How Real Managers In The Real World Build Real Teams: A Call For Relevance

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David L. Mathison



Few places in the management literature is there a greater divide between theory and practice than in Team Building.  Yes, academics have thoroughly researched what this “ideal team” should look like, its various developmental stages, even the proper mix of roles – yet this author would argue we as educators and consultants know little of how to really develop teams and offer even less of this in equipping our students-managers for this central task.  The purpose of this paper is a call for relevance – a challenge to move from speculative theory on team development to actual practice – identifying what works and what doesn’t. Following a literature review which underlines how theoretical our field has become concerning team development, an actual research study will be reported.  Forty-two MBA students participated in a study where near ideal work teams were developed.  Then these same students were asked, “What went right?  Identify four lessons you learned on how to build an energized team.”  The following is a partial list of student observations on what contributed most to an ideal team: listening, clearly defined goals and tasks, respect for each other, urgency of time, strong norms that rejected loafers, lack of formal structure, and allowing natural leaders to lead.


The paper ends with a discussion on implications for managers hoping to develop energized work teams:


·                     Ad Hoc Teams are Best.  Standing groups which lack “Sunset Causes” tend to become political over time.

·                     Find the Right Mix between Formal and Informal.  Informal gives energy, formal gives needed structure.

·                     Leadership Must Emerge Early in the Process and be Accepted by Most.  There is a critical moment where leaderless teams dissolve into political games.

·                     Strong Norms of Mutual Respect Must be Present from the Beginning.  The tendency toward competition in early team formation must quickly be moderated and directed toward task completion.


In conclusion, our theoretical traditions have led us to a profound understanding of group dynamics, but to remain relevant we owe our students a practical guide as well.  A guide that discussed how Real Managers in the Real World develop Real Teams.


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