Team versus individuals; fostering team success

by Chief Master Sgt. Jeffrey Kernodle 786th Civil Engineer Squadron chief enlisted manager

Are we creating a culture of “team” or one of “individuals”? As leaders, we are expected to develop effective, efficient teams and merge the talents of our subordinates. However, it’s easy to shift our focus toward individual recognition, and it has the potential to come at the expense of team success.

Whatever we emphasize will become the priority of our organizations. As priorities shift toward the individual instead of the team, so does the cultural mindset.

When our cultural mindset believes that individual success is more important than team success, we lose our team’s loyalty. If people feel they are only rewarded for their personal achievements, we run the risk of losing every individual’s loyalty to the team. Why be a “team player” when it doesn’t result in recognition, promotion or advancement?

When the cultural bias leans towards individual performance, individuals will start seeing their teammates as competitors instead of colleagues. Reinforcing the mindset of individual over team can also have the unintentional effect of creating an environment of information hoarding, undermining and ultimately negatively affecting the mission effectiveness of your organization.

All of this isn’t to say that we should not be individually rewarding our stellar performers. The challenge lies with aligning team and individual accomplishments. When leadership is able to shift emphasis towards collaboration and the team’s success while making individual accomplishments a subset, the team is more likely to thrive.

While a team may have one MVP-caliber individual, every member of that team needs to first be judged by the overall success of the team, how they advance the team and then by their individual performance. When individuals see leadership rewarding them using a team-first mindset, they will shift their priorities as well. As their priorities shift toward team success, the organization will foster a culture of teamwork.

Former San Francisco 49er head coach Bill Walsh said it well, “victory is produced by and belongs to all. Winning a Super Bowl results from your whole team not only doing their individual jobs but perceiving that those jobs contributed to overall success. The trophy doesn’t belong just to a superstar, CEO or head coach.”

In the Air Force, our “victory” is measured by our ability to execute our primary mission, “fly, fight and win in air, space and cyberspace.” While we may not all walk away with a trophy, by correctly targeting our recognition programs and ensuring individual recognition is tied to team success, we not only foster a team-first culture, but we guarantee continued victory.