Project Practitioners > Who Put the #$!&@ in Teams?

Who Put the #$!&@ in Teams?

By Michael Aucoin

Matches loner outside of teamTo adapt a line from the movie Animal House, "Teams–can't live with them, can't live without them!"

That may be the conclusion of a 2013 survey commissioned by the University of Phoenix that revealed some troubling findings about the nature of teams in the workplace.

  • 95 percent of those surveyed recognize that teams serve an important function, but only 24 percent prefer to work in teams.
  • 68 percent who have ever worked in teams have had at least one experience with a dysfunctional team.
  • 40 percent of those who have worked on teams have witnessed a verbal confrontation between team members, and 15 percent reported a physical confrontation.
  • 40 percent blamed other team members for the team’s dysfunction.

I don’t know about you, but I am disturbed by these survey results. They represent a comprehensive and systemic failure on the part of our organizations and the schools and universities that prepare us for work in those organizations. I’m out to do something about it.

If workplace teams are important, and we know that they are, what can we do to resolve the distaste that people feel about teamwork? Can teams really become functional, and, dare I say it, rewarding?

I think it is illuminating to contrast workplace teams with athletic teams. Have you ever heard a football player say, “My team serves an important function, but I’d rather play football alone”? The very foundations of team sports recognize the necessity of learning how to function as a coordinated and cohesive system. The typical NFL team has about 50 players and half that many on the coaching staff. For every hour spent playing a game, another 10 hours are spent practicing, training, or studying the playbook or game film. Where is the bevy of coaches for your project team? How much time do you practice being a team or building skills?

It’s Not Your Fault, But It Is Your Responsibility

In contrast to athletic teams, I believe that, except in rare instances, professionals in the workplace have never gained sufficient knowledge or skill in healthy teamwork. And it is not our fault. We are thrown into teams in school, and later at work, with a sink or swim approach. There is no one to coach us; there is no attempt to practice; and there is no framework within which to study performance. Heck, we even skip the Lessons Learned part of project closing.

While we may examine the symptoms associated with dysfunctional teamwork, it is more helpful to search for causes, as well as to identify the foundations for good teamwork. We will follow this theme as we kick off a mini-series on what we can do to promote healthy work in teams. The good news is that becoming a functional or even stellar team is well within the reach of almost everyone, and it does not take extensive effort. However, it does start with a willingness to change, both in mindset and action, and it requires persistence. It also takes a commitment to being personally responsible for change–where I’m from, that’s called leadership.

Yes, There Is An “I” In “Team”

In this mini-series, we will follow several themes.

  • Teamwork is in our DNA. Despite the findings of the survey, humans are wired to collaborate. Teamwork feels amazing when it goes well.
  • The individual changes the team. A team is a dynamic, organizational system, composed of interconnected nodes or components, meaning individuals. A change in any node necessarily changes the function of the entire system.
  • Changing myself is the most powerful way to change the team. If I want to improve the function of the team, the most effective way to do so is to change myself. Contrary to what your high school coach told you, there really is an “I” in “team”, but it is an “I” that takes responsibility. This is where many people falter–it is much more tempting to hang responsibility for team improvement on someone else. Victimhood and cynicism have no place on the effective team.
  • The team thrives on simple principles. While the team system may be complicated and unpredictable or even chaotic, healthy teams can nevertheless be achieved reliably through fostering four motivators that relate to what people want from work. These motivators are meaningfulness, choice, competence, and progress, and they will be covered in more detail in future articles.
  • Teamwork mastery comes by gaining power over helplessness.Teams that are dysfunctional feel stuck and powerless. Movement toward healthy teamwork comes when individuals overcome helplessness by exercising power and control in a way that benefits themselves and the group.
  • Learning is the most important team task. Improvement in team function requires a commitment to learning. I urge you to consider the term “learning” as a rich and often challenging concept; it is much more than gaining knowledge. Learning starts with embracing reality, even if it is difficult. It means a commitment to curiosity, transparency, and comfort with the ongoing tension between what we are and what we strive to be.

Whatever your prior experience in teams, distasteful as it may have been, I encourage you to avoid cynicism and keep trying to improve yourself and your team. Because the truth is, each one of us has contributed to the #$!&@ in teams. And each one of us can, and must, remove it by becoming a better team member.

B. Michael Aucoin, D. Engr., PE, PMP is president of Leading Edge Management, LLC and author of Right-Brain Project Management (Management Concepts, 2007). He can be reached at

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

>>40 percent of those who have worked on teams have witnessed a verbal confrontation between team members ...> ... and 15 percent reported a physical confrontation.<<

What the what? That just flattens me! Where are these teams where people are clocking each other and throwing staplers? That's just bizarre. I don't even know how to process that number.

>>It’s Not Your Fault, But It Is Your Responsibility>. It also takes a commitment to being personally responsible for change–where I’m from, that’s called leadership.<<

Very. well. put.

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