There’s no “I” in team

Putting the “we” before the “me”.

Would you prefer to work alone or as part of a team? It’s a question people are often asked in a job interview. How a person answers that question isn’t solely determined by whether they classify themselves as an introvert or an extrovert. For many people, the answer will vary and depend on context and circumstances. Some days they may want to work alone, and other days they want to work collectively – as part of a team.

Belonging motivates

What is common, however, is that as tribal creatures, we are genetically wired to be part of a group. Feeling excluded and not feeling like you belong impacts our self-esteem and our mental health and well-being.

Belonging is critical, and being part of a healthy and engaged team is good for us – motivating us to go beyond what we think is possible.

Professor of Psychology at Northeastern University, David DeSteno, recounts in his book, Emotional Success, how being part of a team – even a team made up of strangers – can lead people to persevere longer than when they weren’t part of a team. He explained the results of a study by Stanford psychologists, Gregory Walton and Geoffrey Cohen, who examined how being part of a team impacted students’ perseverance.

“Knowing they (the students) were part of something – having a goal that they knew was shared by a group and to which they could contribute and be valued – pushed people to work hard and resist immediate pleasures”, David wrote.

Achieving together

Often, it is when we come together that we achieve extraordinary things. Throughout my corporate career and in the work I do now, I’ve frequently seen how ideas by one person, are improved by another and how it is when we are in a group that our best ideas are generated, debated and achieved.

“It is when we come together that we achieve extraordinary things.”

Curiously, organisations typically reward people as individuals, and reward and recognition schemes often focus on rewarding the individual over the group and their collective team achievements.

Fairness matters

It’s a problem of fairness. On one side of the debate is the question of how you can be fair if people do not contribute equally to the results.  Conversely, reward and recognition schemes are highly subjective, and the outcomes can negatively impact team dynamics, cooperation and collegiality when individual rewards appear unfairly allocated.

If a person believes they work harder than someone else, and yet they are rewarded less, they will likely be unhappy. While we would commonly see this as fairness, it is known as equity theory in research terms.

As Furnham and Taylor, in their book Bad Apples: Identify, Prevent and Manage Negative Behaviour at Work, write, “Equity theory is concerned with outcomes and inputs as they are perceived by the people involved, not as they actually are”.

What happens in practice is that the greater the perceived inequity, the greater the motivator for the person to try and find a way to restore the balance. How they do this will vary, but it can lead to an employee being less productive, taking more sick leave or committing fraud as the person tries to find a way to fix the inequity. 

Leadership is key

As a leader, you play a crucial role in treating each team member fairly, and consequently, balancing the focus on the “we” and the “me”.

Sure, different people want recognition in various ways; but what’s common is people want to be valued and appreciated for what they do, and for that recognition to be genuine and fair.

More often than not, the gestures that make the most significant difference and have the most impact are sincere and heartfelt. A simple ‘thank you’ can go a long way – both individually and collectively.

So, take the time to understand how your team wants to celebrate and recognise success. Focus on efforts that bond the group, rather than divide the team, because what we can achieve together is so much greater than what we can achieve alone.

Create clarity

However, the benefits gained from the collective wisdom and team effort is more easily secured when there is shared purpose, with clear accountability and decision rights.

While the leader knows what each team member is doing and how they contribute to the whole, often this understanding doesn’t filter across the team. This lack of clarity may be because two groups have recently merged, and so the newly combined team’s purpose, accountability lines and decision-making frames aren’t yet established. Alternatively, it could be because the leader hasn’t paid enough attention to working with the team members to develop these mechanisms.

Regardless of the reason, such ambiguity breeds disengagement and distrust. It also means that team members can’t leverage each other’s skills effectively. If you don’t know what someone does, you don’t see how they can help you (or vice versa).

Effective leaders know it’s critical to get individuals working together as quickly as possible – so that the team makes progress on the right things, at the right time. Additionally, clarity of purpose and commitment to delivering on it helps the team sustain focus when the inevitable roadblocks arise. Next, summarise these elements by building your team’s vision board.

Get creative

This vision board is a visual representation of what your team wants to achieve and how you will go about doing that. It’s not just words on a page, but also a reminder of the team’s commitment to each other.  Ideally, it is creative, colourful and impactful so that it inspires energy, emotion and connection.

Making time to do this is not only practical; it’s fun and an excellent way to get the creative juices flowing. Pull out the coloured pens, pictures, paper and glue. You may laugh – but trust me, I’m yet to see a team not love an activity where they get to create something together.

It’s worth remembering the words of NBA legend, Michael Jordan, who said, “Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence win championships”.

This article first appeared in issue 32 of the Inside Small Business quarterly magazine