Boosting Your Team’s Effectiveness

No doubt you’ve heard the phrase, “There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team.’” Here’s an approach for dealing with those who insist on putting an “I” in “team.”
by | September 9, 2010 AT 9:00 AM

No doubt you've heard the phrase, "There's no 'I' in 'team.'" It's a nice play on words, but you may have served on a team with people who don't understand that sentiment, whose ego makes them poor team members. Here's an approach for dealing with those who insist on putting an "I" in "team."

Geert Hofstede, an anthropologist who has studied the cultures of over seventy countries, focuses some of his research on the degree of individualism or collectivism in a culture. In individualistic societies, people are expected to look out for themselves and their immediate families. In collectivistic societies, people are integrated into strong extended families and other subgroups from birth and are expected to give them strong loyalty. Here are more core expectations Hofstede found:

In Individualistic Societies:

Look out for yourself (and your family)

Speak your mind

Be independent

Recognize the individual is responsible and gets credit

In Collectivist Societies:

Take care of the group

Maintain harmony

Be interdependent

Recognize the group is responsible and gets credit

Hofstede created a tool to evaluate each nation, and the table below shows the scores of selected nations on the individualism/collectivism dimension. The higher a country's score, the more individualistic it is. Of over seventy countries surveyed, the United States has the highest level of individualism -- 91 out of a potential 100.

Individualism Scores of Selected Countries:


Great Britain


South Africa













Although these numbers are striking, they shouldn't surprise us. American leaders from Jefferson forward have preached the importance of "rugged individualism." When French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville came to the United States in the 1830s to learn how democracy was working in the largest country yet to try it, he was taken by our strongly individualistic natures.

In many ways our individualistic streak has served us extremely well. The implications for collaboration in the United States and other highly individualistic countries, however, are sobering. Collaboration, after all, is about co-labor, not individual effort. And most of our nation's pressing problems -- from the challenges of immigration reform and the pressures of a global economy to the threats from terrorism and climate change -- are highly complex problems. And complexity requires the joint efforts of those with different mindsets and skill sets to solve. That is, complexity requires collaboration.

We're Also a Nation of Joiners

But there's another narrative to the American experience, one that Tocqueville also documented. He described ours as a society filled with "voluntary associations" and concern for the public good. He noted that we're a nation of joiners, that when we get upset about something in our community we organize with others to take collective action. Tocqueville's great contribution was to identify this ongoing duality in American life -- we embrace both a strong individualist ethic and a desire to join together for common purpose.

Psychologists David Waters and Edith Lawrence came to a similar conclusion from a different vantage point. Reflecting on their decades of experience with individuals and families in therapy, they identified two fundamental human needs: mastery and belonging. They argue that most people need to feel a sense of competence or mastery in some part of their lives and need to be recognized for that competence. People also need to be part of something larger than themselves, to belong to some group or organization or movement that reflects their core values.

Tocqueville discusses individualism and voluntary associations. Waters and Lawrence use the terms mastery and belonging. Different words, similar concepts. I believe there are two fundamental needs at play here: for autonomy and for connection. Collaboration helps meet the need for connection, but it seems to be at odds with the American urge for autonomy. Or is it?

Me Versus We? Or Both?

I'd argue that the two divergent themes in American life -- autonomy and connection -- aren't necessarily contradictory. Rather, "me" and "we" are complementary parts of our psychological makeup. A strong, collaborative team needs to make good use of the talents and knowledge of its individual members. And most of us, including the extremely individualistic, have a strong desire to connect with something larger than ourselves.

When you're leading a group with members from different units/organizations, keep this in mind: your team's success will rely, in part, on its ability to meet the members' needs for both autonomy and for connection. To be more specific, ask yourself and the team certain questions.

To help meet the "me" needs:

Do we know what skills and knowledge each member brings to the task?

How well are we utilizing their individual skills and knowledge?

Are some members being asked to play specific roles that tap their strengths (e.g., convener, number cruncher, analyst, benchmarker, marketer, etc.)?

Does everyone get credit for the team's accomplishments?

And, to help meet the "we" needs:

Are we planning some early, visible wins (which grows the team's confidence in itself)?

Are marking our progress and celebrating successes?

Are we talking about our team and its distinct identity/characteristics?

Are we publicizing the team's progress to other stakeholders and senior leaders?

Collaboration is vital, difficult, but learnable. Meeting people's needs for both autonomy and connection will go a long way toward overcoming the challenges of working together. There is no "I" in Team," but there is a "me."

This column is adapted in part from Russ Linden's newest book, Leading Across Boundaries.