Washington Lawyer

Putting the 'I' in Team

From Washington Lawyer, February 2016

By Stan Proffitt

on-leadershipThere is no "I" in team.This platitude gets repeated in virtually every organization by well-meaning leaders trying to promote a spirit of cooperation and collaboration. In my opinion, few ideas have done more to impede responsible group engagement than this notion. 

What does the phrase really mean? It conveys that if there is an ounce of self-interest or self-definition driving what one thinks or does, he or she is not a good team member. It implies that a team should be made up of a group of no-selves who never simply speak for themselves. It results in language that truncates true communication, language infected with the "we" virus. As such, it is often aimed at quelling emotional uneasiness in a group in response to differences or challenges. Here are a few examples of the "we" virus:

  • We need to…
  • We value… 
  • We should… 
  • We all know that…

These examples operate from a position of omniscience: from the all-knowing one who knows what everyone else needs, values, should do, and even thinks. Many leaders have even been mentored to speak this way. The main problem I see with we-speak is that most of the time it is simply inaccurate. I asked a group of high-level leaders how each would rate the level of trust among the team members. The first person who spoke said, "We all have a high level of trust with each other." I said, "Have you specifically polled everyone in the room about the level of trust each has with every other person in the room?" Of course he hadn't, but was speaking as if he had. With a little investigation, much variation in the group was revealed. What would prompt a leader to speak for everyone, even when he or she doesn't know what others need, value, want, or think? 

A more accurate, and therefore meaningful, response to my question about trust would have started with "I." If he had said "I have a high level of trust with the others in this room," I would hear that as more self-defining and potentially accurate. But, of course, that would be putting an "I" in team.

It's important to make a distinction between self-responsibility and self-centeredness. Many avoid speaking in "I" language for fear of appearing self-centered. In the process, they sacrifice self-responsibility. It turns out that when leaders learn to speak for themselves and stop speaking for others, others start speaking (and thinking) more for themselves. For example:

  • I need to… 
  • I value… 
  • I should… 
  • I believe…

Pay attention to how often you hear others invoking omniscience with we-speak. Then, try speaking only on your own behalf, representing and owning your own thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and intentions as honestly and thoughtfully as you can. Ask others for their own thinking and leave them the space to think and speak for themselves. Observe how that influences the conversation. 

By cultivating an environment in which people show up as responsible contributors, putting their best thinking on the table, leaders promote deeper connection, foster stronger commitment, and gain access to the best thinking of everyone on the team. Each person contributing to the highest level of their own capability, in the interest of team effectiveness, paradoxically requires putting the "I" in team. 


Stan Proffitt is president of Shoshin Leadership, Inc.