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TINO: Team In Name Only

At dinner this week, I asked a friend how life was. Deadpan, she says, “My team at work is eating me up from the inside.” She then went on to explain how an epic turf war over power and roles was draining all of her emotional and physical energy.

Two days earlier, another friend called late one night to discuss his team issues. He desperately wanted to improve the culture of his organization, but couldn’t combat the broader company problems until the problems of his executive team were fixed. Without any hint of irony, my friend said, “I would be honest with my team, except I know for a fact that at least one team member would stab me in the back.”

I sometimes joke that the optimal team size is zero, because being on a bad team is far worse than working alone. Like family, you can’t often choose who is on your team. Unlike family, you can’t outright scream at unhelpful or annoying team members. A bad team takes up way too much time to get done way too little work. A bad team can bring out the most annoying traits in people. And, a bad team eats away at your soul….slowly driving you mad.

If, as you’ve read the above, your heart rate has spiked and you’ve just sweat through your poly-blend work top, it’s probably because you’re currently part of a TINO: a Team In Name Only. Yup, you know, a team that’s really just a collection of individuals who try to interact as little as possible, and when they do, it’s unproductive, boring, and at times, hostile.

Well, how do you make sure when you’re forming a team that you stay away from TINO status? And, if you are currently in a TINO, how do you change the situation?

A few years back, Google conducted a comprehensive study to understand the core ingredients to a high-functioning team. There are books and books and articles and articles and blogs and blogs written about what makes a great team, but Google’s work was unique in its simplicity and size of the study. Below, I’m going to summarize this research, outline the ingredients for the optimal team, and then attempt to provide an easy step-by-step of how to incorporate those into your organization.

The Ingredients & Then The Recipe for An Optimal Team

The Ingredients

High-functioning teams have two important characteristics:

  1. Explicit Norms

  2. Psychological Safety

1. Norms are the ways you operate, the “rules of the game.” Interestingly, for teams to be successful, it doesn’t matter what the norms are, rather that everyone on the team is operating from the same set of norms. For example, a team that spends the first 20 minutes of the team meeting talking about their Saturday night escapades and then slowly meanders into an agenda-less meeting can be just as successful as a team that jumps right to business and sticks to a relevant-info only, tightly managed conversation. What matters is that everyone on the team knows what to expect and operates from the same playbook.

2. Psychological Safety, first developed by psychologist, Amy Edmondson, is a concept that means that individuals are safe to take risks on a team, without fear of retribution or humiliation. Teams that have high levels of psychological safety allow each team member to contribute fully (here are the questions used to test level of PS on a team). Psychological safety is comprised of two components:

  • Empathy: team members know where others are ‘coming from’ and work to understand the perspective and experience of others in the group. (want a fun way to see if you’re high on empathy? Take this crazy eye test!)

  • Conversational turn-taking: each team member has a voice, and there is an overall balance of team members speaking up (overall meaning over the life of the team - it does not mean that for every meeting each team member has to speak an equal amount of time.)

The Recipe

Okay, so we have our ingredients for the optimal team: explicit norms, lots of empathy, and conversational turn-taking. Google has an awesome list of interventions you can take with your team to develop all three, but in the spirit of expediency and giving away stuff for free, here are a few ways that I’ve done to incorporate these three ingredients into a team.

1. Explicit Norms: This one is really easy. At the beginning of team formation, sit down with your team and write down what your team norms are (important that you write them down!)

  • Answer tactical questions like, “What is our preferred mode of communication?” and more value-driven questions like, “Do we value efficiency or effectiveness more?”. Talk through how decisions are going to be made (unanimous, majority, team leader has final say) and assign team roles.

  • Again, it’s less important what the norm is (unanimous isn’t inherently better than majority voting), it’s more important that everyone knows what the norm is. Explicit team norms are part of the same family as procedural justice (remember the “sausage making theory?”) If we are bought-into the process of how a decision is made, we care much less about the actual outcome of the decision.

  • Because I care so much about team norms, here’s a template that I made that will guide your team through a set of questions they can answer to outline team norms.

2. Empathy: Some folks naturally have more empathy than others. That’s okay. What you can do with your team is build the empathy muscle, which is really helping team members to understand each others perspectives. Best case - you do this by people being open and vulnerable with their team members. Team members talk about who they are and what’s important to them. But this is hard, especially if the team is new or the team is already suffering from some issues.

  • So, instead, I like to use an innocuous tool like StrengthsFinder that highlights individuals’ different working styles. Folks on the team can then talk about themselves in the context of their different strengths (and often this leads to an open conversation about individuals’ weaknesses). Again, the tool is a means to an end: the goal is to get people talking about themselves in an open way that allows others to better understand who they are and where they are coming from.

  • Here’s a set of questions and a template you can use to guide your StrengthsFinder discussion!

  • Another way to build empathy on your team? Trust falls!

3. Conversational Turn-taking: Again, this is ensuring that everyone on the team has a voice. We talked about ways to ensure that team members can speak up and speak out way back in July when we discussed the Abilene Paradox.

Well, you can create norms around appointing a Devil’s Advocate for important decisions, or have team members brainstorm alone before they come to a brainstorming session in order to ensure that independent voices and ideas are heard.

  • But, there are more fun ways to build conversational turn-taking into your team. One way I like to build comfort in speaking up in team environments is to pick an interesting topic or article (where no one is truly an expert) and debate it as a team (we used to call this a “Think & Drink” at a former company).

I’ve been part of so many TINOs in my career. They’ve ranged from grad school teams (nothing is more passive aggressive than 5 grad students attempting to finish a group paper), to executive teams (gotta love a group of executives who truly loathe each other attempt to run a business) to consulting teams (I was on one that got so bad that a team facilitator had to fly in to fix things...but then immediately flew out when a team member brought a gun to our bonding session - no lie). And most recently, I was part of a team at a yoga retreat - I thought for sure, that a bunch of self-actualized yogis would make a fantastic set of team members...wrong. We faced the same misaligned expectations, let-downs, and disappointments that any corporate TINO experiences (but just in a tropical setting). . But, there’s hope. Make your norms explicit and build psychological safety on your team. And trust falls. Lots of trust falls.


  • Sometimes you’re on a team that stinks. A TINO is a Team in Name Only - a group of individuals who should function as a team, but rather function like a bunch sole operators.

  • To build a great team, you need two primary components: explicit norms and psychological safety (which is driven by empathy and conversational turn-taking). .

  • It doesn’t matter what your team norms are, as long as everyone on the team is aware of the norms and subscribes to them. Here’s a template to help you make your norms explicit!

  • Empathy on a team is driven by team members understanding where others are coming from; an activity like StrengthsFinder is an easy way to start that process.

  • Conversational turn-taking means each team member has a voice and over time, spends about the same time talking in meetings. Appointing a devil’s advocate, using great brainstorming hygiene, and spending time debating can help build this on your team.

*Huge shout-out to Allison Green who coined the term TINO.


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