Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 9, Issue 26;   July 1, 2009: Teamwork Myths: I vs. We

Teamwork Myths: I vs. We

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

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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Taking on the full load is what we do when we feel fully responsible for either the success or the failure of some organizational activity. Instead of asking for help, we take extreme measures to execute responsibilities that might not even be ours.
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As people, we're very good at forming and holding beliefs and opinions despite nagging doubts. These doubts lead us to search for confirmation of our beliefs, and to reject information that might conflict with our beliefs. Often, this process causes us to persist in believing nonsense. How can we tell when this is happening?
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See also Emotions at Work and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Domestic turkeys. The turkey has become known for lack of intelligence.Coming July 24: The Stupidity Attribution Error
In workplace debates, we sometimes conclude erroneously that only stupidity can explain why our debate partners fail to grasp the elegance or importance of our arguments. There are many other possibilities. Available here and by RSS on July 24.
A happy dogAnd on July 31: More Things I've Learned Along the Way: IV
When I have an important insight, or when I'm taught a lesson, I write it down. Here's Part IV from my personal collection. Available here and by RSS on July 31.

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On 14The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in leadership and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at leadership from the vantage point of history. Read more about this program. Here's a date for this program:

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