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This is the first in a series of blogs by Rob Baker and Julia Smith themed around the need to bring a personal touch to our work to lift wellbeing, performance and engagement.

I first heard the phrase “there is no I in TEAM” during my graduate training. The sentiment has followed me throughout my career, popping up in presentations and training sessions. Whilst well intentioned, I think at best its misguided and at worst altogether wrong.

A quick internet search tells us that whilst the precise origins of the phrase are unclear it first appeared in newspaper print in the early 1960s. It’s likely that it had its roots in sports, where there is a mantra that there is no one player that is bigger than the team.

One interpretation of the phrase is to remind colleagues that individual self-interest and self-importance is not conducive of a collaborative and connected team. I personally find these sentiments laudable.

A different take on the phrase is that we should dampen or dial down individuality in team contexts with the misguided belief that this will benefit cohesion and collegiality. I think this is misguided.

The reality is that rather than ignore individuality, effective teams find ways to harness diverse backgrounds, personalities strengths and experiences. Teams that are aware of, and embrace individual differences, are the ones who thrive and achieve collective success.

So how do you recognise and harness individual strengths and talents for collective success?

Understand the background experiences and interests of your colleagues.
Everyone benefits when we create opportunities to learn more about each other and see each other as whole beings rather than just work colleagues.

Our life and work experiences shape who we are and how we behave. Often at work we don’t have the time or opportunities to share and explore our backgrounds and experiences with each other, yet creating opportunities to get to know each other at a deeper level develops trust and furthers our understanding of why people operate and behave in the way that they do.

Everyone is different and may see the world in the same or a completely different light to you. For example, people may approach a problem or challenge in the opposite way you might. Teams who are mindful of their colleague’s backgrounds, beliefs, skills and strengths are able to better empathise and problem solve together.

Exercise – Lifeline
This exercise provides you with an opportunity to explore and understand important decisions or events that may have shaped colleagues’ perspectives and ways of working.

To complete the exercise team members draw a line on a page that represents their life and then plot points that represent significant events and personal and professional highs and lows. Team members take it in turn to share their lines with each other.

There are many advantages to this exercise.  As well as helping the team understand each other at a deeper level, sharing our life stories requires people to open up and have an element of vulnerability. And vulnerability creates trust.

The exercise can nurture tolerance and understanding of each other because sometimes we hold false assumptions of why a teammate behaves in the way they do. The lifeline exercise often corrects some of these false narratives and assumptions that we hold about others.

Explore individual and collective strengths
Our ability to perform optimally, either as a collective or as an individual, tends to come when we are building on and tapping into our strengths. Strengths can be simply thought of as the things we are good at, come naturally and enjoy doing.

Tapping into our strengths benefits us irrespective of our age or background. A study of over 5,000 people from New Zealand found that people who reported knowing and using their strengths were 19 times more likely to be thriving at work compared to those that didn’t. These results remained consistent irrespective of gender, ethnicity, age, education and income.

Exercise – Strength-based feedback
Focusing on strengths is not always something that comes naturally to most people; instead we find it easier to find foible and failures (in ourselves and others). This activity encourages you to reflect on, and find opportunities to highlight, the strengths of others.

Try writing down the top 5 strengths of a team member or someone that you work closely with. Think about what they enjoy doing at work, who they work at their best with and what enables them to feel a greater sense of purpose and meaning. Find ways to share these with a colleague – for example sending them a note of thanks or positively highlighting a strength you spotted in the last meeting you had together.

Encourage Team Crafting
Team Crafting encourages teams to create a shared sense of understanding and purpose to allocate and align work to organisational priorities based on the strengths, passions and talents of team members. 

A way to encourage team crafting, is to facilitate open conversations amongst team members about the different aspects of their work. Getting team members to openly discuss the parts of their jobs they enjoy and dislike creates opportunities for colleagues to reallocate activities.

Through positive discussions and collaborative negotiation, team members may be able to swap different tasks amongst themselves or change how they collectively tackle certain activities. Teams at Google have successfully used team and collaborative job crafting to better align the allocation of work amongst their teams to reflect individual strengths, passions and interests. These have yielded positive results for both individuals and the organisation. Similar positive results have been found in call centres too – environments where opportunities to swap tasks and activities would ordinarily seem limited.

Exercise – Task Swap
Encourage colleagues to reflect and share the aspects of their jobs they love and loathe the most and see if there are people in the team who would be willing to ‘swap’ or re-allocate tasks. For example, there may be a colleague in Marketing who loves finding the perfect “gif” to support a social media post whilst other enjoy writing better.

Finding the ME in TEAM
Effective teams work well together because they amplify rather dampen collective strengths, talents and identifies. They find ways to tap into these in ways that benefits the individual, the team and the organisation as a whole.

When it comes to teamwork it’s time to amplify rather than temper our individuality. After all, whilst there might not be a metaphorical “I” in team there is of course, a “ME.”

Rob Baker, Founder of Tailored Thinking and author of Personalisation at Work

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