There’s No “I” in Teamwork

there's no i in teamworkDo you work with somebody who overuses the “I” word? (Hint: It’s that person who is constantly saying, “I did this” or “I did that.”) This draining, albeit pitiable communication behavior is one that incessantly draws attention to a need for self validation — and it’s definitely something good leaders should avoid. Instead of overusing and misusing “I,” effective leaders use lots of “we” in their talk, particularly when communicating about results, accomplishments and progress. Saying more of the “We did that” instead of “I did that” kind of conversation reinforces your belief that winning is a team effort. It also recognizes and supports the contributions of others, building your leadership credibility.

However, even the best leaders will admit that they overused and misused the “I” word early on in their careers. And it was a great boss who once told me to watch out for the pitfalls of overusing the “I” word.

“I” people tend to be self-promoting and self-serving. And this is the exact opposite of what you want when you’re managing or building your teams. These “I” employees can actually derail the progress of the team by “stealing” the credit for group results, accomplishments and successes. They take ownership for what they don’t actually own, making everyone around them resentful. It robs the group of motivation and any interest in working together, particularly if there’s no clear way to stop the behavior or remove the toxic “I” talker from the team.

“We” can be one of your best tools in “teamwork.” When leaders regularly use “we” language, they send the message that “we” are equally accountable, as in all the team members either fail together and succeed together. Yet interestingly, good leaders also render themselves less visible in the failures and successes by assigning the ownership of the results, accomplishments and progress to the team. They get “lost” in the dynamics to a degree — for example, when a football team wins, everyone knows the coach plays a major role. But when it comes time for his interview, he immediately puts the spotlight on the team. It’s the team who gets the props and praise, not the coach — particularly by the coach himself. And a team that gets all the proper props and praise isn’t just a great team, but one that will be inspired and motivated to do more of what’s right. And that’s the leader’s ultimate goal.

When you don’t abuse or misuse the “I” word, it becomes more effective when you must use it. And occasionally, you’ll need to say it — but the trick is in the timing and is very situational. Examples include taking a stance on a tough subject, courageously justifying a position, taking responsibility for a failure that truly is your fault, explaining a new, major company direction, or expressing why you need to personally reinforce a particular action, decision, behavior, etc. Good leaders learn when and how to use this communication tool and err on the side of caution if they’re not totally sure.

Can you change an “I” employee into a “We” employee — if so, how?

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