Why isn't my team interdependent?

Interdependence is widely assumed to be a crucial factor that makes a team.  It’s therefore treated as a polarising indicator – if there’s no interdependence, then it’s considered a “group”, not a “team”.  At OCH we recognise some teams aren’t interdependent, yet can still be high performing teams.  So how can you tell if a lack of interdependence is hindering your team or not?

How can we tell if a team is interdependent?

Interdependence is an internal need for each other.  So it’s about how and why the people within the team interact.  You can tell if a team has a high degree of interdependence because:

  • The team works together a lot.  This isn’t just sitting together, it’s working on the same work, it’s discussing the same project, timeframes, delivery scheme, stakeholders, and/or objectives.
  • Team members can’t make progress without each other.  This really does define the term “dependence”.  It’s not just about asking for advice from people around you.  Team members need each other’s contributions and output, or else each team member’s own contribution is meaningless.  
  • The dependency is mutual.  Those working together each gain from the other in generating something for the team.  It’s not about one person being dependent on everyone else – this would be a hub-and-spoke model.  Interdependence really needs everyone in the team to depend on everyone else. 
  • The interdependence is balanced.  No-one is more relied upon than anyone else – although their part may be required at different times.  Everyone has a unique and valuable part to play in achieving the objectives of the team. 
  • The team’s purpose is clear, compelling and committed to by everyone in the team.  This makes the “glue” that is interdependence for the team. 

If we don’t have interdependence what will I see and what does that mean?

If the team doesn’t have interdependence, then many of the factors above are reversed.  However, be careful when deciding what this means for the team.  Does the team need to be interdependent?  Is the team dysfunctional in some way?  Might the team benefit from collaborating differently from being interdependent?

  • Team works apart. Dysfunctional interdependent teams, work apart and therefore don’t get work done together.  This leads to failure to achieve objectives and outputs.  However, some teams can work apart functionally, because their output is dependent on individual effort and don’t need the rest of the team.
  • Progress isn’t made.   Dysfunctional interdependent teams typically argue with each other when progress isn’t made, because they blame others in the team for not helping them achieve the results.  Where teams don’t need each other to make progress they may turn to each other in any case to find ways to improve individual output or objectives.
  • Dependence is imbalanced.    Dysfunctional interdependent teams often rely on a minority of people to achieve performance.  These team members carry the load for others in the team, but feel let down and overworked.   It can lead to an “us” vs “them” split in the team which has an impact on camaraderie and communications.  But if a team doesn’t need to be interdependent, different people might perform at different levels independently of each other.
  • Team purpose isn’t clear, compelling or committed to.  Dysfunctional interdependent teams will find it hard to work together without a clear purpose.  They will be confused as to what part they play and for what reason.  “Being a team” may become a purpose in itself which becomes meaningless if there isn’t a higher purpose for being a team.  Yet the same is true for teams that aren’t interdependent.  If any team doesn’t know why it exists, or if members have differing views on this, it’s going to be a problem for them to be a team at all.

How can a team exist without interdependence?

Some teams don’t need to be interdependent, which is why it’s important to consider what a lack of interdependence might mean. Extra-Dependent Teams aren’t interdependent because members don’t need each other when performing their roles. However, they do benefit from each other, which is an important distinction to realise. It means that people who work independently (typically doing the same sort of role), can get on with things on their own. Yet, regularly bringing them together to share their experience, good and bad, benefits others in the team who can learn from this. It’s a process which has more than benefit too – it brings sharing of repertoire, a development of meaning to the work and a collective sense of belonging. All this is deeply “teaming” – yet without any sense of interdependence.

So What?

So if a team you work with, or a team you work in, lacks interdependence, ask yourself what impact this lack of interdependence is having on the team. Is it dysfunctional? What is to be gained from greater reliance on each other? Is the team interdependent or independent of each other? Ask the team, “are we an Interdependent Team or an Extra-Dependent Team?”