The team is in, and individualism is out. The Texan cowboys and American frontiersmen of old – many of them rugged individuals – have either retired or moved on to the next world. And as if following the dictates of fashion, we have put what we once prized greatly on the back-burner.
Teams achieve more than what individuals can achieve on their own. True. But there’s no denying that some dysfunctional teams, on the contrary, achieve less than what individuals can achieve on their own. So before we exalt the virtues of teamwork to the skies, let’s take a more balanced perspective, and we’ll see how individualism plays a part in counteracting the excesses of team dynamics.
The dangers of being too “teamy” are well-documented. A good example is the Abilene paradox, a phenomenon highlighted by management expert Jerry B. Harvey. The gist of the paradox is that a group of well-meaning people, out of the desire not to rock the boat, collectively decided on a course of action that was counter to the wishes of every individual in the group. Described as a form of groupthink by experts, the Abilene paradox is but one among various factors that can cause healthy team dynamics to quickly degenerate into sentimental and irrational collectivism.
Spotting the danger signs
Of course, teams need not always fall victim to groupthink, and the first step is to recognise the problem for what it is. Simply being aware of the characteristics and dangers of groupthink is at times enough to catalyse a certain degree of caution – which is a good start.
Some of the telltale signs of teams in the danger zone are: extreme cohesiveness, leading to a disproportionate lack of dissent; highly charismatic leaders who operate more on the basis of emotion than logic; homogeneity, with members coming from similar socioeconomic or functional backgrounds; and reticent members showing a general lack of confidence. When one or more of these characteristics are present in a team, it’s time to raise the red flag.
Introducing a healthy dose of individualism into a team is often beneficial and counteractive against mindless collectivism. Individualism is, after all, right at the heart of economies premised upon laissez-faire capitalism, and it would be totally incongruous to extol the virtues of capitalistic society and denigrate individualism in the same breath.
Here are some easily actionable things you can implement for your teams:
Support individual expertise
Teams have a better chance of making good decisions when members are allowed to bring their individual perspectives and expertise to bear. Team leaders should encourage all members to speak openly without deferring to the preferences of the leader or more senior team members. If a group is initially reticent, the leader may need to address members one by one to solicit his or her ideas; in time to come, the team members will start to understand that their contribution is expected – and appreciated.
Reward individual contribution
While it is important to recognise and reward collective effort and achievements, leaders should not gloss over outstanding contributions from individuals within the group. One of the pitfalls focusing too much on the group at the expense of the individual is that performance may drop to the lowest denominator; nobody is willing to work harder or contribute more than the next person, since everyone gets the same reward in the end.
Demand individual accountability
By making team members individually accountable for their assigned responsibilities, each person will have a vested interest in fighting against collective tendencies or decisions that undermine their ability to deliver results expected of them.
Create constructive conflict
Difference is beautiful. Disagreement often gives birth to new perspectives and novel ways of solving problems. The trick is to manage conflict and not let it escalate to a point that it tears your team apart. While encouraging argument and contention, leaders must at the same time lay firm ground rules on acceptable behaviour. The leader must also be strong enough to eventually guide the team to a healthy consensus, where members agree to disagree, yet proceed with the best solution available.