True teams or tag teams?

True teams or tag teams?

Joseph Coleman

Putting the right kind of teams in place can equal the difference between failure and success.

When AT&T/GIS–formerly, and now again, known as NCR–attempted to implement teams across the division during its brief period as a subsidiary of AT&T, its managers discovered too late that it wasn’t ready for them. NCR’s culture had been authoritarian, conservative, and very formal. Its employees were highly educated scientists, engineers, and technicians accustomed to a system that promoted individual decision-making. Suddenly, the CEO’s suite was vacated as he moved in with the VPs. Doors were removed from top executives’ offices. Other executives were moved to cubicles and became “coaches.” Employees became “associates,” and casual attire was encouraged. The team spirit was evangelized throughout the division. Initially, the changes were seen as a “breath of fresh air,” and enthusiastically endorsed. Shortly, however, following numerous team reorganizations, the members became disillusioned, and a policy was eventually issued for returning to traditional titles. Business attire returned, and the division was spun off in late 1996.

Why do teams succeed so well in some organizations and fail so dismally in others? Failures often occur because managers, while trying to create “true teams,” unknowingly end up with “tag teams.” A true team is similar to a yoke of oxen, all pulling together toward a common goal. A tag team, on the other hand, comprises members who furnish expertise and then pass the project to another team member, much like “tag team” wrestling. Properly used, both types can be successful. Unfortunately, many executives view teams as a one-size-fits-all management tool guaranteeing a quick fix for the organizational dilemma of the day. Failure to understand the differences between the two types (see Figure 1) results in frustrated managers, indignant employees, and floundering firms.

Figure 1

Differences Between True Teams And Tag Teams:

True Teams

* Pull together toward a common goal; loyalty is to the team

* Process-oriented, long-term

* Collaborative–members fuse their knowledge, skills, and abilities for the common good

* Consensus decision-making–relinquish individual discretion

* Massive changes to the organization’s structure and culture–slow and systemic

Tag Teams

* Provide individual expertise, pass the project along; loyalty is to the project

* Project-oriented, short-term

* Cooperative–members share knowledge, skills, and abilities for the good of the project

* Individual decision-making–retain individual discretion

* No change to the organization’s structure–rapid implementation

Beginning in the late 1960s and mushrooming through the 1980s, U.S. managers increasingly used teams as either a problem-solving technique (tag teams) or a modification to their organizational structures (true teams). The use of tag teams in U.S. organizations can be traced to the project-oriented nuclear submarine and space programs. Driven by an immediate need for complex defense systems, defense and aerospace industries rapidly solved problems using short-term teams, thereby fast-tracking the research, development, and implementation of multi-billion-dollar systems. Short-term teams saved substantial time by avoiding lengthy, formal changes to organizational structures.

Meanwhile, the use of true teams can be traced to the competition the Japanese have successfully brought to bear on American business. W. Edwards Deming taught Japanese managers to use teams for long-term success by formalizing them as part of organizational structure and culture. These true teams require a continuing commitment from management that results in the slow and systematic accomplishment of organizational success.

Both tag teams and true teams have proven their worth, yet many U.S. managers and organizations have not profited from their use. When Japanese success popularized Deming’s quality principles, managers inappropriately jumped into using teams without analyzing their particular situation and without recognizing the two different types. Although the most common error has been trying to use true teams in situations better suited for tag teams, misusing tag teams can be equally costly.

True Teams and Their Misuses

Members of true teams consider themselves as collaborative participants, contributing equally to their team’s goals as well as to the goals of the company. Work in a true team situation is parallel, with the members’ skills being interchangeable and performed as a group. The work is not serial in nature and does not require any member to possess specialized skills. Hence, true teams operate best with semiskilled and unskilled employees, such as technicians, production workers, and many service workers. These people traditionally have less formal education, extensive job training, narrower duties, and limited organizational perspectives. (Rare exceptions to this principle occur in certain professional situations, such as HMOs in medicine, wherein physicians are interchangeable.) True teams can succeed because they enrich and empower these workers. The members relinquish control over individual areas of expertise as consensus decision-making diffuses authority and responsibility throughout the team. Acting as a unit, the team acquires enormous discretion in its decision-making role.

In a true team environment, the members’ loss of individual discretion is offset by the increased discretion of the team, the security of a long-term relationship, and the team’s long-term place in the organization. Concomitant with true teams are formal, substantial changes to corporate structure and culture The first thing to go is the classical “org-chart.” True teams cut across organizations, and management must relinquish authority to them, including decision-making, leadership, and even mission selection.

As shown in Figure 2, managers misuse true teams in a number of situations, such as when they relinquish responsibility while retaining authority to set the mission and overrule team decisions. This is often done under the misconception that management must be the overall integrator of the teams and their work. Instead, by withholding authority from true teams, management undercuts the team’s motivation and diminishes the members’ desire to participate.

Figure 2

Managers’ Common Misuses of True Teams

* Delegating responsibility while retaining veto power over team decisions

* Censoring or denying access to information

* Short-circuiting communication channels

* Condoning excessive, disruptive peer pressure within the team

* Using teams as a shield to create a “no-fault” protection for management

* Evaluating and rewarding team members individually

* Creating “pseudo-teams” to deceive workers about management’s agenda

* Using a team to neutralize the influence of a strong, informal leader

All true teams and their members must be given equal access to complete information so that they can determine what is needed for decision-making. Withholding information or denying team access to it is a subtle form of retaining authority. Using the “withholding” method, managers may appear to make all organizational data available to the teams, but they screen or censor important information necessary for effective decision making. An example is giving teams company salary information while withholding executive perk data.

On the other hand, when managers deny access to information, such as not allowing complete salary data to be available, they are trying to determine what teams do or not need to know to make decisions. The teams know that information is being selected for their use, even though management represents the selected data as sufficient and appropriate. Efficiency is often the stated reason for denying access, but control is the outcome.

True teams are not organizational islands; they must interact and communicate with the total firm, as well as between and among themselves. Unlimited communication is an indispensable element of true teams; restricting it is detrimental to achieving the team’s goals and inhibits the success of the entire organization. Neither management nor the information system should hinder the free flow of communication among the teams. Management may monitor or supplement communications, but restricting or censoring the formal or informal information systems amounts to team misuse. Even communication restrictions for reasons of security, public relations, legal concerns, or the like–those with short-term benefits–may have long-term negative effects on team performance.

Another related misuse of true teams includes situations in which management ignores or condones team members exerting undue or misguided pressure on other members. Admittedly, appropriate peer-group pressure can be a strong, beneficial force toward achieving organizational goals. But when top management totally relinquishes control and adopts a “hands-off” attitude toward a team, such a force within the team can result in destructive behavior detrimental to individuals, teams, and the organization. For example, sexual harassment by employees should still be the responsibility of management even if the team informally condones such activity. Management must monitor the team’s activities and intercede when peer-group pressure is disruptive or becomes illegal.

Even top management’s performance can be seriously distorted by the misuse of true teams. Traditionally, management wields authority and holds responsibility throughout the organization. When true teams are properly used, part of this authority and responsibility is delegated to them for making the decisions that will help achieve their goals. However, delegating too much of such power can constitute a misuse of the teams. Organizational leadership can become a facade Boards of directors and top managers may find that their decision-making power has been delegated away.

Such “bureaucratization of leadership” diffuses responsibility. If the firm falters or fails, it can be labeled as a “no-fault” failure, because true teams are faceless, with no single person responsible for their actions. Ultimately, there may be no one to make and implement critical decisions in difficult times–no one to serve as true leaders. Executives may be willing to concede too much power to true teams because of the “golden parachute mentality,” which allows them to leave the organization quickly without severe personal financial consequences.

Organizations also misuse true teams when they reward team members on any basis other than team performance. Rewards set by management must be the same for all members. This differs from traditional reward structures, which center on individuals, especially star performers. For true teams, basing rewards on individual skills and accomplishments promotes intra-team competition; members may aggressively avoid helping others or even sabotage others’ efforts. Workers are sent opposing signals: Work as a true team member, but do better than the others to garner individual recognition and financial rewards. Reward differentials may be possible within true teams, but the teams themselves should be empowered to design and implement a peer review system that may result in those differences among members. This system, it must be stressed, cannot be imposed by management; it must be team generated.

Most of these team misuses can typically be traced to management’s well-intentioned belief that it knows best how to administer and use teams. However, another sinister type of misuse occurs when management uses true team concepts to mislead workers intentionally. Teams are purposely established as a facade, often to dupe employees into accepting unpopular management philosophies. By including employees in a “pseudo-team” planning process, management tries to escape adverse repercussions from such decisions as wage cuts, reorganizations, personnel cutbacks, and plant closings. Management’s retort is, “Well, you were involved and participated in the decision.”

Pseudo-teams may also be used to diffuse risk and responsibility for organizational failures when management actually retains authority. Management may organize workers into teams using the accompanying hype of “involvement,” “empowerment,” “participation,” and the like, but with no intention of sharing power, and often with a hidden agenda masking pre-established objectives and decisions. Such deception can result in the destruction of managers’ credibility, damaging their ability to make future changes.

The deceptive use of true team concepts is not entirely new. Under Theory X, management had the answers and workers were told exactly what to do. Workers had no discretion. True team concepts can be distorted to accomplish the same results. By reorganizing into teams, workers’ time, energy, and attention can be diverted from management true objectives. With no team privy to management’s overall perspective or agenda, management can decide and act as it wishes. An additional feature of this deception is the creation of a false sense of ownership by some teams in management’s a priori decisions. Involving workers in a pseudo-participation process, for example, may legitimize a predetermined mission, vision, or strategic plan.

A further, highly refined, deceptive use of true teams is when management attempts to attenuate the influence of a dynamic, informal leader by putting that individual on a team. Many managers mistakenly believe the peer pressure within a true team can be used to temper the disruptive effects of a strong, informal leader. This sophisticated misuse of a true team can backfire. The leader may use the true team as a platform for continuing a personal agenda, with the perceived support of the other members.

Tag-Teams And Their Misuses

Tag teams consist of people with special expertise needed to solve specific problems. The members are usually technically trained or talented specialists (knowledge workers) with formal educations, autonomy, job enrichment, and individual power. All tag team members are selected by management for their specialized skills, with no cross-training among members. Member loyalty is to the project (or team assignment) and the company rather than to the team. New members are added when necessary and members leave the team when their task is completed. Because tag team members do not have a comprehensive perspective of the project, management provides the coordination external to the changing tag team membership. While on the team, each member maintains technical control over the work, typically working simultaneously in isolation and with other team members to coordinate and integrate individual outputs. Management orchestrates this activity for consistency with its overall goals. Moreover, unlike true teams, very little socialization evolves among tag team members.

Misuses of tag teams (outlined in Figure 3) typically have one common characteristic: They arise from organizations attempting to create true teams when the goal, task, or membership is more consistent with tag teams. When management has specific goals, the tag team is the appropriate format.

Figure 3

Managers’ Common Misuses of Tag Teams

* Trying to use tag teams as true teams

* Assigning tag teams to tasks that are not project oriented

* Assigning members better suited for true teams, lacking specialized knowledge or expertise

* Continuing a tag team after its job is done

* Retaining members after they have made their contribution

The aerospace industry is a prime example of the effective use of tag teams. NASA brought together scientific, technical, and managerial workers into short-term, goal-specific, project-oriented teams that were highly fluid. Members were “borrowed” from their formal departments and allowed to come and go as required. The goal of the team controlled membership, duration, and even its existence. Team survival was never an objective; rather, its eventual elimination was implicit, indicating that the team’s assigned goal had been achieved. Everyone’s expectation was that team members would provide their expertise and then leave, passing the rest of the job to others.

Many organizations liked the tag team results. The teams solved complex problems quickly and avoided adding permanent overhead. Most important, management maintained control.

Tasks assigned to tag teams should be project oriented, typically requiring the application of special expertise or techniques in a one-time situation. A bank needs a new security system for its ATM machines. A pharmaceutical company needs an experimental research design to test a new drug. A manufacturer needs a machine to form fenders from a new composite material. Members assigned to tag teams for any of these projects would have broad latitude, but only within their specific areas of expertise. They would not need to be part of the bank’s, pharmaceutical company’s, or manufacturer’s broader decision-making loops. Independent contributors to the common goal, they could interact among themselves but generally not with other teams. They would not grow to be more than the sum of their parts. Tag team members take pride in their individual professions, knowing they will be recognized and rewarded based on their individual contributions.

Membership in a tag team becomes a problem when management fails to recognize that certain employees are better suited for tag teams than true teams. As previously noted, individual tag team members control their own expertise, so although goals may be debated in tag team discussions, ultimate implementation is left up to the individual members. In other words, the “what” may be discussed, but the “how” is not.

Albert Einstein would have made a terrific tag team member, but probably would have been very dissatisfied if included on a true team. His mere presence would likely have transformed a true team into a tag team. Organizing university faculty into true teams also does not work very well. Faculty are highly educated individuals, with narrow fields of expertise; they resist and resent others deciding how they should perform their work. At most, they will accept some direction concerning the process, but will vehemently reject attempts to dictate content. Faculty refer to this as “academic freedom”; we see it as part of the tag team process.

A bad organization will not be made better by teams, and using teams inappropriately can make any organization worse. The appropriate use of teams is to promote productivity, quality, and efficiency, not to impose management’s philosophy or will on employees. To change employees’ attitudes, other techniques should be used, such as when Levi Strauss decided to award one year’s salary to every employee to achieve certain financial goals. Teams cannot replace unions, a solid organizational structure, or traditional reward and punishment systems. They cannot totally eliminate what has gone before. Management should use teams as tools and not as weapons.

When considering teams for their organizations, managers should think about the factors identified in Figures 4 and 5, many of which have already been discussed. Special attention should be given to the purpose factor, which relates to management’s commitment to implementing teams. True teams are costly and require management’s total commitment to restructuring the organization. To install true teams, the firm must be rebuilt from the ground up, including structure and the information support system, all while trying to maintain operations. The rebuilding must include training for managers and workers, though such major changes will precipitate resistance from both groups.

Figure 4

Choosing the Right Team

True teams are appropriate when…

* Work is process oriented, repetitive, stable; multiple elements occur simultaneously over time

* Purpose is to empower and promote comprehensive involvement in the firm’s performance

* Members are generally interchangeable, comprising unskilled or semiskilled technicians or practitioners

* Planning horizon is extended; long-term organizational orientation, able to survive top management turnover

Tag teams are appropriate when…

* Work is project oriented, one-time, unique, sequential; requires completing one or several elements at a time

* Purpose is to get the job done by fast-tracking

* Members are highly skilled with narrow expertise–craftsmen, engineers, scientists, academics, financial managers, and so on

* Planning horizon is short, ending with project completion

Figure 5

Managing Teams

For True Teams

* Throw out the org-chart to make way for permanent, radical changes to structure and culture

* Anticipate productivity losses during extended start-up period; train and nurture

* Relinquish decision-making authority and responsibility to the team

* Promote the evolution of social ties within the team

* Provide complete access to information and communication channels

* Plan for long-term, continuing commitment and support from top management

For Tag Teams

* Create the team within the existing organizational structure; only temporary, minor adjustments may be required

* Define the project, assign the team–and stay out of the way

* Retain overall control and monitor the interfaces of the project

* Assign members with knowledge, skills, and abilities, without regard to social implications

* Provide project-related information on a need-to-know

* Use across the firm, within units, intermittently; top management need not be involved

Most managers will resist giving up control to employees. Some workers will not want to be team members. Or they may not wish to assume greater responsibility. Nothing disrupts a company more than trying to change its culture. Hence, resistance and disruption become major components of the start-up costs for true teams. If management’s commitment wavers, then sufficient forward momentum will not be attained, the start-up costs will become a premature indictment against true teams, and the attempt is doomed to fail.

Installing true teams requires a long-term commitment from management. There is no “quick fix.” Yet the substantial payoffs for successful implementation are also long-term. A firm can increase productivity, quality, and worker loyalty. True teams are long-term solutions for these major contemporary workplace issues. They foster trust between workers and management. With trust, managers can become leaders and gain by being relieved of short-term operational problems, allowing them to concentrate on long-term strategic initiatives.

Tag teams, on the other hand, are productive because they fast-track planning and development times, unlike the old linear planning model, which required several trips up and down the hierarchy. Properly used with knowledge workers for specific projects, tag teams are efficient, effective, and productive.

Some observers may be tempted to think that if tag teams are effective with knowledge workers, then true teams must be even more effective with them. This urge must be controlled, however. Remember, knowledge workers may not willingly abdicate the control necessary to participate on a true team. Moreover, typical knowledge workers are self-confident in their functional expertise and may frustrate team efforts by not participating sincerely or by actively Undermining the effort.


Val Arnold, “Organizational Development: Making Teams Work,” HR Focus, February 1996, pp. 12-13.

Adrian Furnham, “Jobs: Reaping the Benefits of Teamwork–The Problems of Management Science,” Financial Times, May 19, 1993, p. 14.

Joan O.C. Hamilton, “Levi’s Pot O’Gold,” Business Week (Industrial/Tech. ed.), June 24, 1996, p. 44.

Douglas McGregor, The Human Side of Enterprise (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1960).

Henry R. Neave, The Deming Dimension (Knoxville, TN: SPC Press, 1990).

Edgar H. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992).

“Where Teams Trip Up,” Inc., November 1995, p. 94.

Joseph Coleman is an assistant provost and associate professor of management science, William Slonaker is an associate professor of business law, and Ann Wendt is an associate professor of management, all at Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio. This article is the result of the authors’ dedicated collaboration, and the sequence of their names is without significance. They would like to thank Blair Hotchkiss, graduate assistant, for his technical help.

COPYRIGHT 1997 JAI Press, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group