Team vs. Work Group: How Do You and Your Coworkers Stack Up?

Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.” – Vince Lombardi, American college football coach.

Team vs. Work Group: How Do You and Your Coworkers Stack Up?Most of us who work with multiple coworkers consider ourselves part of a team, and in fact, our leaders may refer to us as such. But are you really part of a team? Strictly defined, a team consists of a cohesive group of individuals, all of whom work within the same workflow process, contributing to the completion of one or more cooperative projects. Some researchers further define teams as consisting of 3-25 people, leaving out duos or “dyads” because their interactions are too simple, and larger groups because of their complexity. In general, teams tend to be tight-knit, with common goals and joint accountability for their work. Innovation, job engagement, and a sense of “we’re all in this together” pervade teams, especially the best ones.

I have no problem, personally, with duos and teams larger than 25. Yes, the big ones can get unwieldy, but you can manage this issue by breaking them into smaller sub-teams. Team One may work on one module of a project, while Team Two works on the next, and so on. Ultimately, another team (or the team manager) assembles the completed modules to produce the project.

Work groups can consist of almost any size, and the term itself conveys a different idea than “team.” But the truth is, teams represent a special type of focused work group; therefore, it may be said that while all teams are work groups, not all work groups are teams (click to tweet). A “work group” may also comprise a wide variety of coworker arrangements, from independent contractors and subcontractors who provide specialized services, to loose partnerships between workers who do specific tasks that don’t merge seamlessly into a whole, as with a team.

More often than not, work groups consist of individuals with specialized jobs doing specific tasks, often with limited or no interaction with their coworkers. They report directly to one individual who assigns specific projects or tasks they often perform alone. While they may all contribute to one or two ultimate goals, they remain “lone wolves” who report to a specific alpha who coordinates their work for the sake of the organization.

My Work Group and My Team

At The Productivity Pro, Inc., I have one work group and one team. The independent contractors who work for me—including my IT guy, my public relations gal, my virtual admin, my blog cartoonist, and others—actually represent a work group rather than a team. Of course as the leader, I think of them as part of my team, but they aren’t a team. I’ve personally met all of them, of course, but very few actually know each other. If they do know each other, it’s only an occasional friendly email presence. That’s because there’s usually no need for them to get together and work on the same workflow process. While we do have a team mentality, the only thing most of my workers have in common is me. I’m the hub, the person who assigns work and to whom it flows when it’s done. And with their help, I produce fantastic products on a weekly and monthly basis, with a new book thrown in every couple of years.

My true team is my office manager, business manager, marketing manager, and me—our employees. Work flows between us to manage our client care, business development, and event management processes. Another true team is also my family. My husband and my two teen boys and I work together to keep the household humming along, and they take over when I’m on the road. I depend on them and vice versa.

The Classic Division 

Academics have closely studied the concept of teams vs. work groups in general, and have proposed a number of other ways teams differ from work groups. For example, a team:

  • Has a leader who facilitates, rather than dominates.
  • Consists of interdependent members, including the leadership; they work jointly toward the same goal.
  • Often produces a synergetic whole greater than the sum of its parts.
  • Enjoys individual and mutual accountability.
  • Shoots for team rather than individual goals.
  • Produces collective works rather than independent results.
  • Shares responsibilities between team members.
  • Meets more often than a work group.
  • Helps shape work goals and outcomes.
  • Consists of workers with (slightly) overlapping skill sets.

Which works best, a classic work group or team? That depends on the circumstances. My employees work all over the country, and most handle their work virtually. A work group of independents works better for me, considering all the different things I require to produce my newsletters, website, webinars, etc. Most Productivity Pro tasks consist of one- or two-person jobs. Many workplaces, however, require a team specifically oriented toward producing a well-defined product or service; consider, for example, the software industry. Teamwork functions much better there than independent coordinated tasks.

Think about your own workplace. Do you work within a team, or a work group? How about a hybrid environment? How has this shaped your coworker interactions, positively or negatively? Would you work better together if you shifted from one or the other? I’d love to hear your experience in the comments.


© 2015 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored seven books, including her newest work, Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time (Jan. 2016). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and in 2015 was inducted into its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401 or visit her website.