Debating the "There Is No "I" in Team" Cliche

Group of coworkers touching hands in a cheer

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The expression "There is no "I" in team," is oft-repeated in the workplace and, of course, in sporting activities at all levels. The reference, of course, suggests that no one person's needs, abilities or ideas are any more important than the combined skills and efforts of the entire group.

For youth sports coaches and team leaders in the workplace, it is an interesting saying, but is it true? Is the essence of group collaboration all about suppressing the individuality of the team members for the benefit of the group? The answer, in our opinion, is a resounding, "it depends." Or "maybe." Or, "maybe not." Now that this is clear, let's dig in just a bit. 

Teams in the Workplace

In the world of work, the purpose of the team is to harness the skills of the individuals to accelerate progress and improve performance. The theory suggests that the team should be (operative phrase) collectively more intelligent than the smartest member and be able to make better decisions than any one individual.

Of course, the theory forgets to take into account the nuances of humans being humans and introducing all of the noisy, nasty complexities of ego and bias.

In studies on idea generation (often referenced as brainstorming), teams should, in theory, generate more and better ideas than individuals working on their own. Guess what? The studies suggest that those egos and biases and the inherent socialization issues often get in the way of achieving this lofty objective. 

The foremost researcher on workplace teams during the past few decades, the late, Dr. Richard Hackman, offered:

"I have no question that when you have a team, the possibility exists that it will generate magic, producing something extraordinary, but don’t count on it."

The operative phrase in his quote is, "don't count on it." All types of human issues are of course the culprits that degrade performance and keep teams from realizing their lofty potential. 

Suppression of Individuality in Pursuit of Team Performance

The evidence would seem to be overwhelming that the essence of achieving high team performance must be about stomping out the performance degrading biases and issues of the individuals and finding a way to get them to march in lockstep fashion toward a shared goal.

From ample experience, however, we believe that the issue is not one of knocking out individuality, but, instead, finding ways to enhance the skills and abilities of the individuals for the tasks along the way. 

Consider the primary issues cited by Dr. Hackman and others necessary for the development of a high-performance team:

  • A clear and compelling purpose
  • Clear membership
  • A supportive organization
  • Enabling systems and structure
  • Team coaching

If you decompose each of these somewhat arcane-sounding requirements, you begin to find terms we can all relate to, including shared values; strong, effective leadership, supportive sponsorship from executives and managers, and incentives that support not inhibit group collaboration.

Nowhere in the conditions required for an effective team does it suggest that the personalities of the individuals be reduced to some borg-like—the science fiction term for a collective group of automatons who only think and perform in unison—performance. 

The fundamental conditions for success do suggest there must be alignment around the purpose of the project. Inherent in this purpose is the notion of a well-defined customer and an agreement on what is to be delivered to that customer. While this suggests a singular view, it does not require the sacrifice of individuality for success. 

Another core issue for group success is the emergence and application of a clear set of values: shared values that guide acceptable behaviors and promote accountability. Much like the purpose, the values are understood and shared across the group, however, they do not require the "I" to be eliminated from the team.

They do require that each individual in their own way aspire to support and behave according to the spirit of the values. And yes, this does leave some room for interpretation. 

The Role of the Leader and the "I" in Team

Leading group initiatives is one of the more challenging exercises in our world of work. Project Managers live this daily, with their temporary and unique initiatives. Product Managers accountable for their offerings must guide groups of individuals, often without much authority.

In all circumstances, group, team, or initiative leaders are dependent upon the participation and support of others for success. Experienced group leaders understand the importance of the following five priorities:

  1. Defining their role as one accountable to team members for success and safety
  2. Guiding the emergence of a team culture where values are understood and supported
  3. Identifying or allowing the individuals with the right skills for the situation to step up and contribute or lead
  4. Policing the ego issues that degrade performance by drawing upon the team values
  5. Working with individuals and groups to both promote collaboration and ensure that individual genius is not lost in the translation

In reality, there is "I" in team, especially when the "I" is aligned with others around shared values and encouraged to offer his or her best in support of group objectives. Perhaps, it is time to update all of those motivational posters. 

Updated from original by Art Petty