Team building – Putting the “I” back in “Team”

“There’s just no ‘I’ in team!” You’ve heard that said before right?

If you’ve been part of any team or organization, you’ve experienced the frustration and resentment of when a colleague, a manager or a staff member privileges their own agenda, their own promotion, their own function, or their own goals, over the team’s shared vision and collective success.

Individualism at the expense of universal progress.  Me, myself and I, before I and thou.

So there’s no “I” in team, yes? Or is there more to it than that? And what difference might the power of emotional intelligence make in the dynamic relationship between “I” and ‘team’?

Individualism vs. Individuality

A semantic but significant distinction might prove useful to us here.

What might the difference be between individualism and individuality? And can teams honour and expand the unique resources that individuality offers, while avoiding the harmful effects of individualism.

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Individualism can be thought of as a win-lose relationship that sacrifices the progress of the many for the benefit and comfort of the one. Individualism is ultimately about being separate from and, in a competitive environment, superior to the pack.  But individualism in its worst form often leads to the individual being disconnected from the sustaining relationships that can make the individual truly thrive. Just think of the colleagues, staff or managers in your context who have systematically alienated themselves from support through self-seeking actions.

Individuality, on the other hand, is a good and necessary dimension of all high-performance teams where if you win I win, and if you lose I lose. Individuality implies a diversity of strengths and personality styles, where this diversity does not result in separateness and disharmony. On the contrary, in high-performance teams individuality is considered a crucial resource of differing perspectives and skill-sets to be placed in service of collective goals. In such a team the flipside of individuality is mutuality, rather than conformity or self-denial. Teams that embrace individuality recognize that without difference and mutuality there can be no dialogue and therefore no creativity.

In sum, high-performance teams thrive on individuality, but crumble under the weight of individualism.

The “I” in Emotional Intelligence

Question: So, how can teams learn to celebrate individuality while avoiding individualism?

Answer: Systematically develop the team’s (collective and individual) emotional intelligence

Consider again that colleague, manager or team member in your past (or present!) that sacrificed mutually enhancing and productive team relationships in favour of their own personal gain or comfort. He or she was not a bad or malicious person (although it’s tempting to label them as that!) They had just not developed a sufficient level of emotional intelligence. To put it another way, they had not yet developed their capacity to forge win-win relationships that could honour and respect others’ – and the best of their own – personality style, strengths and goals. In this context, emotional intelligence can be thought of as the developed capacity to embrace individuality in the service of high-performance teams. We can put the “I” in team if we, so to speak, put emotional intelligence in the individual.

Three Levels of Awareness

So what exactly is emotional intelligence and how can it be developed? Although rich in definition, emotional intelligence can be described as three levels of awareness that empower us to respond more effectively within personal and professional relationships. The three levels are Self-Awareness, Other-Awareness, and Relational Awareness:


  • Knowing your own preferred patterns of thinking, emotion and response
  • Knowing your own strengths and areas of potential development


  • Knowing others’ preferred patterns of thinking, emotion and response
  • Knowing others’ strengths and areas of potential development

Relational awareness:

  • Knowing how the dynamic interaction of your and others’ preferred patterns affect team performance and relationships
  • Knowing how the dynamic interaction of your and others strengths and areas of potential development affect team performance and relationships

When emotional intelligence development programmes are able to accurately measure and describe an individual’s and team’s functioning, within all three levels of awareness described above, then individuality can be harnessed and developed in service of collective goals. With access to the above levels of awareness individuals and teams are empowered to make healthier and mutually empowering choices that put the best of “I” back into team.

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