Work Groups

Organizations seeking to promote productivity, better service, fewer errors, and improved safety as well as remain competitive in changing environments are turning to work teams and groups. Work groups have become a preferred performance improvement intervention in the last decade. So now we have a plethora of theories, methodologies, tools, and strategies to understand and facilitate teamwork in organizations. Both the science and practice of team performance has evolved and matured, making significant progress. But why and when do organizations deploy teams? Are all work teams created equal? Are all groups in organizations the same? This brief section addresses these questions. What follows is an attempt to clarify and elaborate some of the key features that characterize work teams and groups in organizations.

First, why do organizations use, dispatch, and compose work teams and groups today?

Why are work groups used in organizations?

Teams and groups are used for a variety of reasons, from brainstorming activities to problem solving issues to manufacturing products. Teams and groups are present in the floor shop as well as in the boardroom. They are used to perform surgery, fly planes, operate power plants, launch the space shuttle, drill for oil, and secure the peace of nations. But work teams and groups are mainly (not always) used when tasks are complex, difficult, and dynamic and where the consequences for errors are high. Also, work teams are best when redundancy is needed and the context in which they will perform is ill-defined as well as where team members have to process lots of information from different modalities. So the kinds of tasks teams or groups need to execute matter. The environment and the demands on team members matter.

And if errors are costly, they matter even more. In sum, work teams (and some groups) perform best and are needed when organizations have fluid environments typified by rapidly evolving and ambiguous situations, no right answers, information overload, intense time pressure, and severe consequences for error.


Many definitions of work teams have been advanced over the last two decades. Taken together, work teams are complex social and dynamic entities characterized by the following:

  • there are two or more members;
  • they hold meaningful task, goal, and feedback interdependencies;
  • they interact routinely;
  • they interact adaptively;
  • they have a shared common and valued vision;
  • they are hierarchically organized;
  • they have a limited life span;
  • they have expertise, roles, and functions that are distributed;
  • they engage in cycles of performance; and
  • they are embedded in an organizational environment that influences its processes and performance outcomes.

This definition is an umbrella for typifying the kind of teams found in industry, business, agencies, and the military.


Groups are in the same continua as teams, but usually work groups have no task interdependency and the expertise is not distributed. Work groups are loosely coupled social entities that are brought in to solve a specific problem or generate ideas about how to improve a situation, such as a task force or brainstorming group. Their life cycle is short and group members have no shared history or future. Of course, there are exceptions.

Is the distinction between these two entities important? Well, in practice it might not be. But in research, it is. To build the science of team performance, we must be clear on how research findings generalize, to what kind of team or group the results matter. Again, all work teams are not created equal and neither are groups.


  1. Guzzo, R. A., & Dickinson, M. W. (1996). Teams in organizations: Recent research on performance and effectiveness. Annual Review Psychology, 47,307-338.
  2. Kozlowski, S. W. J., & Bell, B. S. (2003). Work groups and teams in organizations. In W. C. Borman, D. R. Ilgen, & R. J. Klimoski (Eds.), Comprehensive handbook of psychology: Vol. 12. Industrial and organizational psychology. New York: Wiley.
  3. Mclntyre, R. M., & Salas, E. (1995). Measuring and managing for team performance: Emerging principles from complex environments. In R. Guzzo & E. Salas (Eds.), Team effectiveness and decision making in organizations (pp. 149-203). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  4. Porter, C., Hollenbeck, J. R., Ilgen, D. R., Ellis, P. J., West, B., & Moon, H. (2003). Backing up behaviors in teams: The role of personality and legitimacy of need. Journal of Applied Psychology, 3, 391-403.
  5. Salas, E., Sims, D. E., & Burke, C. S. (2005). Is there a “Big Five” in teamwork? Small Group Research, 36, 555-599.
  6. Salas, E., Stagl, K. C., & Burke, C. S. (2004). 25 years of team effectiveness in organizations: Research themes and emerging needs. In C. L. Cooper & I. T. Robertson (Eds.), International Review of Industrial and Organizational Psychology. New York: Wiley.

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