How a group of people becomes a team

The fully qualified lawyer and former national men’s hockey coach Stefan Kermas combines two worlds in his career: competitive sport and a career in business. For 20 years, he has accompanied – among others as an ORVIETO ACADEMY expert – groups on their way to becoming a team and organisations as well as individuals in their change processes.

His love of working in teams and achieving goals together has always spurred him on. This has also been a decisive factor in his greatest successes to date: as a hockey coach, he won several German championships and two gold medals at the Olympic Games in 2008 and 2012.

With his many years of experience, Stefan has established himself as an expert in leadership skills and successful team building. We asked him about team structures and their special features. What is important for a healthy team dynamic and why arguing is definitely part of success – he talks about this and more in the interview.


Stefan, how did you come to dedicate yourself to the topic of teams?

Stefan Kermas: At least not through my many years of legal training. (laughs)

Team sports – hockey to be precise – had a strong influence on me over many years. First the classic playing career from toddlers to the Bundesliga and, at the same time, an intensive time as a coach: initially of youth teams, later also of Bundesliga teams and the men’s national team.

Team dynamic processes and the question of why one group manages to make more of its possibilities than the other, have always interested and excited me.


How does a group of people become a team?

The answer to this question is unfortunately not trivial, but similar success factors repeatedly emerge that need to be taken into account to a greater or lesser extent. Every team needs a common concern – i.e. a goal that makes those involved pull together. Otherwise, the team will become restless and individual conflicts of goals will make teamwork more difficult. Functional and social roles paired with responsibilities also help to achieve a division of labour and to use people and their strengths appropriately. In addition, the question of collaboration must be clarified: Who actually does what? How are the interfaces and handovers organised? And last but not least, every team needs a genuine culture of conflict.


Why is a culture of conflict so important for a team?

Because conflicts and the resulting disputes are completely normal and human. I once read so beautifully described by the author Reinhard Sprenger: “Difference is the rule, harmony the exception”. We should understand and internalise this.

So if conflicts – themselves the basis for further development and innovation – are completely normal, every team must cultivate methods of dealing with differences of opinion. Guiding questions such as “How do we handle different opinions and how do we resolve situations when things go pear-shaped?” are only the tip of a challenging journey that every team has to take in order to be able to work together really successfully.

Feedback formats, communication skills, but also a simple understanding of the personality structure of colleagues help here. A real team must be able to fight – without negatively affecting the team structure and dynamics.


How do you integrate lone warriors into the team?

First of all, you should accept that not all employees are equally team-oriented. Everyone has different motivations for being part of a group. Understanding these motives is a good and helpful step for the whole team. Of course, every team member must have a minimum of “we-orientation”.

In my opinion, the art lies in accepting team members with egoistic traits and using them in a strength-oriented way. For this, they may need a work environment with fewer interfaces than others or activities where a strong ego perspective can even be beneficial. Managers do not have to treat all employees equally and demand the same from them. Rather, they should ensure that everyone is moving in the same direction.


What are your experiences from your projects? Where do things often go wrong in organisations?

Every problem in teams and organisations is individual. All too often counsellors fall into the “best practice trap” and believe they recognise phenomena they have already experienced elsewhere. However, the context and causes may be completely different. When classified according to this premise, two factors are nevertheless becoming increasingly apparent.

Firstly, expectations and areas of responsibility are often not sufficiently clearly defined. What am I allowed to do? What should I do? Where are the limits of my actions? These are questions that employees often encounter when managers fail to make clear agreements about areas of action. Self-organisation is a modern idea and is even demanded in many places. But if it is not clear where this begins and ends, such nice-sounding ways of working are of no help.

On the other hand, there is often a struggle with the organisational structure. Employees would like to be effective, to make decisions, to solve problems. But structures, processes and practices prevent them from doing so. Wanting to but not being able to is frustrating in the long run.


Which team structure would you like to get rid of altogether?

There is no clear answer. Structures should fit the value creation. The form of cooperation should be aligned with the area in which teams want to create and achieve something. A strong team regularly questions itself and optimises the areas around interfaces and communication in order to be even better coordinated in the future.

Ultimately, each employee decides for him – or herself in which structures he or she wants to work. Those who like command & control will find what they are looking for in German companies just as much as those who like a completely free and self-organised work structure. I have given up talking about good or bad. I rather ask myself whether structures are effective and future-oriented and whether companies can be successful with them in the future.

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