Community Building: Awkward Thoughts about Groups and Teams

Community Building: Awkward Thoughts about Groups and Teams

I finished reading “The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell”. It was totally awesome and I recommend it. He narrates the audiobook, where his timing and delivery are perfect.

Why am I riffing on the title of his book when I am writing about groups and teams? It is because most of the time when I have a conversation about this topic or I am asked my opinion, it can get awkward. I mean the kind of awkward when everyone gets quiet and wishes they were somewhere else awkward.

A little background might be helpful for you to understand how I came to my thoughts about groups and teams. I am not an expert, but I do have a definite opinion on this topic.

A list of the books that shaped my thoughts:

The Art of Asking Questions

Critical Thinking: Concepts and Tools

Predictably Irrational


Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes

The Small Book of Appreciative Inquiry

Crucial Conversations

The Human Element

Man’s Search for Meaning

The Art of Living by Epictetus

On the Happy Life by Seneca

Fooled by Randomness

Just Listen


When people gather to accomplish a task, are they acting as a group or a team?  Is there any difference?

If you do not know the difference between a group and a team, there are some examples. The Chicago Bulls started with Michael Jordan and a group of highly talented players. Over time you can see them slowly transform into a team. It took a couple of seasons, but when it occurred, it was magical to watch.

If sports are not your passion, then take an afternoon and watch the movie, Apollo 13. You can just watch the scene where all the scientists have to figure out how to solve the air filtering problem with only the materials available to astronauts in the spacecraft. You can see when they come up with a solution they have acted as a team. The whole Apollo space program, in my opinion, is a study in teamwork.

The House of Representatives, both the House and the Senate is presently a good example of a collection of people that have the shared goal of representing the American population and making wise governing decisions. We can see that for the most part, they appear to be acting as a group of individuals rather than a team.

The JCL Administrative Team needed to ask ourselves if we were acting as a group or a team. The answer was a group. This was back in 2012. The next question we asked was, did we want to act as a group or a team? We all agreed that we wanted to act as a team.

That meant the needs of the team had to come first, before our personal needs. This is not “group thinking” but it did mean that we had to confront egocentric thinking. We each had the challenge of converting ourselves from being exceptional individuals (I think we are all exceptional individuals) into functional team members.

As humans, I think we believe that we have it figured out. In my experience, it is the exact opposite. I believe as species we do not have a clue about how things work. I believe it is our ego and hardwires need that supports this type of thinking. In Critical Thinking: Concepts and Tools, they break down egocentric thinking into five categories, which I have found to be personally helpful.

  1. It is true because I believe it.
  2. It is because we believe it.
  3. It is true because I want to believe it.
  4. It is true because I have always believed it.
  5. It is true because it is in my selfish interest to believe it.

We all have the tendency to be self-serving and be pleasantly restricted to our own thoughts. To escape this rut, the solution is to ask others about their point of view, to be curious and not be too quick to judge or consider if their idea aligns or conflicts with your viewpoint. The goal is to understand not to create a counter argument. The magical words are “Please tell me more…” or “Help me understand where you are coming from…” I know you are thinking yeah, yeah, yeah but ask yourself the last time you heard these words.

The trick is to listen. If that person is on your team, you know that they are smart and share the same goals as you. They might have insight that you missed. This may make you feel vulnerable and threatened but, if you are going to be a good team member, you have to confront and deal with your insecurities. This is when the conversation gets awkward and people get a lump in their throat, turn bright red or start sweating.

Confronted with this fact about my own behavior in a team building session; I remember I did all three. It was a humbling and transformational experience, that helped set me on the path to being a better team member. You are never finished with this process. It is a daily internal commitment that I make to my team members so that when I get it wrong, they are generous enough in spirit to point it out and we laugh together.

Last week I had a couple managers come and talk about some of the issues they were facing with their staff. I asked, are you acting as a group or a team? They were unsure, as I have often been myself.

So we figured it out together and this is what we came up with, it might help you.


The “T” stands for someone who is acting as a team member from your point of view (There is nothing virtuous in this, it just means that their behavior is one that will work in creating a team).

The “I” stands for someone who is acting as an individual, putting their needs first (There is nothing wrong with this, but it does not work well when making a team).

The letter “A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H” represent individuals.

In figure 1, there are two people who are thinking of their individual needs and two that are thinking of the team. How will they function?

In figure 2, there are four people that are thinking of the team. How will they function?

If you were to pick a group to work with, which group would you pick and why?

As managers, we cannot force people to believe and think in a certain way. People still have free will. What we can do is create environments which have dialogues about the advantages and disadvantages of both models. We can also gain clarity of our staff made up of “T”’s and “I”’s. It is time to look in the mirror and reflect on what you need to change. Your staff is not the problem. You are confronting yourself and have the choice to take the opportunity to learn and grow as a leader.

There you have it, another awkward moment with a lot of awkward silence.