The joke goes like this: “There’s no ‘I’ in team… Yes there is; it’s hidden in the A-hole.” The point of the joke is valid: Self-absorbed and self-serving individuals make bad teammates.
Yes, AND: There must be certain kinds of I’s on any good team: Each of us must have a uniquely contributory identity and role in order for our team to function well. Diversity—of experience, ideas, and perspective—is always the strength of a good team. Homogeneity leads to extinction in nature.
Also, we all have to get in the same boat and row in the same direction—each of us I’s must join wholly in the We in order for Us to accomplish anything meaningful. It is the balance of the Good I and TEAM that determines an organization’s success.
The Good I: Self-differentiation
We all recognize the kind of “I” who makes team life miserable—that person who’s always competing, always one up-ing us, constantly reminding us how great they are, wondering why we don’t notice. But then there are the I’s whom we respect. They exude a quiet confidence, speak their truth with grace. We seek their opinion even, or especially, when we know it will differ from our own. Anyone on the team could be either of these people: captain, quarterback, goalie, setter, relay anchor, department chair, CEO, professor, senior resident, intern, president. Standing out for the sake of lording power over others, or advancing one’s own interests at others’ expense, is the “hidden I” in the A-hole. This is the bad I.
The ability to stand up and out for our core values and integrity, even in the face of anxiety and external pressure to conform, however, is the Good I; it is an expression of self-differentiation. To do this well, and to contribute to the team as a creative individual, requires self-awareness, emotional and social intelligence, and self-regulation. In order to self-differentiate effectively, we must work on ourselves, not just promote ourselves. It’s not about getting what’s ours in a world of scarcity; it’s about owning our talents and claiming our agency to make a unique and meaningful contribution to the whole.
If all we ever do is work on ourselves, however, without looking up and around, we may disregard important relationships. I may have an important contribution to make. But if I cannot communicate my ideas in a way that you understand, or if I come off as condescending, arrogant, dismissive, aggressive, or otherwise unpleasant, I undermine my own effectiveness, and stymie forward progress of the team.
The ability to withhold judgment, seek understanding of and from others, and recognize their unique and important contributions, is the art of attunement. Simply, it is the practice of awareness and constructive responsiveness to others. When I am attuned, I know when I need to set context before pitching my idea. I observe my colleagues’ posture, body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions. I query for (mis)understanding. I hold space for open dialogue, debate, and idea exchange. This kind of resonance, when successful, facilitates the wave propagation of teamwork, and advances objectives faster and more efficiently with the synergy of morale.
Some might see self-differentiation and attunement as opposed or dichotomous—you can or should be one or the other. Rather, we should consider them as complementary and counterbalancing. We should each pursue proficiency and mastery of both skill sets, and practice them as both individuals and as whole teams. I can be both a self-differentiated and attuned leader of my department. My department can be both a self-differentiated and attuned member of my organization. My organization can be both a self-differentiated and attuned member of our profession or industry. And we can all, individuals and organizations alike, be both self-differentiated and attuned members of society at large.
TEAMS get things done when we well-self-differentiated I’s attune to one another and march together on our shared mission—regardless of the size, mission, or make-up of our teams. Every successful team is made up of individuals who claim their unique strengths, and then direct those strengths in service of the greater good, the overarching intention of the We.
Such harmonious and resonant balance is the quintessential win-win.