I, We, You, Me – Observations on Team Dynamics

As with most Project Managers, I’ve worked directly with a lot of people and a lot of teams. As an instructor I’ve observed and coached even more. I’ve seen good teams and I’ve seen dysfunctional teams and over the years I’ve tried to understand what makes some teams work while others don’t. Why do some teams gel so quickly while others never click? Why do some teams transcend individual efforts to perform as a whole, while others remain ineffectual? Why do some teams become lifelong friends and others never want to speak to each other again?

There are many dimensions in answering such questions. There are motivational issues, there are personality issues and there are leadership issues. One area that has particularly stood out in a number of teams I’ve coached last year relates to the way in which individuals make commitments to themselves, their projects and their team. While some people whole heatedly embrace their projects and their teammates, others do not. To facilitate discussion about the relationship between the individual and their projects I’ve sketched out the four following types of commitments and now use this to discuss the issues with teams I’m working with…

“I” people – These are the people who take everything on themselves. They are very committed to their projects and readily take or accept ownership of things. Although they can be very effective in what they do, they prefer to work solo. They are not really team players, but through their own hard work and solo efforts try to pull a project across the finish line. Their attitude is “I’ll do it, leave it to me”. Sometimes this is because they genuinely want to be in control and other times they step up to the plate because they feel frustration that no one else is taking ownership. They like to work alone and often don’t communicate with other team members very well. Typically they don’t like inputs from other people and can get frustrated if someone tries to give advice, ideas or input. Any such guidance is greeted with an immediate wall of rejection and the opportunity to build the team can be permanently damaged.

“We” people – These are the true team players. Their attitude is “we can do this together”. Lets collaborate, let’s share the experience, let’s help each other out. They accept ownership of tasks and to the best of their abilities they will deliver. They are willing to accept input from others and they happily share their ideas openly. They step in to help if they see someone struggling and volunteer for things before having to be asked.

“You” people – These are the people who sit on the sidelines. Their basic approach is “you do it, not me”. Sometimes this is because they don’t know what to do. They may be insecure or have a lack of confidence that prevents them picking up the ball and running. Sometimes it may be that they simply aren’t interested in the project or are de-motivated by the organization as a whole. Within the “you” group there are a number of sub-groups. Some are best described as “passive you’s”. They don’t volunteer to do anything, but if asked, they will take something on even if reluctantly or halfheartedly. Others are what I term “active you’s”. They actively avoid taking responsibility by making excuses or ignoring requests. The third type are what I call “yes you” types. These are perhaps the hardest to deal with. They say yes when assigned a piece of work to do, but they never complete it. When you follow up to find out the status of their work they either bluff their way out of the corner or come up with a host of excuses for why things aren’t done. Typically “you” people do the poorest quality work. They don’t feel a sense of ownership for things and are only doing what they are forced into doing.

“Me” people – These people are the ones who have no interest in the project and focus only on things they personally want to do. A strong “me” can cause a lot of problems in a project as they ignore what needs to be done, dodge taking on responsibility for things they are not interested in and potentially spend time doing their own personal activities while billing the project for their time. If you are lucky there is a task they are interested in and they will take it on. If they loose interest in the task however they will quickly drop the ball and move on to things that look more interesting to them.

Fortunately, as long as they have effective leadership and the time needed to do the job properly, most people do fall into the “we” group. Most people I’ve worked with did pick up the ball and run with it. Most wanted to do a good job and will do so as long as it is physically possible (and they have the right training or support). Although I don’t have any exact numbers based on a review of 40 teams I’ve coached over the past few years I estimate that 80% of people fall into the “we” category. A further 5% or so seem to fall into the “I” group. As long as they are managed effectively they can be valuable team members. They can however be a source of friction when they rub up against teammates who don’t share their style or personality type and hence may need some guidance on how to engage with others. Of course, more troubling are the “me” and “you” types. Such people struggle to work in a team and sap energy out of a project. The difficulty of getting them to commit or deliver causes delays and their inaction frustrates their teammates leading to dysfunction within the team. Push hard enough and you might get something out of them, but the effort needed to push them in to action may be more than the results attained.

Of course the ideal is to have a team of “we’s” and I know a number of organizations who are now actively profiling job applicants looking of “we” type people. They are committed to each other and they are committed to the project. That doesn’t mean they will all have the same personality type, but what it does mean that they will all strive to make the project a success. From a practical perspective however, Project Managers often don’t get to choose their teams. Sometimes you get lucky and you have a group of people who are natural “we” types and voila, you don’t have to put much effort into team building. Other times you get a mix bag. You’ve maybe got an “I”, a handful of “we” people, a few “you” types and maybe a “me” thrown in for good measure. Do you rely on the “I” and the “we” types and forget about the “you” and the “me” or do you take them on and try and build up a fully functioning team? Textbooks and training classes will say you should work with everyone and build a highly effective team. Granted sometimes the reason a person isn’t performing is related to solvable issues and those may well be worth fixing. But in practice you’ll have to decide what’s achievable within the realities of your own business context. At minimum however I do recommend people look at how people make commitments and if you do have an incorrigible “you” or “me” design your task assignments to ensure the “you” and “me” types don’t causes you too much disruption.

Note: The above is provided for discussion proposes only. In practice we all have a degree of each group within us, however I think there is often a dominant type for each person. Some are naturally strong we people, and some are strongly one of the other groups. Can a good leader shift someone’s natural tendencies? Likely yes. Does context matter (i.e. you are de-motivated by the organization you are working in)? Likely yes.