Are you really a team? Maybe not

The group you’re overseeing or you’re part of might be impersonating a team, but that’s not what it is

Image © Viktor Cessan and Stefan Lindbohm

Are you part of a team? Are you managing one? Is it dysfunctional? Does it get the job done, although you can feel it is not a well-oiled machine? Have you tried six million management styles, yet despite your efforts, everyone is still not on the same page? Do you have people who won’t play nice, no matter what incentives you offer?

The thing is, you may not be managing a team at all. The group you’re overseeing or you’re part of might be impersonating a team, but that’s not what it is.

Viktor Cessan and Stefan Lindbohm, two organizational coaches in Sweden, describe in a brilliant blog post four types of associations encountered in the business world. Their concept applies perfectly to veterinary medicine. Let’s take a look at a few scenarios.


While receptionist Paula answers the phone, receptionist Theresa files medical records. They both do their job—they just don’t talk to each other.

Observing them can lead to a few conclusions:

  • They may work side by side in the reception area, but they are not functioning as a team
  • They don’t need each other to do their job
  • They have the same goals: taking care of clients, keeping the medical records organized, being the face of the practice

Although their job descriptions are similar and they share common objectives, these two individuals are not a team. Paula and Theresa are a pseudo-team (see the illustration).

Temporary alliances

Now let’s walk to “the back.” It is a well-known fact in the clinic that technicians Tina and Andy can’t stand each other.

The doctor needs X-rays under sedation to confirm an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear in a 120-lbs. Great Dane. At that very moment, all the other technicians are busy, which means Tina and Andy have to work together to sedate the patient and take X-rays.

In the X-ray room, it is obvious:

  • They work together, but they don’t function as a team
  • They need each other, albeit temporarily, to provide care to the patient
  • It may seem like they work together to accomplish a task, but they don’t have the same goals: Tina dedicated her life to helping animals, while Andy is a personal friend of the doctor

While their job descriptions are similar and they are forced to work together, these two individuals are not a team. Instead, Tina and Andy have formed a temporary alliance (see the illustration).


Now let’s continue our journey to the kennel, where Christa and Wayne are hard at work.

Christa is only there because her parents made her get a job after threatening to cut her off. Her task for the day is to clean the runs. Meanwhile, Wayne is thrilled to have his foot in the door because he is planning on applying to veterinary school. His job is to walk and feed all the boarders.

Not a single word is exchanged during their shift. A few observations are striking:

  • They appear to work together in the kennel, but they don’t function as a team
  • They certainly don’t need each other to do their job
  • They clearly do not have the same goals

Even though they should work together to improve the comfort and safety of their patients, these two individuals are not a team. Christa and Wayne are merely coworkers (see the illustration).

Have you experienced similar situations? Are you living them now? Why does this matter? After all, don’t all our protagonists get their job done? If you are dealing with a pseudo-team, a temporary alliance, or a coworkers scenario, you will never be able to have a smooth, unified, and motivated team.

What is a real team?

According to Cessan and Lindbohm, a well-functioning team requires two key ingredients:

  • They must need each other to function together
  • They must share the same goals

Cessan explains: “You might not need a well-oiled team to perform certain jobs, especially ‘mechanical tasks,’ such as cleaning cages or restocking shelves. However, you do need team collaboration to work on some projects, such as crafting a fair holiday schedule, performing anesthesia, or taking X-rays. A perfect example is when someone goes on a lunch break. She may need the help of one or two team members to take over certain tasks to ensure continuity of care.

It is critical to identify what you’re trying to accomplish (i.e. defining the problem) before spending any time figuring out how to put a team together (i.e. creating a solution).

Clearly, having a true team is sometimes ideal. It is likely impossible to work on a clinic-wide project, such as becoming a Fear Free practice, without team effort. Team members both need each other and need to believe in the common goal to reach a successful outcome. That’s the definition of a true team.

However, it’s acceptable to function with a temporary alliance or coworkers in some situations. It’s important to understand and accept some team members may not have the same goals, yet they may (and should) embrace the practice’s vision, mission, and core values. So participants of a temporary alliance or coworkers may (or again, should) in fact share a higher purpose, such as compassionate patient care or excellent client service.

“However, we do not recommend tolerating pseudo-teams,” Cessan warns. Besides the reception example above, a pseudo-team can be observed in meetings where a few people are engaged and participating, while others are passive and not contributing.

Once you identify what kind of team(s) you have, you may have to make some tough choices to decide who gets to stay in their jobs, who might be coachable, and who needs to explore new horizons.

Phil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS, CVJ, Fear Free Certified, is a board-certified veterinary surgeon and serial entrepreneur whose traveling surgery practice takes him all over Eastern Pennsylvania and Western New Jersey. You can visit his website at He also is cofounder of Veterinary Financial Summit, an online community and conference dedicated to personal and practice finance ( AJ Debiasse, a technician in Stroudsburg, Pa., contributed to this article.

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