Finding the ‘I’ in team will unite teams. Teams will be triumphant when every individual team member owns their personal stake in the team’s success.
My first team was a swim team. Swimming is largely an individual sport. Your success as a swimmer rarely relies on the performance of others. You do not have to pass or catch a ball, a baton, a puck, or anything else to be successful. Yes, your teammates rely on you to win individual races to gain points, but there is little action others can take that will help or hurt your performance. To perform well in the pool I had to show up, I had to be invested in my training, no one else could do it for me.
On my high school team I was an above average swimmer. I could be counted on to do my part, to score points. I was not a superstar taking first in every race. The phrase, There is no I in Team reassured me that consistently scoring points for second or third place was enough and that I didn’t need to excel individulaly. That incremental growth, just swimming a few tenths of a second faster each week was enough to be a good teammate. I did not have to stand out, over-achieve, or grow aggressively. The no I in team sentiment comforted me, but in retrospect, that was misguided. I wonder, if I had known about the I’s in team would I have been a better swimmer…a better teammate…gone on to have more success in the sport?
In organizations there is a tendency for those who want to be good team leaders to embrace the There is no I in Team concept. They demonstrate this by saying “we”, “our” or “us” instead of “you” or “I”. Direct questions such as, “What will you do to be successful?” are avoided instead of embraced as a follow-up question to “How can we work together to be successful?” This style of leadership sends the message I received as a swimmer: as long as I show up and perform as expected I am a contributing member of the team. In excellent teams each individual strives for personal excellence and understands how their accomplishments contribute to the success of the team.
Leaders: do you want minimal participation from your team or would you rather have inspired team members that stand out, over-achieve, and grow aggressively? If you want the latter, then embrace the I in team. Here’s how:
1. Ignite Importance
- Use first names or “you” as much as possible and expect others to do the same.
- Increase your personal use of “I”. Consider saying “I” instead of “we” or “our” when accepting responsibility for both good and bad things where you truly hold responsibility.
- Expect every team member to meet their obligations to the team.
2. Identify Individuality
- Confirm that each team member knows his or her specific expectations and how he or she brings unique value to the team.
- Expect team members to set individual goals that require stretching and an investment in personal development.
- Do not tolerate people who refuse to be accountable.
3. Inspire Innovation
- Celebrate individual as well as team successes.
- Hire people who bring new and needed ideas, skills, and experiences.
- Avoid group-think; ask team members to contribute personally inspired thoughts and solutions.
Long after my swim team experience I became part of a team that required me to embrace the I in team. As a Boy Scouts of America employee under the fantastic leadership of John Cadwallader I did stand-out, over-achieve, and grow aggressively. The training and processes for professional Boy Scout employees instill the I in team concept. I had specific goals for the number of members that would be in my programs, the volunteers I recruited and managed, and the money I was to raise. There were also expectations for how I conducted business and supported my colleagues. On the first Friday of every month there was a mandatory staff meeting. Each month I stood in front of my peers and leadership to report on goal progress and action plans. In these meetings my individual achievements were applauded and significant successes were awarded. If I was struggling, encouragement and help were offered. I learned how our individual achievements were supporting organization wide goals and what was needed for my team to be recognized as one of the best in the country. Our team enjoyed success year over year because we lived the power of the I in team.
Today, as I work in organizations to strengthen teams I find the reluctance to acknowledge the I in team one of the more significant causes of underperforming teams. I encourage you to experiment with one or two the actions from the I’s in team list and watch your team become more accountable.