Why Teamwork is Overrated

There’s No “I” in Team – But There is a “ME”!

Why Teamwork is Overrated

Let’s all work together!

Sounds great, right? Well, sometimes it is. But if you want to create an environment where creativity, imaginative problem solving, and attention to detail flourishes, you may need to let some of your team members work quietly, alone. Don’t just take my word for it – numerous studies suggest that a team-based work style does not work for everyone. For instance, work places with closely situated staff cubicles and open meeting rooms definitely encourage team interaction, but distractions, interruptions, louder noise levels, and a lack of privacy hampers some employees’ productivity.

The ‘ME’ in TEAM

In her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, author Susan Cain cites a “mountain of resources from many different industries” that indicate:

“Top performers overwhelmingly worked for companies that gave their workers the most privacy, personal space, and control over their physical environments and freedom from interruption.”

Cited studies also showed:

“Open place offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory. They’re associated with high staff turnover. They make people sick, hostile, unmotivated and insecure.”

Wow, so much for packing ‘em in like sardines and expecting everyone to be “a team player,” huh?

Over the years, I have seen many people in various settings go to great lengths to attain privacy in the workplace. Some workers roped off their cubicle entrances “theater style,” and others hung warning signs, wore earphones, or faced their computer monitors away from cubicle openings. One particularly creative employee wore a “Do Not Disturb” sign on his/her back. These folks wanted, and needed to be left alone, and their work suffered when they did not have enough privacy and personal space.

Brainstorming: Team Sport or Individual Event?

Research findings, compiled over a 40-year period, suggest that brainstorming sessions are far more productive when people brainstorm on their own – at least initially. Studies also show that creativity and productivity drops dramatically in sessions with four or more participants. In larger groups, session members’ inhibitions, or a desire to conform, may stifle individual expression. And although “take charge” types are able to easily throw ideas around like a football, introverted folks often remain on the sidelines. Larger groups also allow participants to loaf, clock-watch, or think about what they are going to have for lunch while the others participate. Leaders mistakenly believe that a talented “facilitator” or “group leader” can help a brainstorming group overcome these problems. But outgoing group participants are still the most likely to speak up even when a facilitator is present, and if the facilitator tries to engage soft-spoken group members by asking them “What do you think?” quiet types may feel uncomfortable about responding to the question, and may even resent being put on the spot.

There has to be a better way!

While it is true that there is no “I” in team, there is a “ME.” So here are some ways we can put the “ME” in TEAM and support team members that need more personal space to be at their personal best:

1) Create private spaces where people can work without noise or interruption – Make sure everyone in the office understands that these spaces are strict, “Do-not-disturb zones” (unless there is a true emergency, e.g., the building is on fire)!

2) If possible, reserve a one or two-hour period each day for complete silence (perhaps after lunch when everyone is half asleep anyway)! – Ask team members to turn off their cell phone and desk phone ringers for the duration. Some companies have even gone so far as to schedule “No Talk Days.”

3) Don’t use group-brainstorming sessions (initially) to generate creative ideas Encourage people to brainstorm alone first and then circle back and discuss their ideas in small groups of four or fewer. (Note: Group-brainstorming sessions can be an effective “bonding” or “team-building” tool, as long as creative idea generation or problem solving is not the leader’s main goal.)

4) Don’t overlook soft-spoken team member ideas – Use one-on-one meetings, texts, emails, etc., to reach out to and engage introverted workers in a way that makes them feel comfortable. They are often the sensitive, observant types with valuable input you don’t want to miss!

5) Use Networked Brainstorming Tools – Research shows that when teams used anonymous, electronic brainstorming applications to generate ideas, best-of-both-world results often followed. These tools give people the opportunity to “put themselves out there” privately, without fear of public humiliation, while simultaneously using a larger group as a “sounding board.”

So continue to play well with others. Work together. Collaborate. But don’t forget that while there isn’t an “I”, there IS a “ME” in TEAM!

For more information on harnessing the unique power of introverts, check out Sandy Heierbacher’s excellent GovLoop blog here.

There is also a very good Ted.com talk, by Jason Fried, entitled “Why work doesn’t happen at work” that I believe is worth checking out.

Hope Horner is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Geoffrey McLennan


Good observations. It would be hard for most govt employees to follow your advice as this may go against the widespread teamwork mantra. Over 25 years on various teams, I have known the need to back away from the crowd and think, or to avoid meeting masters that consume time. I think that most of what happens is based on the maturity or skill levels of the team members, as knowing when to skip routine meetings yet make the critical meetings. An improvement is online or videoconferencing to save travel and space. For efficiency, my rule is no meeting goes beyond one hour. Participants are either ready to collaborate or not.

Debbie Rosie

Excellent. I agree. I am somewhat of an introvert, especially in the rather aggressive, boisterous culture I work in. I also have a hearing impairment. So the insight given is especially appealing to me.

Hope Horner

I really appreciate the responses and feedback. In writing this, I didn’t want people to assume that I was not a “team player” or didn’t “play well with others” but I had read a lot lately about the research behind the power of “alone time” and also have found it to be true myself. I love collaborating and connecting, but sometimes, we need quiet time to think, create and plan.

All the best to you and thanks again for your comments!


David B. Grinberg

Hope, I would also add remote work to your list for putting the “ME” in TEAM.

As you know, many studies have shown that telework increases morale, employee engagement and organizational loyalty — all of which lead to higher productivity and performance (not to mention cost savings for the organization and helping the environment).

Does all work have to be done in a traditional brick-and-mortar building with cubicle farms? I sure hope not. I think virtual teamwork is an up and coming trend. However, like most high-tech trends the public sector appears to be lagging. Thanks for considering this.

Hope Horner

Good point David! I agree that is a trend, albeit one that not all organizations are comfortable with. Thanks for the insightful comment.