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Managing Principals by Julia KramerThe Personal Pronoun in ‘Team’

Teamwork is really a grammar lesson. Is it singular or plural? There is no “I” in team, but there is a “me.” There should be a “we.”

By Julia Kramer

I am the first to roll my eyes when a well-meaning manager utters the hackneyed phrase “There is no ‘I’ in team.” I agree that the thought is ideal—a team that puts aside all personal motivation and agendas for the common good—but puh-leeze! This just does not happen. As Dr. House says on my favorite television show: “There may not be an ‘I’ in team, but there is a ‘me’ in team if you move the letters around.”

So, assuming that no one is truly altruistic, how do we manage a group of talented individuals and move them toward a common goal? Take, for instance, a high school basketball team. The goal may be clear: “Win the game!” But every team is made up of individuals with varying degrees of talent, different goals (some want to impress the cheerleaders and others pray they don’t embarrass themselves at the foul line), disparate views of their own skills and myriad issues in their personal lives that may affect them on the court. It’s easy (OK, easier) if you accept that team goals are met through a series of individual goal achievements, and if team members are feeling appreciated and successful, the team benefits.

As a manager, and consequently as a coach, there are certain basics that you should know and/or communicate to your employees if you want them to work well together. The first comes from Red Auerbach, legendary Boston Celtics basketball coach:

“You must think of getting along with your teammates because, if you are not well-liked, it is easy for them to freeze you out.” This makes perfect sense although it is rarely mentioned in a business setting. Counter to the beliefs of the “I’m here to work, not to make friends” crowd, those who positively relate to others on the team have an easier time gaining support and assistance when needed. An employee who wants his colleagues to include him in important discussions, to tip him off when trouble’s brewing, or to acknowledge his successes, must lay the groundwork for reciprocal positive interaction to get what he wants. His individual need will result in more positive and stronger team communication.

Know what your strengths are, use them efficiently and acknowledge superior strengths of others. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and typically we are proud of our strengths and want to put them into action. But, just as great shooters don’t fire off a shot whenever they get the ball, sometimes we have to wait for the right moment. And, sometimes, it may be most efficient to hand off a play to another with superior strength in the same area. Part of managing a team is to make sure every team member is aware of the other team members’ skill level and experience and why each is a critical member of the team. As each individual’s need for recognition and respect is satisfied, the compulsion to jockey for position and compete within the team is minimized.

Don’t assume an individual failure is the fault of the individual. In any team, individuals take responsibility for getting specific things accomplished. However, if an individual fails to accomplish the assigned task, team members and management must consider what part the team took in the failure. Look at things like resources, communication, deadlines and conflicting priorities. Understand the basic team concept of interdependence—the premise that each individual goal is connected to everyone else’s goals, so what happens to one person also affects and is affected by everyone else’s actions. In other words, no one succeeds or fails alone. As individuals learn that they won’t be in the bull’s eye without due reason, the need to cover up or covertly rally support out of fear of reprisal all but disappears.

Adversity may be just what a group needs to come together as a team. Pepsi knew this when it issued the battle cry “Beat Coke!” rather than a less forceful and provocative “Let’s be #1.” The feeling that “we’re in it together” is most easily conjured when there is not only a common goal, but a common enemy or rival. Appeal to each individual’s innate need to right a wrong, overcome a challenge, triumph over an opponent, or accomplish what was previously thought impossible. A clever manager will know the value system of everyone on the team and what gets each person fired up. This allows the manager to communicate the battle cry in a way that most energizes each individual, and thus, energizes the team from many and varied perspectives and directions.

It makes no sense to treat a team as a homogenous blob. Concentrate on the unique attributes of each player and uncover their distinct strengths, weaknesses, wants and needs. Only then will you be able to see the “I” in team and have the necessary information and insight to turn “me” into “we.”

Kramer, an HR consultant, is a contributing writer. /p>

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