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From the Officer’s Desk: Functional Work Groups and Teams 

Just like many organizational leaders, EMS officers may be required to lead functional work groups and teams. Understanding the subtle difference between them, how they’re formed, and how to best lead them will be beneficial.

Groups vs. Teams

A formal work group consists of three or more individuals with similar skills who make up a functional unit or department within an organization—for example, accounting/finance, logistics, operations, communications, or fleet services. A functional work group is created by someone in a leadership role to support the organization’s mission. Although group members may be familiar with each other’s work activities, each member works independently, and the group is not disbanded as members complete their tasks.

A formal work team consists of two or more individuals who depend on each other to achieve specific goals and objectives over a defined time frame. Examples of organizational work teams are Lean Six Sigma teams, code teams, rope- or water-rescue teams, hazmat teams, etc. Each team member has a skill set that collectively contributes to the overall mission and is partially accountable for the team’s outcomes.

The term functional indicates that certain expectations are placed upon the team or its members to achieve a desired goal. Throughout the article we will refer to functional work groups and functional work teams as groups or teams with the understanding they are functional in nature and part of an EMS work environment.

Group and Team Development

Prior to creating a team or group, an EMS officer needs to define its purpose. In addition, he or she must become familiar with how groups and teams are formed and how to best lead the members to accomplish specific goals and objectives.

Once a group or team is formed and ready to start work, the EMS officer must provide a high-performing work environment. First they must connect with the participants by promoting trust, communication, and respect. Second, they must find the best approach to keep members on track toward their goals and objectives. Third, they must promote a culture that fosters collaboration. Fourth, participants must be able to thrive in their environment.

The role of an EMS officer will encompass overseeing projects, tasks and processes. However, many such activities can’t take place without the commitment, collaboration, and participation of others. Any leader who believes they can accomplish organizational goals without the assistance of others will likely come up short.

In 1965 psychologist Bruce Tuckman presented a development theory for use when assessing teams or groups. Tuckman presented five stages of team/group development:

  • During the forming stage, group members agree to be part of the group or team. This is when members introduce themselves to others and define the group’s purpose and other responsibilities.
  • During the storming stage, members begin to assume roles. Power struggles, conflict, and some resistance may occur.
  • During the norming stage, members begin to accept their roles and work together.
  • During the performing stage, the group/team is fully functional, and members work together to achieve desired goals with minimal supervision.
  • The fifth and final stage Tuckman added later: The adjourning stage occurs when activities have been completed. Teams may more commonly disband at this point, but this stage is also applicable to groups.

Once a team and/or group has formed, the next step for the EMS officer is to ensure it can sustain its functionality.

Connections and Collaboration

Connecting with group or team members is essential but may prove challenging. This should start during the forming stage and may best be done in the field. In the field EMS crews build a sense of camaraderie by training together, responding to calls, and facing challenges as a unit.

Administrative, likely civilian employees may require a different approach. They may need become familiar with new terminology, activities, and roles. They may also have different values, religions, beliefs, political views, and work ethics. Leaders must make every effort to get to know group/team members and close any disconnects. Members will not be able to connect and understand what is expected of them if the leader makes no effort to be an integral part of activities.

The norming stage requires direction to help keep the group or team on track. Members will be settling into their roles and understanding new responsibilities and what’s expected of them. Especially with groups (or teams that don’t disband), the officer must remain visible and available to monitor ongoing performance and provide guidance in reaching goals. For teams that consist of members from different backgrounds or departments, vision and mission statements can help ensure members know where they’re going and what’s expected.

During the performing stage every effort must be made to create an environment where members feel energized and look forward to working together. Fostering collaboration is important. The goal is to have members share ideas, skills, and encouragement. Create an organizational culture conducive to it.


Regardless if you’re leading a group or a team, it all begins with having a purpose, being familiar with the stages of development, connecting, and building a sense of collaboration between members. The EMS officer must remain engaged, build trust, communicate, and demonstrate respect of everyone in the process.

Orlando J. Dominguez, Jr., MBA, RPM, is assistant chief of EMS for Brevard County Fire Rescue in Rockledge, Fla. He has more than 30 years of EMS experience and has served as a firefighter-paramedic, flight paramedic, field training officer, EMS educator, and division chief. He has authored two books, including EMS Supervisor: Principles and Practice, and is a certified Lean Six Sigma Green Belt. Follow him at @ems_officer. 


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