Ten ways to kill productivity and passion: 2) Inhibit individuality

Jul 26, 2010 by

This is the second in a series of ten posts about common problems that can lead teams to fail or otherwise limit their success. The previous post in this series was 1) Burden with bureaucracy.

One of the most important steps towards maximizing the potential of any team is to treat the team as a group of individuals. An important part of jazz is improvisation, the basis of which is the unique and personal expressions each musician offers. Duke Ellington was arguably the most successful jazz composer ever. Much of what we hear in his recordings was written by Ellington and his composer colleague, Billy Strayhorn. Although the rhythm section often improvised all the detail in their parts, the horn players had to play the notes written by the composers although short sections provided opportunities for improvisation. Despite the dependency on the written parts, the individuality of the musicians came shining through in every piece because Ellington wrote for specific musicians just as William Shakespeare wrote for specific actors. This is evident from Ellington’s original manuscripts which bear the names of each musician, not just generic labels such as “Trumpet 1.” Ellington considered their unique strengths and abilities and wrote parts that featured their greatest talents. The individualism of the musicians, even when channeled through Ellington and Strayhorn’s writing, contributed to the greatness and uniqueness of the compositions.

In sports, teams win because they have great individual players. Especially at the highest levels of athletic performance, individual stars are highly sought after and recruiting is serious business. The best sports teams don’t simply treat each potential team member like any other athlete. They spend a great deal of time, money and other resources continuously identifying and recruiting specific individuals. Sports recruiters are highly respected and they manage huge budgets. The same is rarely true of corporate recruiters.

Individuality is highly prized and sought after in arts and sports and businesses can learn from this. When organizations treat every employee as interchangeable and ignore individuality, they pass up opportunities to capitalize on individual strengths while leaving the team vulnerable to individual weaknesses. Even worse than failing to exploit individuality is ignoring or suppressing it. This can happen when organizations force employees to comply needlessly with the status quo or ignore people who question directions or decisions. Not surprisingly, team members may react negatively with feelings ranging from frustration to defiance to resignation. Individuality can also be suppressed when a team self-selects likeminded people and rids itself of people who don’t think like the rest of the team. Teams that tend toward such single-mindedness at the cost of individual creativity and critical thinking can fall into the dangerous trap of groupthink. Such teams may fail to innovate. Worse still, they may make huge mistakes together.

Of course individual desires and personalities cannot compromise the goals of the team or its ability to execute. It’s important to find a workable balance between strong individuals and team cohesiveness. However the lesson from arts and sports is clear: when individuality is appreciated, encouraged and managed, it can help bring out the best in people and their teams.


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