Is Your Team a Committee in Disguise?

If you consider the teams you have been part of it is likely you could easily assess which were high performing and which were dysfunctional.  As with anything involving human relationships there are a multitude of dysfunctions possible.

However, there is one distinction I have consistently used to help turn dysfunctional teams around.  And when used as the foundation for forming a new team it can get you on a fast track to high performance.

That distinction is the difference between a TEAM and a COMMITTEE.

First of all, the belief that people know what these terms mean often causes leaders to shortchange the process of setting clear, appropriate and shared expectations of the participants and the goals of any group assembled.

Unfortunately because so many have experienced “death by committee” – those painful experiences of meeting over time with a group that produces little and drains your time and energy – some have started replacing the label “committee” with “team” when forming new groups.

As you can imagine that does little to change the dysfunctional dynamics.  In fact it often makes things worse because expectations have been raised without changing the approach or practices applied.

So if you find yourself on a dysfunctional team, or just want to get a new team off to a great start, ask yourself the following 3 questions.

You may discover that your team is nothing more than a committee in disguise.  If so, now you’ll know exactly how to correct course.

1.  What have the members committed to?

If you are being invited or assigned to a committee, chances are you are there to represent some constituency group(s).  While you may want to be on the committee and participate fully, your primary commitment is to the people and interests you represent rather than the committee itself.  Your primary responsibilities are likely to provide input and to be a conduit of communication back to those you represent.  While the committee may have a goal, the committee leaders do not typically require you to personally own achieving that goal.  You simply are there to do your part.

Teamwork on the other hand, especially high performance teamwork, requires a different kind and level of commitment.  It requires that every individual is committed to the same shared goal.  The team goal becomes as important as the commitments you have to any other group(s) you represent.

As an individual team member you commit to owning the result and doing whatever it takes, including more than “your part” when that is necessary to deliver on the shared goal.  High performance teams are distinctive in that the individual team members have an “all in” commitment.

Committee members represent people, groups and interests outside of the group.  They are committed to participating vs. promising a result.  Team members on the other hand are committed to the shared goal of the team and promise to be accountable for the end result being delivered and often implemented.

Committee members participate and represent; team members promise and deliver on a shared goal.

2.  What level of participation was requested and required from the members to succeed?

Being assigned to or volunteering to participate on a committee vs. choosing to be a fully contributing team member call for very different behaviors.

The former only requires that you show up and do your part.  The latter demands you take whatever action is required in service of the shared goal.

When on a committee it can even be easy to get away with not doing what you said you would or doing it poorly.  It can be very frustrating to the few who do the work, but unfortunately the level of agreement and commitment necessary to hold someone accountable is more often than not too weak.  When you choose to be part of a team, however, you can expect to be held accountable.

Note that just because you may be assigned to a team doesn’t mean you still can’t choose how you will participate.

Grudging compliance as an individual may be tolerated and get you by on a committee, but it will likely undermine your credibility and the effectiveness of a team.  Also, putting the interests of the group(s) you represent outside of the team ahead of the shared goal of the team will get in the way as well.  If you can’t honestly find a way to do the right thing for the team then you may not belong on the team.  Hidden agendas have no place on a team.

Volunteering isn’t necessarily choosing to fully participate either.  People volunteer for lots of reasons.  Sometimes there is a genuine commitment to contribute and/or represent others, while other times the reason is more self serving or politically motivated.

In the end though, it doesn’t matter why you volunteered.  If a team is counting on you for a level of commitment and participation beyond what you are willing or able to give then you have by default chosen not to be a team member whether you show up or not.

If you are on a team, you owe it to your team members to authentically choose to be a fully participating member of that team or take yourself out.

3.  How do the members relate to decisions?

Building consensus is the most common way for committees to make decisions.  This essential means the members vote and majority rules.  The “building” part is about getting enough people to agree with you so the vote swings your way.

While it seems fair this common decision making practice has unintended consequences.  The people who are not in the majority are disenfranchised.  If you are one of the ones who voted the other way. when someone asks “why did your committee decide that?” your response will likely be something akin to “I didn’t, “they did”.

Have you ever tried to implement a committee decision that was based on a close vote?  It can be a lot like swimming against the tide!

Consensus may work for some committees, but it rarely works for a team.  Team members must not only own the shared goal; they must own the decisions made in service of that goal.  I often ask team members to explicitly commit to following through on the decisions of the team as though they made the decisions themselves.

Teams members must commit to aligning, not voting or they risk the success of the team.  That includes situations in which the team member makes the decision on behalf of the team.  If you find you can’t get behind the prevailing decision you continue a dialogue until you get whatever you need addressed to choose to get behind the decision, even if it is not the decision you would have made if it were up to you.

Committee members vote. Team members choose to align.

Consider one of the dysfunctional teams you either have been on or are a part of now.  Is your team a committee in disguise?  If so, can you apply this distinction to diagnose the problem and get your team on track?


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