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Volume 9, Issue 26;   July 1, 2009: Teamwork Myths: I vs. We

Teamwork Myths: I vs. We

by

In high performance teams, cooperative behavior is a given. But in the experience of many, truly cooperative behavior is so rare that they believe that something fundamental is at work — that cooperative behavior requires surrendering the self, which most people are unwilling to do. It's another teamwork myth.
The Hall of Mosses Trail in the Hoh Rain Forest

The Hall of Mosses Trail in the Hoh Rain Forest of the Olympic National Park in Washington state, USA. The Hoh Rain Forest, which receives over 12 feet of rain annually, is one of the few temperate rain forests in the world. Rain forests can be viewed as team efforts among the millions of species that comprise them. Working together, the species of the forest produce a complex system that none of them could produce alone. And each of them is trying its best to work on its own behalf. The species do help each other, but their primary goal is to help themselves. Nature is replete with such relationships between species, one excellent example of which resides in your own lower digestive tract. We can learn much from nature about teams and teamwork. Photo courtesy U.S. Geological Survey.

In two earlier essays about teamwork myths, I explored myths about forming teams and myths about conflict within teams. In this third installment I look at myths about the supposed need to surrender the self to the team.

There's no "I" in team
This clever slogan (clever in English, that is) implies that team members can support team goals only if they abandon their individual goals. Many in management and team leadership roles believe that teams are manageable only if their members subscribe to this belief. Ironically, from the management perspective, it is a self-serving belief.
The reality can be disappointing. First, most performance management systems emphasize individual performance. Performance management focuses on compensation, which is essentially individual in many organizations. Second, although team performance is not the sum of individual performances, it does arise, in part, from individual performance. In most organizations, there is plenty of "I" in team; but there is also "we." The complexity and richness of this situation can't be captured in a slogan.
The inherent need of humans to be individuals limits team effectiveness
Plausible-sounding as this assertion might be, it offers no explanation or justification. Precisely how does human individuality limit team effectiveness?
Certainly there are examples of conflict and dissension in teams, but there are also examples of teams of people with complementary skills, offering each other mutual support. Tension there may be, but team members and team leaders around the world can learn — and have learned — how to manage it.
Ambition and insecurity always undermine cooperation
I've seen this myth in use personally. Job insecurity can indeed undermine the willingness to cooperate. When job insecurity or desire for promotion or plum assignments is in the air, cooperation seems risky.
The important word here is always. Managers who encourage cutthroat competition, or who use layoffs or pay freezes to deal with the consequences of bad decisions or bad strategy, or to protect shareholder value at the expense of employees, will undoubtedly limit cooperative behavior. Sadly, it's a tradeoff many managers make willingly, if sometimes blindly. But it's a tradeoff, not an axiom. Insecurity is less threatening to cooperation if we work to limit insecurity.

In a workplace where people
feel respected, they usually
respond by taking
the initiative
In a workplace where people feel respected by peers, by subordinates and by supervisors, they usually respond by taking initiative. They seek not only to demonstrate their willingness and ability to contribute, but also to help their co-workers do the same. They do this, in part, because they benefit themselves when they and their co-workers excel. "I" and "We" blend together, in a way.

But even more important, these acts of contribution, collaboration, and support do create and sustain a sense of belonging. They make you feel good. Try it. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Finding Work in Tough Times: Strategy  Next Issue

For more teamwork myths, see "Teamwork Myths: Formation," Point Lookout for May 27, 2009, and "Teamwork Myths: Conflict," Point Lookout for June 17, 2009.

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