What Is a Team?

Form teams to pursue a purpose or a goal with interdependent employees

This team appears to be functioning as a successful team.
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As humans, we spend our whole lives talking about teams. We start on teams playing pee-wee soccer and baseball at four or five, and our team association never ends. Schools have sports teams, math teams, and debate teams. We pick college and professional sports teams that we follow devotedly.

When you land in a job though, you are also on a team. Basically, the definition of a team is any group of people organized to work together interdependently and cooperatively to accomplish a purpose or a goal.

You can participate in many different teams at work—and you probably already do. But, your most basic team is normally your department team, the group with whom you are organized to produce a product or a service. Your end product either serves the company's external customers directly or the internal customers whom you support in producing the product that does directly serve the customers.

How do business teams win?

A sports team wants to win, of course. A business team also wants to win—but its winning is not as clear-cut as that of a sports team. How does a team win? By accomplishing what the team has set out to accomplish.

Teams are created for both long term and short term interaction. A product development team, an executive leadership team, and a departmental team are long lasting planning and operational groups. Their way of winning is to continue to produce quality work and provide continued value to the company.

They can accomplish their value through strong sales (in the case of a sales team), or through reducing costs (such as an HR team that works to reduce turnover). Teams can also win when their new product (for a product development team) outperforms the competition. When you think of winning for a production team, setting records on parts produced is winning.

Organizations often have teams that are not dedicated to providing a product or a service to the external customer. Rather, their purpose is to create a work environment that fosters employee happiness, engagement, wellness, and safety.

Teams usually limit the terms of their members to a year so that many employees have the opportunity to serve and bring ideas to these teams. Examples of these teams include the employee events committee, the health safety team, a green environment team, the employee wellness committee, an activity committee and an employee motivation and morale committee.

Short term teams might include a team to develop an employee onboarding process, a team to plan the annual company party, a team to set up a system of data collection about customers to assess service quality, or a team to respond to a specific customer problem or complaint.

These short-term teams win by accomplishing their goals. Was the company party a success? Is the new onboarding process better than the old one?

What size team is optimum for work performance?

The team size that is optimum for team performance is a topic much researched and debated. The problem is that you need to consider a number of factors when determining optimum team size.

Factors that affect optimum team size include:

  • the purpose for which you formed the team,
  • the expectations you have of the team and its members,
  • the roles that the team members need to play,
  • the amount of cohesiveness and interconnectivity necessary for optimal team performance, and
  • the function, activities, and goals of the team.

So, optimum team size is not an easy answer. From experience and research, the optimum team size is 5-7 members. The team size that continues to function effectively is 4-9 members. Teams are known to function cohesively with a size up to 12 members.

If you seek effective input, the optimal team size ranges from more than 2 up to 18-20 members, but these individuals are not expected to form a cohesive, highly interconnected team.

It is much more likely that teams of a large size form sub-teams and working groups to accomplish the actual work of a project.

These larger groups are effective, as examples, for strategic planning input, overall project communication, building support for an idea, and so forth.

Common Teams in Organizations

Three common types of teams include functional or departmental, cross-functional, and self-managing.

Functional or Departmental Teams

Groups of people from the same work area or department who meet on a regular basis to analyze customer needs, solve problems, provide members with support, promote continuous improvement, and share information.

These are the teams you're probably the most familiar with in the workplace. You may not even use the term team but instead, say department but it's really a team. They work together to accomplish a goal.

Working together doesn't necessarily mean that there is constant interaction between team members. For example, in an employee relations team, you may have seven employee relations specialists who support seven different departments (or other teams).

They may work very independently. But, a good team shares successes to help team members build best practices. A good team also shares failures so that the other team members can learn and help develop solutions.

Cross-Functional Teams

Groups of people who are pulled together from across departments or job functions to deal with a specific product, issue, customer problem, or to improve a particular process are cross-functional teams. These are often teams with a specific goal with an end date.

For instance, a company may put together a team to handle a layoff. This team would consist of representatives from Human Resources, Finance, Legal, the Executive Team, and employees from affected areas. They work closely together to develop a plan that works best for the company.

Each person comes with a different responsibility and a needed contribution. For instance, legal is concerned with compliance, finance is concerned with budgets, and HR wants to ensure that the best people are retained.

Self-Managing Teams

Groups of people who gradually assume responsibility for self-direction in all aspects of work are called self-managing teams. Some teams, of course, have a manager who rules with an iron fist, but self-managing teams work together to reach a goal without a great deal of oversight.

These teams are extremely effective when you have capable, independent workers on the team. They often report their findings or progress to a boss or team lead, but that boss doesn't necessarily participate actively in the team.


Teamwork always existed in workplaces, but the emphasis on approaching problem-solving, process improvement, and accomplishing goals with a group of employees, the team, originated in the late 1920s and 30s.

The research of Elton Mayo in the Hawthorne studies examined what happened to a workplace group under various conditions. They determined that the most significant factor in success was the building of a sense of group identity. 

Any definition of a team must include the sense of group identity, working together with others employees to accomplish an important goal.