Diversity of thought, experience and culture broadens the scope of ideas among people addressing an issue. But along with getting the right people together comes the challenge of turning a group into a team.

A team is a group of individuals organized to work together to accomplish an objective.1 This definition implies there is a structure supporting the individuals and a goal to achieve. Human beings are generally goal oriented. We have come together as groups since prehistoric times for survival and companionship. This propensity of humans to cluster together remains effective in the today’s workplace.

Benefits and Value of Effective Teamwork

Teams come in different configurations. There are natural, virtual, improvement, project, self-managed, cross-functional, Kaizen and more types of teams – the adjective changes depending on purpose or who is labelling them. Incorporating a team approach into the organization provides different benefits depending on perspective and company culture. Benefits accrue for both the people involved and the processes on which they work. Some of those benefits are as follows.

For the people:

  • High employee morale
  • Career and skill growth
  • Strengthened organizational culture

For the process results:

  • Increased customer satisfaction (external)
  • Continuous process improvement (internal)
  • Innovation and potential breakthrough improvement

The Essential Characteristics of a Team

The characteristics shown in Figure 1 are major contributors to high employee morale. They also positively influence customer satisfaction, whether internal or external. The same skills senior leaders are required to exhibit work well at all levels of the organization.

The characteristics of dynamic and successful teams are all but universal. A team cannot function effectively unless the members individually function well. The performance of each person acts as a catalyst to others. Figure 1 demonstrates the truth of the cliché about the whole being more than the sum of the parts; synergy is critical in realizing the benefits of a team environment.2

Figure 1: The Team Characteristics Wheel
Figure 1: The Team Characteristics Wheel

Each of the segments of the team characteristic wheel in Figure 1 are the foundation for effective teams. The bullets above each segment of the circle give examples of critical accomplishments for this characteristic.

Having a common purpose is part of what changes a group of people into a team. Developing a team charter when the team comes together helps to focus on the results intended by the organization. Defining the role of each team contributor provides needed structure as the team coalesces. Individuals new to team activities may benefit from guidance as to what is expected of them in this unfamiliar assignment. Trust is crucial to the effective functioning of a team. Team members take risks in sharing their knowledge with others. (Trust is covered in more detail later in this article.)

Processes and procedures are possibly the most familiar characteristic of team focus. Process improvement, corrective action, problem-solving and decision-making are the grist of basic team training. Results are what drives the team. The team charter identifies intended results when the team is initiated. As data gathering and analysis transpire, the initial vision of the result may adjust. This characteristic encompasses not only the organizational benefit of project/process results, but also the development of the team members as contributors to a stronger company culture. This individual development leads into the last segment of the wheel – growth. Both the organization and the individual grow as a result of effective team activities. As team members practice the characteristics of effective teams, they increase their value to the organization as well as improve their own career opportunities. 

The Certified Quality Improvement Associate Body of Knowledge: Teams

Much is written about using teams to increase productivity in the workplace. The additional perspectives provided by multiple individuals often lead to innovative solutions. American Society for Quality (ASQ) is one of the suppliers of information about using teams in improvement activities. Table 1 lists the elements related to teams identified in an entry-level certification program developed, administered and maintained by ASQ.

Teams are a major contributor to performance assessment, preventive process design, corrective action, measurement and breakthrough improvement. Formal and informal training in team skills is one way to bolster the effectiveness of all levels of the organization. Front-line workers gain from working together in daily management while supervisors break down department barriers by working in teams to maximize the use of resources horizontally across the organization. Middle managers communicate more effectively in cascading strategic goals into functional objectives. Senior leaders and executives gain stronger levels of trust in each other.

Table 1: Section II of the ASQ Certified Quality Improvement Associate Body of Knowledge3
Section II Team Basics A. Team Organization 1. Team purpose
2. Types of teams
3. Value of teams
B. Roles and Responsibilities
C. Team Formation and Group Dynamics 1. Initiating teams
2. Selecting team members
3. Team stages
4. Team conflict
5. Team decision-making

Roles and Responsibilities of Team Contributors

A team does not run itself. Teams need care and feeding. Some of the critical roles identified for teams are listed in Table 2. Although teams may come together spontaneously as self-managed entities, they usually are formed at the request of a champion who sees a priority within the organization. This leader may or may not also hold the role of sponsor.

A champion is usually a higher-ranking member of the organization with strong visibility. The sponsor may be the process owner or major budget-holding manager within a group of process owners connected within a system. Both the sponsor and the champion are the recipients of progress reviews. They serve as escalation channels to the team when resources are required or barriers are encountered.

Table 2: Major Team Roles and Responsibilities4
Role Responsibility
  • Responsible for team’s effort and supports team plans, activities outcomes
  • Allocates resources
  • Initiates idea or concept
  • Provides advocacy and periodic reviews
  • Usually a business leader, executive
Team Leader
  • Directs team efforts from start to finish
  • Shares progress with all stakeholders
  • Creates successful working environment
  • Commits to helping team achieve goals
  • Acts as advisor, teacher, moderator
  • Deals with process, not content or effort
  • Coach or gatekeeper

The team leader is usually chosen for their deep understanding of the process targeted for attention. The sponsor and champion meet with the team leader before initiation of the team to clarify the purpose and goals of the project or improvement. The team leader is accountable for the content with which the team works.

Team members are the individuals who do the major tasks of the project or improvement effort. The facilitator is more involved with team dynamics, recommending tools and supporting the team with project management. The facilitator may or may not have deep knowledge of the subject matter addressed by the team. Effective teams use these roles and others to structure activities, maintain direction and assist each other to gain knowledge and results.

Motivators for Effective Teams

The days of asking employees to volunteer for team activities are mostly gone. Lessons learned from years of studying teams show that what motivates behavior are outcomes and individual ownership. Three of the most important motivating factors for team members are:

  1. Excited about the work
  2. Fully committed to the work outcomes
  3. Qualified to do their work

Clearly, executives across the enterprise are waking up to the criticality of talent and the negative impacts associated with a skills gap. Skills have a direct impact on the level of returns organizations realize from their investments. For example, the risk of an IT project failing to meet its objectives can increase when the project team does not have the appropriate skills. This is true beyond IT; team skills have a significant impact on achieving project objectives.5 Leaders focus on two main areas:

  1. Tasks
    1. Skills
    2. Knowledge
    3. Abilities
  2. People
    1. Behaviors
    2. Attitude
    3. Commitment

The more we provide an environment for our people to excel, the less effort we need to personally put into the tasks. Executives now point to behavioral skills as the most critical for members of the workforce today. IBM reports findings from global surveys conducted with their customer base that the following are critical skills for maintaining a motivated workforce:

  • Willingness to be flexible, agile and adaptable to change
  • Time management skills and ability to prioritize
    • Ability to work effectively in team environments
    • Ability to communicate effectively in business context
    • Capacity for innovation and creativity
    • Ethics and integrity

Hire good people, get them working together with the right direction, resources and authority, and the tasks will get done in a way that delights the customer and other important stakeholders. Behavior is learned, along with technical skills. Attitudes can be learned. Commitment is a personal choice engendered from understanding and relationship building. Ask these questions of team members:

  1. Do the employees really want to be here?
  2. Is the objective something worth doing?
  3. Does the employee really want to do this task?

For people to work comfortably in teams, we must answer yes to each of these questions. If the answers are yes, then we can safely start expending resources to provide training, leadership and recognition to the teams and feel confident that improvement and change will be the result of their efforts.6

Focus for Teams in the New Environment

Executives are tasked with continuously innovating and succeeding in our constantly evolving landscape. Expectedly, teamwork and organizational flexibility top executives’ list of most important attributes for successful innovation. Leaders recognize that navigating it requires individuals who can:

  • Communicate effectively.
  • Apply problem-solving and critical-thinking skills to drive innovation using new technologies.
  • Draw and act on insights from vast amounts of data.
  • Exhibit creativity and empathy.
  • Change course quickly.
  • Show a propensity to seek out personal growth.

These skills and abilities are important to develop in team members early in the planning phase of a project plan or during process implementation.

The Importance of Trust

Maintaining a strong team environment is difficult in quiet times. It becomes a full-time job during times of revolutionary improvement and change. The leader becomes the ultimate coach. Change reduces productivity, which affects profitability. Teams become distracted by surrounding pressures and lose focus. Some get angry, some try to grab power, some simply retreat into their own shells. Everyone looks to the top to “fix” the discomfort. Even the people who are excited about change and are willing to help do not always agree on the next plan of action.

Global authority on leadership and culture Stephen M. R. Covey describes eight components of trust in The Speed of Trust.7 Figure 2 shows the sequence of actions the team leader, sponsor, champion and facilitator should take to develop and maintain an effective team environment.

Start by reassuring the new team of their role. Use the five stages of team growth to guide the team to high performance.8 Challenge them to give their best to the effort and allow them to stretch their skills. Empathize with team members as they struggle to overcome barriers to find solutions. Keep the team, sponsor, champion and other stakeholders informed of progress. Share as much data as possible with team members. Explain changes in direction if conditions change that affect the team. Provide direction and structure to the team. Guide them in finding the right balance of resources, time and people for maximum return on investment for their efforts. Delegate responsibility and accountability to team members to help them grow as professionals and individuals. Supporting an effective team environment requires all eight of these components for developing trust.

Figure 2: Eight Components of Trust
Figure 2: Eight Components of Trust

Team Dysfunctions

Trust becomes critical when change escalates. Just when the industry wants innovation, the human response is to entrench into what we already know. Many of us fear the unknown. Trust is best built by letting individuals know what is ahead whenever possible. The five dysfunctions of a team espoused by business management expert Patrick Lencioni9 complements Covey’s observations about the fragility of trust.

The truth is you can’t regain trust. Period. You doubt? Think hard about the time you’ve been betrayed. Did the villain ever find their way back into your heart? If you’re like the thousands I’ve asked, the answer is never. Thrust can be gained once and lost once. Once lost, it’s lost forever.10

Comparing the five dysfunctions of a team from Lencioni with the elements of creating a climate of trust from Covey reinforces effective team behavior and action. As seen in the list below, challenging team members begins the process of holding them accountable for their actions. Holding people accountable while supporting them with appropriate resources build trust in the relationship. Empathizing with team difficulties while allowing them to learn from their mistakes is another opportunity for developing trust. When the team leader or facilitator share lessons they have learned from past mistakes, this vulnerability instills humanity into the relationship. When the inevitable conflict occurs, working through the conflict by explaining different variables impacting the situation uses constructive debate as a team builder. Focusing on the desired results provides clear direction to the team, while deliberate delegation of responsibility, combined with accountability generates a sense of loyalty and commitment within team members.

Table 3: Comparing Components of Trust and Team Dysfunctions
8 Components of Trust  5 Dysfunctions of a Team
Challenge Accountability: Confront difficult issues issues (best time to develop trust)
Empathize Trust: Be vulnerable
Explain Conflict: Demand debate
Direct Results: Focus on collective outcomes
Delegate Commitment: Force clarity and closure

“Trust Busters”

Table 4 suggests behaviors that leaders and facilitators should avoid when developing effective teams. The left column of Table 4 lists the eight components of trust introduced earlier; the right column lists associated negative behaviors that counteract the progress made in establishing an effective team. Notice that each of the verbs listed in the right column of are indicators of lack of respect for an individual. These behaviors tend to damage self-confidence. The verbs in the left column are positive, reinforcing actions. Sponsors, champions, team leaders, facilitators and process owners should all practice positive, reinforcing behaviors when building effective teams.

Table 4: Behaviors that Build and Damage a Climate of Trust Within the Team
Climate of Trust: Behavior or Action Trust Busting: Behavior or Action
Maximizing these behaviors… …minimizes these behaviors
Challenge/Accountability: Confront difficult issues Withdraw
Empathize/Trust: Be vulnerable Belittle
Inform Withhold
Explain/Conflict: Demand debate Confuse
Direct/Results: Focus on collective outcomes Abdicate
Guide Abandon
Delegate/Commitment: Force clarity and closure Control


Effective team leaders at any level:

  1. Choose the right people.
  2. Train and mission them appropriately.
  3. Support and recognize them.
  4. Create and maintain a climate of trust.


  1. Duffy, Grace L., Furterer, Sandra L., editors, The Certified Quality Improvement Handbook, 4th ed. ASQE Quality Press. Milwaukee, WI. 2020. p. 56.
  2. Beecroft, G. Dennis, Duffy, Grace L., Moran, John W. editors, The Executive Guide to Improvement and Change, ASQ Quality Press, Milwaukee, WI. 2003. p. 89.
  3. ASQ Quality Improvement Associate Certification CQIA. https://asq.org/cert/quality-improvement-associate#body-of-knowledge. Accessed August 1, 2020.
  4. Duffy, Grace L., Furterer, Sandra L., editors, The Certified Quality Improvement Handbook, 4th ed. ASQE Quality Press, Milwaukee, WI, 2020 pp 68 – 70.
  5. The enterprise guide to closing the skills gap: Strategies for building and maintaining a skilled workforce.” IBM Institute for Business Value, Published January 23, 2020. Accessed March 1, 2021. p. 3.
  6. 2016 IBM Institute for Business Value Global Skills Survey; 2018 IBM Institute for Business Value Global Country Survey. Armonk, NY.
  7. Covey, Stephen M. R., The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything, Free Press, New York, New York, 2006
  8. Duffy, G. L. and Furterer, Sandra L., editors, The Certified Quality Improvement Handbook, 4th ed. ASQE Quality Press, Milwaukee, WI, 2020. Pp. 87–89.
  9. Lencioni, Patrick, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA, 2002.
  10. Covey, Stephen M. R., The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything, Free Press, New York, New York, 2006. p. 300.
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