Teams and Individuals

One aspect of the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics which struck me, but which has not been commented upon, is that what really stands out in the games is individual achievement. Yes overall, there were some team sports and each country fields a team of athletes and sports players, but we did well because we had individuals who did what they do as themselves, to their personal best. The Olympics essentially rewards individual effort.

Leaving aside things like football, hockey, volleyball and a few others, the Olympics is not about team sports, in that the main glory is on events for individuals. I count diving or rowing in pairs (or more) as being the same as individual events, in that they need those involved to do things at the same time using the same skills, unlike say in a game of hockey where positioning and doing different things are the key.

Most emphasis on sports in our schools is on team sports like hockey, netball, football, rugby and cricket. Why is this so, when, to do well in Olympics, it is what a person can do on his or her own that matters? So really, we should be encouraging youngsters to work on what they are good at and try to excel as individuals. It is also maybe a myth that team sport encourages team spirit. Unfortunately, people are not naturally team players and team sports at schools still encourage elitism without generating a true team spirit.

This led me to think that maybe we stress too much in business about people working in teams. After all, the best teams are made up of talented individuals ‘flying in close formation’ you could say.

You can see it when you try to get people to work and pull together. Of course, some teams click, but often, at best, some team members only pay lip service to teamwork and then proceed to snipe behind the backs of the colleagues they profess to love working with and whom they resent if they shine and not them.

Even in dangerous ‘let’s all pull together’ situations, for example in wartime (which comes through in the D-Day book I have been reading) team members, even at the most senior levels, can be bitter rivals jockeying for position and glory. You can see that even in challenging circumstances where teamwork is clearly crucial, people in truth are really out for themselves.

So, what then is the answer? I offer a four-point plan:
1. De-emphasise the team approach (and team sports in schools)
2. Encourage individual achievement
3. Get everyone to perform to star levels
4. Produce great teamwork by adding together superlative individual contribution.

This will result in what could be called ‘team success through individual performance’. These same rules apply to sporting activity for youngsters, if we want to do well in the Olympics of the future.

Time to look away from the team approach and focus on the individual in sports and in business.

Neil Thomas
September 2012

Published on Sep 26, 2012 by Neil Thomas