April 2, 2009 by
Filed under: Leadership, People, Teamwork 

It is a common and overused expression that “there is no I in Team”. Implications of this are that when working in a team setting, actions are made based on whether they are good for the team as a whole, rather than for the individual. I often reply that “while this is true, there is an M and an E in Team”. Just as trite a reply, unfortunately, but the intent here is to recognize that decisions are not necessarily boolean in the ‘team’ or ‘me’ dichotomy, that the greatest team actions take into account the rights and needs of the individuals as well as the overall team goals. But even this is insufficient.

The rights of the individual need to be respected, to be certain, but it is also important to recognize that no individual’s rights should be held more hallowed than the rights of the rest of the team. For this, there needs to be at least a modicum of responsibility that come along with those rights.

There are some rights that are clearly to be enjoyed which will benefit the individual and the overall team as well. Certainly the rights to those things needed for survival (think the first few levels of Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy) should be inalienable. In teams, this would probably include the right to the tools and access to information required to perform the task at hand to the best of your ability. Along with this should come the right to express opinions based on your perspective that may warrant adjustments to the direction that is being taken on the project. You should be able to identify new potential scope, possible issues or alternative implementations, or risks or opportunities that you see as they arise. You should also have the right to have your perspectives considered in the context of all others, in a fair and unbiased manner, based on their technical merit rather than the political clout associated with the source.

Unfortunately, even this level of rights can be a stretch for many projects I have observed, and for some I was an active participant in. In one project, information necessary for me to make technical decisions was withheld from me because I was a subcontractor (indeed, a sub-subcontractor, in this case). A long story, buy me a beer sometime…

You should also enjoy the right to have your needs and goals considered in the context of the needs and goals of the other stakeholders and the project as a whole. As long as there is no collision of values, it should be perfectly fine to satisfy your personal needs along with those of the project. Indeed, with this perspective we will have happier team members and far better results overall.

In order to enjoy all these rights, we need to recognize that there is a bare minimum of responsibility that we must step up to as well: we have the responsibility to uphold all of these rights for everyone else on the team.

This can be a tall order, as it is easy for us to recognize when our own rights are being diminished, but far more difficult for us to recognize this in someone else’s context. We tend to appreciate our needs and wants in all their full glory, while at the same time we simplify those same needs and wants in others in order to make sense of all the information around us.

The weaker the ties with others, the easier it is to dismiss their needs and wants, and to shirk our responsibility for upholding their rights. It becomes far easier to allow ad hominem arguments creep in to undermine our responsibilities: “those guys in management just don’t understand what we have to deal with”, or “how can they possibly know what they are talking about, fresh out of school”. We have a tougher time relating to someone we never met, and it is difficult to ascribe rights to someone that might be 4 levels below you on the org chart.

The more distant the connection, the harder we need to work to ensure we have the tools to maintain our responsibilities. Whether that means we need to go out of our way to understand their context, take the time to get to know and understand others that we work with, or cast aside our preconceived notions of seniority to judge information based on its own merit rather than the source, the effort is absolutely essential, but all too often ignored.

In working to uphold our responsibility to support the rights of others, we strengthen our own rights accordingly. The team wins. – JB


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