The difference between a group, a team, a faction and a cult

Having spent over 30 years working with high performing teams some of my greatest learnings were that:

  • Not every situation requires a team: and that’s OK
  • Not all people are team players: and that’s OK
  • When a key person leaves a functioning team, it takes time to rebuild the team: that’s normal
  • Remote teams can end up creating very different cultures: that too is normal
  • There will be signs that factions are brewing: this is a warning sign
  • Some teams can end up becoming cults: these are dangerous entities even for the cult leader

A few definitions:

Groups are a collection of individuals who gather for some unifying purpose but do not want or need to become a ‘team’. Think study groups, book clubs or even sports clubs.   

Teams are groups of people working together toward a common goal or purpose. Teams usually have clearly defined membership and may be together for a short term project or for a long term outcome but the difference between a group and a team is that members of a team will forsake personal goals to ensure the team goal is paramount. The classic example is a sports team – the goal is to win and everyone plays a part.

Factions are small, organized dissenting groups within a larger one

Cults are groups of people who have a singular devotion to a thing or person. Members are required to adhere to a rigid set of rules and practices without question. Think religious groups.

  1. Not every situation requires a team. I worked for a while with a real estate company – the company’s aim was to get the agents to work as a team which we quickly realised was a recipe for disaster. Estate agents are incentivised to reach personal financial goals; they tend to work alone and will be reluctant to share leads unless there is agreement between one or two agents that commissions will be shared. 15 or 20 agents working for one agency, will never be a team and neither should this be the goal. The best an owner or manager can hope for in this situation is a common adherence to a company target; a shared set of values and agreement to follow stated work principles and practices.
  2. Not all people are team players. I worked for a computer company where one of the techies simply refused to show up for anything ‘team’, whether that was team meetings or team socials. The company thought it was best to let him go. However, this man had skills no-one else in the team had, so we worked through a compromise with him that he would attend team meetings but was not expected to show up for team socials. A win/win.
  3. When one person leaves it takes time to build a new team. The person who has left may be someone everyone hoped would leave for whatever reason, yet once they’ve gone the team  might realise they were actually really good at their job and the new person isn’t quite measuring up. The person who left may have been popular and the new person may be really quiet or even the opposite, quite bombastic. Take time to get to know new people. Take time to bring them into the culture of the team. Take time to involve them – sometimes first impressions are caused by their nervousness. Take time to understand their skills and strengths – they may have skills the person who left didn’t have and can add greater value to the team.
  4. Remote teams can end up with different cultures. This is normal. Different teams will have different leaders and therefore will develop different ‘styles’ of working. As long as all teams adhere to the company values and protocols, different styles are perfectly OK.  As Charles de Gaulle once said ‘my friend you can’t expect to unify a country with 175 different cheeses’.
  5. There will be signs that factions are appearing. Factions are warning signs: clues that something is amiss; that one or two personalities are going against the team leader for whatever reason and that agendas are quietly building. You can ‘feel’ factions. In team meetings you will sense them rather than be able to categorically identify them, but rest assured, if you as a leader sense a faction occurring, get onto it immediately. This is where one on one’s are vital. If you are not already conducting regular one on ones with your people, please start them. It is during such one on ones that you can ask ‘is everything OK with you? or ‘Feel free to ask any questions or share any concerns with me.’ Delve into whatever is going on. Is it just one person, two people or is it bigger than that? The bigger the faction the more dangerous it is for the leader, owner or manager.  Factions can destroy morale, team results and even entire businesses.
  6. Some teams can end up becoming cults. I realise that the types of people who would create cults will not be reading this article, however, for people who suspect the group they joined or the team they belong to is morphing into a cult, this topic is for them. People who willingly join cults are usually looking for a saviour; someone who will direct them, think for them tell then what to do and when. The downside of that is the total loss of identity in individuals, and the squashing of any original ideas or thoughts. Questioning the leader will be forbidden. If such a leader says ‘jump’ the question isn’t ‘why’, the question is ‘how high’? We mostly think in terms of religious groups when we think of cults. In such religious groups, there will be an adherence to a set of rigid rules; how people should dress and how they should conduct themselves. Sadly cults are not limited to religious groups, they can form anywhere. We are witnessing a cult in America in real time. Sane people are asking how this can be yet his followers will literally follow him to their death, as Covid is showing us. Trump is the classic cult leader. He demands absolute and total loyalty. The tragedy isn’t that he is demanding this, the tragedy is that he is achieving it. He will be gone sooner or later; hopefully sooner, but the damage he has already caused will take years, possibly generations to undo. If he gets a second term, the damage will be beyond repair.


If after reading these various definitions, you as a leader, owner or manager suspect you are verging on any of the categories I’ve mentioned above, don’t panic:

  • If you are trying to turn a group into a team and it isn’t quite working, have a think about whether you actually need a team at all.
  • If you are clear you require your people to function as a ‘team’ and you suspect you have someone who clearly isn’t a team player, think about the workable compromises if this person has skills you absolutely need.
  • If a key person has left and the new person doesn’t seem to be gelling, give things time
  • If you manage remote teams don’t stress if they function slightly differently, as long as they adhere to your vision, values and protocols, let them be different. Being different sometimes is a great thing
  • If you suspect you have a ‘faction’, step in sooner rather than later. Talk to everyone in your team 1:1 to find out where their heads are at – it is far easier to find out what is causing discontent 1:1 than trying to deal with this in a group or team situation
  • If you suspect your team is in danger of becoming a cult, then YOU are probably the problem. Be willing to look in the mirror and ask yourself why you need people to worship at your feet. Usually cult leaders are lacking in confidence. The litmus test is whether or not you allow people to question your methods. If questions are not allowed, then your leadership style is the problem.  Some people just need to get over themselves.

‘We went looking for employees, but people showed up instead.’ – Dame Anita Roddick

Ann Andrews, CSP. Author, speaker, profiler, Life Member PSANZ

Author of:

Lessons in leadership: 50 ways to avoid falling into the ‘Trump’ trap

Leaders Behaving Badly: What happens when ordinary people show up, stand up and speak up

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