only to discover your work was ignored. Individually and as a team, it is important that all concerned agree on the worth of having this team. Remember that this applies when people report back to the group as well.

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Leader & Member Roles

Meetings run by leaders work better. While students are reluctant to seem to “take over” a meeting, it is important that someone provides leadership. In any case, the meeting leader, formally termed the chair, is not taking over the meeting at all.

The role of the chair is to lead the meeting toward its planned objectives. The chair has no power, except that conferred on her by the group. The chair never votes, except to break a tie. Even then, the prudent chair will vote to defeat most items, since they obviously lack broad support.

So what should the chair be doing? Here are some ideas from Cielins and Aquino1:

  • Promote lively, focussed discussion
  • Maintain even speaking times for all
  • Restrict private discussion
  • Stop any “ganging up”
  • Help members to express their ideas
  • Ask questions to stimulate discussion

As this implies, the chair must be an excellent listener who is able to sit back and take it all in to see the broad picture and to relate the discussion to the group’s objectives. This is leadership, as you help others work through problems. On seeing that someone is having trouble getting a word in edgewise, or has offered little, the solid chair will ask: “Do you have anything to add?”

Team members also have roles, Cielins and Aquino note:Three people talking

  • Respect other members and their opinions
  • Understand team dynamics
  • Speak clearly and succinctly
  • Listen actively
  • Think logically and analytically
  • Share speaking time fairly
  • Help keep the discussion on track

In other words, members are responsible for the meeting as well. They have the right -- make that the responsibility -- to point out to the chair that the agenda is not being followed.

All this leads to a climate of open discussion. That means people can and do speak up without fear of being put down. When outcomes are uncertain, members should be supportive and recognize that if things don’t work out, there is nobody to blame, as all agreed to the decision. This lets you learn and move on.

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Team Contracts

One useful approach to clarifying team roles and expectations is to develop a team contract. This sets out who is doing what, the team’s expectations and penalties for failure to perform. While it sounds a bit formal, the contract serves to remind all members that they are into something serious and should view it accordingly. If one member chooses not to support the group effort, a contract can set out how that person will be removed.

Contracts can get overwhelming and tedious, so leave the lawyers out of them! However, do ensure you have the following information:

  • Who is part of the team?
  • What is the team’s task?
  • What are the steps in the team’s task?
  • Who (an individual, not “everyone”) is responsible for each specific step?
  • What are the expectations in terms of performance?
  • What are the expectations of team members?
  • What will happen if team members do not deliver?
  • At what point (i.e. number of missed meetings, number of incomplete assignments) will non-performing members be asked to leave the group?

Here is a template you can use to create your own team contract. Give it a lot of thought and ask yourself if you really want to be part of a high performing team, or if you are more interested in getting minimal results.

A sample for an introductory marketing class seminar shows another way of approaching the task.

Provided the above elements are included and, more importantly, everyone in the group agrees to the terms, the contract has done its job. While it is never easy removing non-performers from a group, that job is made much easier when it is done under rules agreed upon by everyone. It is also far less likely that weak performance will emerge in a group that has a contract.

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Towards Effective Teams

Here is a collection of tips from several sources2 which give some ideas on what does and doesn’t work for team building:

  • Recognize the importance of developing and retaining skills, besides doing what you set out to do.
  • Make sure everyone knows why they and others are on the team.
  • Make sure everyone considers the information, knowledge and skills they bring to the team.
  • Support and encourage leadership.
  • Work with the different styles of leadership: Tell, sell, delegate and facilitate.
  • Avoid groupthink by rewarding openness and disagreement.
  • Thank those who disagree and ask others how they feel.
  • While team members are often specialists, help them become generalists by developing their other skills.
  • Encourage and support a shared vision with the team.
  • Seek feedback from inside and outside the team to keep on getting better.
  • Commit to continuous improvement.
  • Be accountable, individually and collectively.
  • Make sure people want to work with you again.

There are many other issues surrounding effective teams, but this is a beginning. Check out our resources page for more ideas.

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1. This section comes fromCielens & Aquino, Business of Communicating, 4e, 1999, McGraw-Hill Australia. Their work also provided some background to other sections of this page.

2. Tips were derived from The TDP Project’s Tips for Building Effective Teams, from the Building Effective Teams page, and from personal sources.

This page was prepared by David Nowell, Professor, Sheridan College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning, Oakville, Ontario, Canada. It is intended as a global resource for the use of all students to assist them in this important part of their learning. Please send comments on how useful (or otherwise!) you found this page to David Nowell.

Contents Copyright ©2002-05, David Nowell. All Rights Reserved.

Images Copyright ©2002,

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