Putting the “I” Back Into “Team”

patience with employees slow at work leadership skillsHaving little patience with management “happy talk,” I have a tendency to respond to new corporate jargon with skepticism. Calling a new position “Business Development” doesn’t mean it’s not a sales job. A “restructuring”, or a “realignment” doesn’t mean it’s not a layoff. Most of us can read between the lines. A participant in a leadership training workshop tells this story. He is an engineer in a manufacturing facility who is responsible for designing and acquiring new equipment. There is a piece of software that would help him better assess the impact of certain kinds of equipment changes on the production flow in his area of responsibility. For several weeks, he had been asking purchasing to acquire the software. Since he was the only one who would be using it, he was told (you guessed it), “There is no “I” in “Team.” So, an important member of the team was made to feel like a knuckle-dragging miscreant for making an entirely reasonable request.

Fulfillment of that request would have benefited the entire team. This kind of thing happens with regrettable regularity and indicates a profound misunderstanding of what a team is. A team is a group of people with a function to perform that requires their interdependence for success. They need each other to produce a satisfactory result. As such, it is important for each team member to recognize and respect the needs of the team. It does not mean that the individual disappears. Nor does it mean that the needs of the individual team members become unimportant. Nor does it mean that a team member who tries to meet his or her important needs is not a “team player.” In fact, teams who fail to recognize this have trouble achieving their goals. Part of the team’s responsibility is to help its members succeed. That means listening to the individual team members as well as holding them accountable for completing their important team tasks.

This issue often comes up in leadership training when we teach confrontation with I-Messages*.  An I-Message is a way of stating one’s own needs clearly without making unnecessary assumptions or inferences about other people or events. It represents a rational way of beginning conversations about otherwise difficult topics. Often, when the topic is introduced, participants will say, “We have a team process and encourage people to work together. Shouldn’t they be sending “we-messages?” Or, “Isn’t it selfish to be talking about my needs instead of the team’s needs?” Quite the opposite is true. The most effective team members are those who take responsibility for their own needs. People are purposeful beings. We do things for reasons. That includes participation in groups and on teams. People join groups for the camaraderie or to magnify their support for a cause.

People join sports teams to satisfy their desire to compete, improve their athletic skills, their physical fitness, etc. The same is (or should be) true for organizational teams. People participate in teams to satisfy some need. They want to learn new skills, have a say in decision making, move up the corporate ladder, be a part of something successful or meaningful, etc. Managers sometimes make the mistake of believing that because they call a group a “team,” that makes them one. A group will become a team when its members decide it is a team and make the kind of commitment to it that their managers are hoping for. You can’t force that to happen. Once they have taken that step, there are many things to learn to sustain a team. If the team has been created for the right reasons and understand fully their purpose, have an appropriate structure, have been allocated sufficient resources, know how to assess their effectiveness and developed the necessary team skills, then they can begin the hard work of making their team function to its optimum.

One of the most difficult challenges for teams is to learn how to hold one another accountable. Even if they have been taught the right skills, being willing to confront other team members can be downright intimidating. If someone on the team is doing something that makes it hard for you (one of the team members) to do your job, you have a responsibility to confront that behavior. One of the factors that inhibits people from confronting the unacceptable behavior of team members is the concern that he or she will be accused of not being a team player, causing trouble, rocking the boat, and so on. Clear I-Messages can help the team members learn to do this in a less adversarial, more adult way than in the way many confrontations frequently occur. I-Messages should be taught in leadership training.

A good format for an I-Message includes a description of the behavior (with no inferences, assumptions, judgments, etc), a statement of the effects (what is it the team member must do or cannot do as a direct result of the other team member’s behavior) and a word or phrase that explains the importance or significance of the effects (the emotion or feeling). Learning to use such factual statements to confront unacceptable behavior can do much to reduce defensiveness and help the team build its capacity to tolerate, and eventually embrace, frank feedback among its members.

No one but the individual team member has access to this information. It is your responsibility as a team member to speak for your self. Not doing so puts the team’s performance in jeopardy. So, for a team to start thinking like a “we,” all of the “I’s” need to learn how to take responsibility for stating their own needs in a mature, constructive way.

*The I-Message is a skill developed by Dr. Thomas Gordon (founder of Gordon Training International) and first appeared in his Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) book in 1970 and is one of the skills taught in all of the Gordon Training programs.

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