Richard Reeves

Enough of the T-word. The truth about teamwork is that individual members must be allowed to shine.

by Richard Reeves
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

NATP is the ultimate contemporary workplace putdown: 'Not A Team Player'. All performance management systems contain a section on 'ability to work in a team'. Team days, team-building and bonding, team dynamics; the T-word is ubiquitous. I team, therefore I am.

Businesses are in the grip of a team tyranny. Not simply because work is organised around teams, but because the ethos of teamworking - in itself one of those words you feel the English language is not necessarily enriched by - is pervasive. Guff such as 'there's no "I" in team!' surrounds us.

Tom Peters has said that the 'real trick in building a team is to have 25 individual stars on it', a piece of advice that manages to be unrealistic, self-contradictory and mystifying all at once.

Not that business gurus and businesses have a monopoly on tiresome teamtalk.

(Listen, everybody else is making up words so I see no reason to desist.) The orthodoxy of the team is to be found everywhere. In team sports we expect the hero of the hour - say, David Beckham after a final-minute match-winning free kick - to say: 'It wasn't about me, you know. The lads all worked really hard. It was a team effort.' This is the case even when it is clear that the 'team' has had a terrible game and only the genius of the individual in question saved the day.

Perversely, however, we expect responsibility for failure to be handled at an individual level. If someone muffs it - say, David Seaman being caught absurdly far off his line and conceding a goal - we expect large doses of mea culpa, not: 'It wasn't about me, you know. The lads all screwed it up badly. It was a team foul-up.' And for versions with RADA training, just think of Oscar night.

Even in literature, by definition one of the most individual art forms, authors now feel the need to spend the first few pages thanking everyone they've ever met and explaining that all the credit for the book lies with their inspirational children/long-suffering spouse/dedicated parents, and so on, while all errors remain the author's own. Conrad Black, for example, thanks no fewer than 50 people, including five researchers, at the beginning of his excellent life of Franklin Delano Roosevelt - although he strangely omits to thank the board of Hollinger for allowing him to spend $12 million of the company's money on some of FDR's papers.

It is enough to make you long for someone to write: 'I wrote this despite the constant nagging of my wife, inane interventions of my editor and obstructionism from certain key people. If it's any good, it is because I am.'

No, no - of course we don't want a world of pompous prima donnas, although it would certainly be more fun than the false modesty that currently besets us. But it is necessary to keep the teamwork bug at bay. One of the reasons we need managers is precisely that envy, suspicion, rivalry and long-standing grudges mean that many 'teams' are constantly on the verge of civil war.

It is not much more optimistic to expect a bunch of adults to become a self-governing, emotionally literate commune than to expect the same of a group of four-year-olds.

It is more helpful to think of teams as short-term groupings of people assembled to work on specific projects than as fixed families within the corporate world.

Suellen Littleton, author of an influential study of the California high-tech and movie industries, says that 'the system, at its best, consists of cycles in which the learning taken from previous projects is applied in the current project, which in turn provides new learning opportunities'.

Task-specific, time-limited teams offer maximum opportunity for learning from each other without the dysfunctionality that besets long-standing teams, who suffer much of the closeness of a family without the redeeming feature of shared DNA.

Part of the historical dynamic behind the reverence for teams comes from the discovery in the 1980s that Japanese manufacturing was outperforming US and European factories by adopting 'quality circles' and involving teams of workers in decision-making. And by comparison to the stultifying philosophy of the production line, the new philosophy was progressive.

But most of us work in services now, where the danger is of too much teamness (see above), rather than too little. And it is worth noting that Asian societies are significantly more collective in psychological and social orientation than western ones, which have a consistently more individualistic ethos, and so there may be limits to the degree of importation possible.

A world of egomaniacs is not appealing. But even less so is one of egomaniacs pretending to be team players. We have to strike a balance between individual and collective success, and allow ourselves to celebrate both.

Marianne Williamson, in her poem Our Deepest Fear - made famous by Nelson Mandela - writes: 'There's nothing enlightened about shrinking/so that other people/won't feel insecure around you ... And as we let our own light shine,/we unconsciously give other people/permission to do the same.'

PS: My MT section editor had some ideas for this column, but all the best ones were mine.

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