The Trouble with Teamwork

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While there is definitely “no ‘I’ in team”, there are three hard-working ‘I’s in individual, without which the word wouldn’t make any sense. There’s even a ‘u’ as well.

Meanwhile, let’s not forget that an anagram of ‘team’ is ‘tame’, while you get ‘valid’ from ‘individual’.

Yes I know; this rubbishy wordplay is all pretty pointless, unless you happen to be playing Scrabble. But then, so are those toe-curlingly awful ‘corporate management’ sayings, which aren’t useful in any popular board games.

People, often those dressed like David Brent, will quote “there’s no ‘I’ in team” as though it’s a Very Good Thing, just because it sounds like a managementy sort of thing to say. In fact, ignoring individuality in teams can herald the death of any useful work they might produce.

I’ve seen this happen time after time in many of the companies I’ve worked for — and it’s not just because I’m an introvert who vastly prefers working on my own. In my experience, the problem with a group of people working together is that it’s often the one with the loudest voice and the greatest influence who force their working preferences on everybody else.

Case in point: a friend of mine was recently invited (read: told) to go on a ‘team-building retreat’ with his colleagues in deepest, darkest Scotland. An itinerary of bonding activities had been planned; hiking, zip lining, white water rafting and the like.

While my friend liked his colleagues, he didn’t much fancy hiking through the drizzly Scottish hillsides with them. He politely declined the invitation, only to be taken aside by the team leader and told his attendance was mandatory.

Together with the dreaded open plan office, it’s rigid behaviour like this that makes me wonder if collaboration is everything it’s often cracked up to be.

Wouldn’t the very best, most productive team environment allow each individual member to flourish, rather than forcing everybody to comply with a uniform set of working practices, environments and communication?

If people feel unhappy or that they’re not being listened to, it’s doubtful they will do their best work. I certainly didn’t. Instead I would switch off almost completely; sitting back from discussions and blandly completing any work assigned to me without any additional thought or insight. I didn’t see the point in putting myself out any more than I needed to, so I didn’t.

I doubt very much that I’m the only person who has ever thought or reacted like this when working with an inflexible team. While I’m not trying to pretend that my missing contributions were life-changing, who knows how many great ideas have suffocated and died in the dusty annals of all those mind-numbing team meetings?

Happily for everybody concerned, I don’t work in teams any more. But if you’re in charge of one, you could do a lot worse than letting each member decide for themselves how they like to work, and then trusting that greatness will follow.

(If it doesn’t…well, you just can’t get the staff these days, can you?)

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