Teamwork or Taskwork?


Do most teams exhibit great teamwork?  Before you answer, we should pause and consider a more important question, what is teamwork?  Many people will say it is a group of people working together to get things done.  If everyone on a team is doing their part well, does that constitute working together and effective teamwork?

I argue this is not teamwork, it is taskwork.  I define taskwork as the activities an individual performs in order to deliver the results they have promised.  These activities are usually performed alone or involve limited interaction. The associated level of interdependency with peers on the team is low.

Taskwork Is Not Teamwork

Teamwork on the other hand describes the activities performed by a group of people focusing on how they work together.  For example, who has the skills that are best suited to the task at hand?  New valuable shared team perspectives can be created when conversations in the team elicit insights from all team members.  Many other examples exist around trust building.

You may be wondering, why is this important?  Is this just an academic distinction?  In most teams I work with, I observe a lot of taskwork, and little teamwork.  Many teams believe their taskwork makes them a great team and in reality it just makes them an effective collection of individuals.

Are You Getting The Best From Your Team?

So what is missing?  We form a team to achieve results that team members cannot create when they work independently.  I often get a blank response when I ask team leaders what they achieve together that they cannot achieve on their own.   When the group truly work as a team and is committed to a shared outcome, their results far exceed the sum of the parts .  Teamwork is the X factor that drives exceptional performance from a group of people.

What Can You Do To Create More Teamwork?

As a team leader, what can you do to generate teamwork?

  1. Build trust across your team members.  Help your team members get to know each other as human beings rather than as people filling roles.  People are not cogs in the machine.  When they know what other team members care about and what they are concerned about, it generates trust.  This is known as vulnerability, the willingness to reveal yourself and risk being wrong, or not good enough, etc.  If all team members are willing to be vulnerable and speak their truth you have the foundation for a great team.  One that will utilize all of the various talents of its members.
  2. Why have we come together as a team?  What are we taking care of and for whom?  Why is that important and why do we care about?  These are fundamental questions that every team leader and team member needs to answer.  It is better to not have a team than to pretend you are a team.   High performing teams commit to a shared outcome or goal and this takes leadership and practice.
  3. Team leaders are role models.  A key responsibility of a team leader is to ensure the quality of the conversations of the team.   What are the conversations the team needs to have but for a variety of reasons don’t happen?  Perhaps they don’t occur in order to protect a team member or avoid the possibility of conflict.  These are the missing conversations.  In the conversations that are taking place, are they high quality?  Do team members feel heard and understood? More often team conversations are competitions to try to get each person’s point across.  The conversation changes dramatically when the goal is to understand each person’s perspective fully.

These are just a few of activities that generate teamwork and exceptional results.  Many team leaders will say they don’t have time for this or it is a once a year event.  As a result, they play the game of mediocrity that leads to good enough results.  That may be ok for you and if so that’s fine, but please don’t kid yourself that by focusing only on taskwork, your team is performing at its best.