Characteristics of a Team and Barriers to Effective Team Functioning

Businesspeople beginning meeting in office | Credit: Thomas Barwick
Businesspeople beginning meeting in office | Credit: Thomas Barwick

Back in 2010, I posted a short list titled, “Eight Common Problems Teams Encounter.” In it, I reposted the contents of what was shared on Harvard Business Review’s Answer Exchange (it’s now defunct).

I was never happy with that original list and, after looking through the book (Leading Teams: Pocket Mentor [2006]) that was adapted by the HBR Editors and cited in the HBR Answer Exchange post, I struggled for some time with what to do.

Rather than revising that 2010 post, I think it is necessary to write a new and improved article.

First, I believe it’s important to explain just what constitutes a team versus a group:

“The distinction between a group and a team is an important one. All teams are groups, but not all groups are teams. A group consists of people who work together but can do their jobs without one another. A team is a group of people who cannot do their jobs, at least not effectively, without the other members of their team” (Spector, 2012, p. 303).

A team — a type of group — has several important characteristics (Unsworth & West, 2000):

  1. Team members have shared goals in relation to their work.
  2. Team members interact with each other in order to achieve shared objectives.
  3. Team members have well­-defined and interdependent roles.
  4. Team members have an organizational identity as a team with a defined organizational function.

Secondly, the HBR Answer Exchange list of common problems teams face (I’ve uploaded a PDF of the original on my website) included a few problems that I felt should not have been on the list.

In searching for problems that teams face, I discovered professor Michael West’s (2008) list of barriers to effective teamwork that I believe is better and more comprehensive. Dr. West is Professor of Organizational Psychology at Lancaster University Management School. He has spent most of his career conducting research into factors that determine the effectiveness of individuals and teams at work.

Seven Barriers to Effective Team Functioning (West, 2008):

1. A lack of team purpose and tasks. “The only point of having a team is to get a job done, a task completed, a set of objectives met. Moreover, the tasks that teams perform should be tasks that are best performed by a team” (West, 2008, p. 308).

2. A lack of freedom and responsibility. Creating a team and failing to give them the freedom and authority to act is like teaching a person to ride a bicycle, giving them a bike, but then telling them they can ride only in the house (West, 2008).

3. Too many members or the wrong members. “Teams should be as small as possible to get the job done and no larger than about 6 to 8 people” (West, 2008, p. 308). It’s also crucial that “teams have the members with the skills they need to get the job done” (West, 2008, p. 308).

4. An individual-focused organization. “Teams are set up in many places in the organization but all of the systems are geared towards managing individuals. . .Creating team-based organizations means radically altering the structure, the support systems, and the culture” (West, 2008, p. 309).

5. Team processes are neglected rather than developed. Teams need to have clear objectives, meet regularly, participate in constructive debate about how to best serve client needs, share information with one another, coordinate their work, support each other, and review their performance and think about ways to improve it (West, 2008).

6. Directive instead of facilitative leaders. Leading a team is different from supervising one. Supervisors are directive and advice-giving. A leader of a team, instead, is facilitative and seeking. This leader’s role is “to ensure that the team profits optimally from its shared knowledge, experience, and skill” (West, 2008, p. 309).

7. Conflict with other teams. Ironically, the more cohesive and effective a team becomes, the more competitive and partisan they tend to be in their relationships with other teams throughout an organization. Therefore, it’s important to ensure that interteam cooperation is established and reinforced (West, 2008).

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership, Training, and Talent Consultant


Donnellon, A. (2006). Leading teams: Pocket mentor. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing.

Nguyen, S. (2010, December 17). Eight Common Problems Teams Encounter. Retrieved from

Spector, P. E. (2012). Industrial and organizational psychology: Research and practice (6th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.

Unsworth, K. L. & West, M. A. (2000). Teams: The challenges of cooperative work. In N. Chmiel (Ed.), An introduction to work and organizational psychology: A European perspective (pp. 327-346). Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.

West, M. A. (2008). Effective teams in organizations. In N. Chmiel (Ed.), An introduction to work and organizational psychology: A European perspective (2nd ed; pp. 305-328). Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.