Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 9, Issue 26;   July 1, 2009:

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

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

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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More articles on Emotions at Work:

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When we use threats and intimidation to win debates or agreement, we lay a flimsy foundation for future action. Using fear may win the point, but little more.
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Most of the time, when we're bored at work, we know we are. But sometimes, we're bored and we just don't realize it. Here are some indicators of boredom that might escape some people's notice.
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When you feel that a colleague has lost professional respect for you — or never really had respect for you — what can you do about it? Check your conclusions, check whether it's about you, and ask for a dialog.

See also Emotions at Work and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

A possibly difficult choiceComing April 21: Choice-Supportive Bias
Choice-supportive bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to evaluate our past choices as more fitting than they actually were. The erroneous judgments it produces can be especially costly to organizations interested in improving decision processes. Available here and by RSS on April 21.
Two people engaged in pair collaborationAnd on April 28: The Self-Explanation Effect
In the learning context, self-explanation is the act of explaining to oneself what one is learning. Self-explanation has been shown to increase the rate of acquiring mastery. The mystery is why we don't structure knowledge work to exploit this phenomenon. Available here and by RSS on April 28.

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Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

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