Oswald Letter

Keeping the “I” out of “team”

by Dan Oswald

I have the always desirable but elusive teamwork on my mind as I write this. The dictionary defines it this way: “cooperative or coordinated effort on the part of a group of persons acting together as a team or in the interests of a common cause.” There’s a lot in that definition. It speaks of a cooperative effort. It points to a group acting together. And most important, it focuses on a common cause.

So why is true teamwork so hard to come by? There’s no doubt that genuine teamwork is difficult to achieve. I think the reason real teamwork is so elusive is that we as humans are selfish. That stings, doesn’t it? The initial response to being called selfish is to react, recoil, deny. You may agree that there are many selfish people in the world but not believe you are one of them. Or you might think I’m making too broad of a generalization when I say that we’re all selfish.

Let me explain. I think our initial reaction to most situations is to determine how the situation will affect us as individuals. We ask ourselves how each situation will turn out for us. We want to know what it means for us. In almost every situation, I think it’s a natural reaction to first consider what will happen to you as an individual before considering what it means for others. This is especially true when it’s a zero-sum game—that is, when your gain or loss is balanced by the gain or loss of another participant.

So let’s play this out with an example. You’re chosen to represent your department as part of an interdepartmental team designed to resolve a product defect that has been detected. You are now a member of the “product defect eradication team.”

But are you a team? You are a group of persons brought together to work cooperatively for a common cause—to fix the defect. But does that make you a team? It seems to fit the definition quite nicely. Coordinated effort. Group of persons. Common cause. Looks like a team. Sounds like a team. It must be a team.

But let me give you more information. As a member of the engineering department, you represent a group who had a hand in designing the product that now has a serious defect. Once the cause has been determined, it’s possible that jobs might be lost as a result. This problem has cost the company hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of dollars in lost sales and recalls, not to mention that the product now will need to be reengineered.

It’s possible that poor engineering caused the defect. But it’s equally possible that the product wasn’t manufactured properly, and then the blame would go elsewhere, away from your department. Of course, manufacturing is represented on the team, as is purchasing because it’s also possible that the materials purchased to manufacture the product were flawed and caused the defect.

So as you sit down for your first meeting as a member of the product defect eradication team, you might be thinking about something other than the team’s success. You might be thinking that if you discover that an error in the product’s engineering caused the defect, it could cost you your job. Selfish interests.

Or might you be thinking that your colleagues in the engineering department are counting on you to make sure they don’t take the blame for this one? Selfish interests. Or might you be thinking that you should look extra hard at manufacturing and purchasing to make sure they aren’t trying to cover something up to avoid blame? Selfish interests.

You may or may not act on any of those thoughts. But chances are you’re having them. The product defect eradication team is a short-term body put together to solve a specific problem. You’ve been a part of the engineering team much longer and hope to continue to be a part of it well into the future. Where does your loyalty really lie in this situation? What’s really the best outcome for you and the other engineers? You’re weighing all of these things against the new responsibility of determining the cause of the product defect. It’s not an easy position to be in.

And in my opinion, it’s what makes real teamwork in many situations so very hard to achieve. When you gather people together from a cross-section of departments to work on a specific problem or project, they all bring their own selfish interests. Calling them a team isn’t enough. They need to overcome those selfish interests. You must convince them that the common cause the new team is working on is greater than any self-interest.

That’s no easy task. But make no mistake, if you can’t overcome the self-interests of each individual, you’ll never really have a team.