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The Team Versus the Individual

By Renee Houston Zemanski

Teamwork is more than a buzzword used ad nauseam, more than a poster with the words “There’s no I in Team” in your conference room, more than a pep rally with the sales manager spouting, “Let’s go team!” It’s certainly more than sending everyone out to do a ropes course in the middle of the woods. Although the words team and teamwork are mantras in nearly every sales organization, not every team is a team. Even sales teams stocked with high performers and sales managers with the best intentions can end up floundering. The reason is a lack of focus, says Patrick Lencioni, author of the best-selling book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Jossey-Bass, 2002) and president of The Table Group.


“Teamwork is a strategic decision,” says Lencioni, who writes, speaks and consults about topics related to teamwork, leadership, organizational health and corporate culture. “The first thing sales managers have to ask themselves is: ‘Am I truly interested in team sales?’


“Teamwork requires some sacrifice up front; people who work as a team have to put the collective needs of the group ahead of their individual interests,” adds Lencioni. “The mind-set shouldn’t be, ‘Once I hit my quota, then maybe if I have some extra time, I’ll help you.’ I see a lot of sales teams that say, ‘We are interested in team sales,’ yet all their compensation and focus is on ‘Am I making my numbers in my territory?’ It would be far better for a sales manager to say, ‘I don’t expect them to be a team.’”

Dr. Harvey Robbins, psychologist and coauthor (with Michael Finley) of The New Why Teams Don’t Work (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2000), agrees: “Many companies call sales departments teams, but they’re not really teams, because they don’t operate as teams,” he explains. “They are getting evaluated on individual reward systems and on individual goals and not team goals.”

 “Teams are best used when they are formed to address short-term, high-priority, perhaps cross-functional, single-focused, action-oriented outcomes,” write Robbins and Finley. “You need teams when: the wider the input, the better the output; the issue is cross functional or multidirectional in nature; and the outcome/decision has a potential high impact on a department, division or company. Don’t feel pressured to form a team because it’s the thing to do now. Form teams only when they make sense, and the team output will be greater than the sum of the individual member’s inputs.”

Once you determine that you want to be a true team, you and the team must establish rules, goals and objectives early on, says Lencioni. “Team members have to hold each other accountable,” he says. “If there’s a meeting, all members have to commit to be present and to help one another; they can’t just check out when they feel they’re not getting any benefits.”

According to Robbins, who is also president of Robbins and Robbins, a business-psychology consultation firm that specializes in teamwork and leadership development, there are five things critical to a creating a team structure. “First, have a clear focus of goals and objectives, and continuously evaluate and reprioritize every 30 days or so,” he says. “This will keep the team focused and energized. Second, clearly define roles and responsibilities – who is supposed to do what by when?” 

Third, identify the barriers that are preventing the team’s short-term goals, says Robbins. Are they people, process or structural? Fourth, determine the infrastructure support. Who is on the team as a core team member? Who is a resource member – someone people call on to help out? Who’s in charge? Is there internal feedback on a regular basis? How are team members evaluated and compensated?

“If I’m getting rewarded based solely on my individual sales goals and quotas, there’s no reason why I should help someone else,” Robbins says. “I suggest a dual system for compensation where everyone gets a reward for the team’s success, but individual rewards are also awarded, so that members feel like they are getting treated fairly. It’s fairness that builds trust.”

Fifth, make sure your team members’ personalities mesh. “The key to a successful sales team structure is versatility,” says Robbins. “A good sales team will strategize and ask, who’s the best person on the team to approach that client based on a personality match?”

Once you’ve got a solid structure in place, sales teams need to be consistently analyzed on a regular basis. Changes in the market, industry or product line can greatly affect how a team works together.

Common Pitfalls

Lencioni says many of the common pitfalls of teams – members withholding information, lack of commitment – stem from a lack of basic trust. To circumvent this, Lencioni says the sales manager and the team must establish team rules together, gain agreement and hold each other accountable.

“A great team doesn’t rely on the leader as the primary source of accountability. Leaders are the ultimate source, of course, but team members have to be accountable to one another,” Lencioni says.

In her most recent book, Bad Leadership: What it is, How it Happens, Why it Matters (Harvard Business School Press, 2004), Barbara Kellerman, a research director at the Center for Public Leadership, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, examines why teams often go awry.

“What goes wrong many times is that team members are often too intimidated by, too comfortable with or too something to be totally straight with their leaders,” says Kellerman, also cofounder of the International Leadership Association. “When team members aren’t completely honest with their leaders, then things go wrong. Another key problem is that team leaders are often more interested in their own welfare than that of the team as a whole.”

There are many other reasons why a team can go askew: Maybe strengths and weaknesses have changed or your team isn’t clear on its roles and responsibilities. “You need to be certain that the team always has clear information about how it’s supposed to behave, what it’s supposed to do,” says Kellerman. “You need to give team members a voice in helping you to determine your direction. There has to be a set of conditions that make it possible for a team to do its work. If the team needs certain resources, they need to be provided. The team needs to be embedded in a larger context that is supportive of the general nature of the work that it’s supposed to do.”

Sometimes teams and sales reps tend to look at the economy, competitors, marketing and their manager for blame if they aren’t succeeding, says Jeff Hoffman, CEO of Basho Strategies Inc., and a highly sought-after motivational speaker and sales-management consultant.

 “[As a sales manager] you can’t let dependency happen, or it can take on a life of its own,” he says. “If the team points to a dependency of why things aren’t going well, they have accepted that there are powers beyond their control contributing toward their demise. That’s when the toxic culture begins to spread. It becomes the acceptable way of thinking.”


A Quick Fix?

While there is no single formula for healing a toxic team, the experts agree there are some things that must be done. First, realize there is no quick fix when it comes to eliminating team toxicity. Second, know that it’s going to take a lot of work and the right kind of leadership. If your team is spiraling downward, no amount of team-building exercises, pep talks or games will help stop the fall. You’ve got to get to the root of the problem and work to fix it from there.

“Team-building exercises usually work to strengthen an already healthy team,” says Hoffman. “The fun stuff – the outings, dinners and ballgames – are just Band-Aids when a team is ailing.

“If you are in a toxic situation, don’t mention the word ‘team’ at all; just start implementing activities that require team participation without saying why you’re doing it,” advises Hoffman. “Let the activity inspire the behavior. You can’t will a team to work. Take that energy and frustration and channel it into an activity. Teams begin to bond when competing.”

 What constitutes team-based activities? Hoffman suggests a healthy competition between sales teams – such as a closing or quota contest between the East Coast and Midwest.

Managers should also participate, says Hoffman. “When you have levels of competition in the group where the manager is actually participating, it shows the team how important it is. Also, who wouldn’t want to beat the boss? You’ve got a team full of individuals who are going to give a lot of high fives to the rep who pulls ahead of the boss.”

Hoffman also suggests that sales managers incorporate mentoring into their team’s daily routines. “You need to get away from the toxic attitude of ‘it’s not my problem; it’s the manager’s problem,’” says Hoffman. “The way to do that is to set up a mentoring system. When reps are mentoring, they can become colleagues; they have ownership and accountability. The team members have to have open communication. When rep A starts to talk about rep B’s opportunity, not only are they going to bring in new ideas, but also they are going to start owning them as they speak. It creates a much bigger team atmosphere and helps to build trust early on, as well as build interdependency.”

“Focus on the collective results of the team rather than the individual,” suggests Lencioni. “Get to know one another’s strengths and weaknesses. For salespeople who all work a region together, there may be channel conflict and the need to share resources. Get them together, profile each of them to find out their strengths and weaknesses and share this information among your team members. This way when someone has a situation with a client, he or she can pull in the more experienced sales rep to help with the sale. Team members need to learn to leverage one another, and that doesn’t happen over a golf game or on a phone. It happens by getting together and taking the time to know each other.”


Lencioni recommends two intense, focused days going through a team-based program that helps members learn to be open and honest with one another. Besides discovering strengths and weaknesses, this is when goals, objectives and team rules should be established. After the meeting, you must continue nurturing that team atmosphere even if your team is located in different territories.

“You can’t just meet for two intense days, send everyone back to the territories and expect it to be a great team,” says Lencioni. “You need to get together, hold monthly in-person meetings and make focused conference calls regularly. Then meet in-person for a two-day session at least once a quarter to take a breath and review everything – goals, achievements, the industry, team dynamics, etc. Eventually the team will build their trust with one another, learn to engage in healthy conflict and start acting like a team.”

To consistently keep your team motivated, communication has to be raised to an art form, says Joanne Sujansky, speaker, leadership expert and president of The Key Group in Pittsburgh, PA. “Develop a team identity – a team mission statement, logo, slogans – and communicate it clearly,” she says. “Make sure that everyone sees the big picture. Then develop the actions, steps or sales processes necessary to achieve your mission. Specifically describe what you mean by team behavior.

“For example, I worked with a sales team who created their own rules for working together,” she says. “They called it A Dozen Rules for Working Together, and they printed them and placed them on their desks. They called each other on it when someone failed to follow the rules. It was their way to focus on teamwork.”

Above all, remember that not every technique will work for every team. Even the least experienced sales manager knows that what works for one person might not work for another. Keep a variety of activities going, and be sure to reward your team as a team.


Follow the Leader

Not even activities can help if leadership is weak. Being a strong leader means you must establish a trusting environment right off the bat. “The leader must develop a history and a track record that allows trust to be built,” says Kellerman. “Trust is not gained immediately nor should it be. It’s no surprise that team members are reluctant to trust a leader because he or she says, ‘Trust me.’ Trust comes from the practical experience of working together in the real world.”


“Leadership and coaching are definitely different things,” says Hoffman. “You need to be 100 percent consistent in public (that’s leadership) and 100 percent specific in private (that’s coaching). Coaches work one on one; being a leader is what you do with the group. Leaders must demonstrate the behavior they want to inspire. That’s what a rep will respond to – credibility. Words alone mean nothing to sales reps, because that’s what they hear all day from their prospects.”

 That said, Robbins suggests a sales manager often needs to take himself or herself out of the formula. “The best thing is to help the team members focus on the outcome, not on pleasing you as the leader,” he says. “Counsel, provide resources, knock down barriers and open up doors. Provide short-term, high-priority objectives to keep a team’s focus. The leader is the one who sets boundaries within which people can make decisions. The leader doesn’t need to be the best salesperson; this person just needs to have the right skills.”

 The sales manager’s skills include knowing whom to hire, adds Sujansky. “Make sure you hire team players. At the interview, focus on what you expect as far as team behavior, so they know their individual sales performance is just one piece of the puzzle. Then once people are aboard, continue to focus on team behavior.”

 “Being a leader also means making tough choices,” says Sujansky. “If a person has the numbers but just isn’t working with the team, you may have to let that person go. It’s hard, but remember, that one person’s high numbers could be the reason for everyone else’s low numbers. It takes a tough sales manager to know how to manage a team.”

The Five Dysfunctions of a Sales Team

In his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Jossey-Bass, 2002), author Patrick Lencioni analyzes five things that can send a team off the deep end. If you recognize any of these behaviors taking place on your sales team, take the recommended actions to correct them.


1. Lack of trust. “Mistrust occurs when the team is not comfortable being vulnerable with each other,” says Lencioni. “It’s statements such as, ‘She doesn’t admit that she makes mistakes,’ or ‘He doesn’t admit he has a weakness in this area,’ that give you a clue.”

Action: Get the team, including the leader, to open up at a two-day team meeting. Analyze strengths and weaknesses and ask each person, what do you do that helps the team? What do you do that hurts the team? “If the sales manager is committed to making a team work, and there are people who aren’t willing to be part of a team, then it’s his or her responsibility to weed those people out,” says Lencioni.


2. Fear of conflict. “Teams that don’t trust each other don’t get into conflict,” says Lencioni. “Great teams will argue; they will debate with each other passionately. They’re just trying to solve a problem. They aren’t arguing about personalities; they’re arguing about issues.”

Action: Don’t allow team members to argue about personal issues. Steer conflict toward issues and solutions.


3. Lack of commitment. “We have to agree to disagree, but once we make a decision, we have to fully commit to it,” says Lencioni.

Action: Develop team rules and enforce them.


4. Unwillingness to hold each other accountable. “Great teams have peer-to-peer accountability,” says Lencioni.

Action: Don’t allow people to ignore what the team is committed to.


5. Inattention to the collective results of the team. In other words, people are focusing on their territories, ego or goals rather than team goals. “If a sales rep is making his numbers, and the other three aren’t, the successful sales rep needs to share his secrets with the others,” says Lencioni. “The team as a whole has to be happy for that person, because it means that the team as a whole is doing well.”

Action: Set team goals, use team-based incentives and rewards. “Salespeople aren’t coin operated, they are success oriented,” says Lencioni. “Money isn’t a driver; winning is a driver – because it’s fun to win. If I run a territory and I want my salespeople to sell like a team, my rewards have to be team based.


Patrick Lencioni is the president of The Table Group, a San Francisco Bay Area management-consulting firm. In addition to his work as an executive coach, consultant and author, Lencioni is a sought-after speaker.


Toxic Team Indicators

There are glaring behaviors and symptoms of toxic sales teams. Perhaps you’ve experienced them firsthand. Some of them include not meeting sales goals; growing animosity and tension, one rep steadily succeeding while others are struggling; and a prevailing selfish attitude of “I don’t have the time to help; it’s their job to figure things out.”

In their book, The New Why Teams Don’t Work (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2000), Harvey Robbins and Michael Finley say to look for these symptoms:

• People aren’t willing to share information, such as sales

leads. They aren’t willing to coach one another internally.

• People are confused. They don’t know what they’re

supposed to do, or it makes no sense to them.

• Team members work independently, sometimes at cross-purposes with others.

• Members are so cautious about what they say that there is no real understanding.

• Members find themselves in conflict situations they do not know how to resolve. They do not differentiate confrontation and conflict.

• Conformity often appears more important than positive results.


Recognizing, pinpointing and eliminating these behaviors are the first steps toward healing. Ignoring them can spell disaster. Quite often, the sales manager has to step back and look at the team structure to make sure the team is really working as a team, not as individuals working on a team.


Harvey Robbins and Mike Finley have collaborated on many books including The Accidental Leader (Jossey-Bass, 2003) and Why Change Doesn’t Work (Petersons, 1996).