I was 9 years old, and didn’t like spending too much time with older people, let alone strangers. Still, my Cub Scout den planned regular trips to the retirement home where we’d do crafts, act out skits, and just connect with some of the elderly residents.
It was awkward the first couple of times, until we started making friends.
One gentleman was always prepared with lollypops for the entire group. A kind woman was constantly on the lookout for new crafts we could do together or songs she could teach us for our monthly Pack meetings. It turned into a great time that we all looked forward to.
One month we decided to work on Valentine’s gifts. We were putting together small cards and notes, not for our own friends, but for residents who weren’t otherwise able to make it to our craft day. The plan was to cut apart pieces of paper, write little notes, then leave them on the doorknobs of every room in the home.
This meant a massive team effort to produce enough Valentine’s gifts. But I was’t interested in the team effort. I just wanted mine to be perfect.
I worked extra hard, used too much glitter and decoration, and made what I thought would be the perfect Valentine’s gift. I went up to one of the adults running our craft day and presented my hard work.
“Well, they look great, but you used so much on these. Why not make simpler ones. We have a lot to do.”
“But they’re better than everyone else’s, right?”
“It’s not a competition …”
“But if it were, I’d totally win, wouldn’t I?”
He just shook his head and walked off. I was heartbroken. I’d worked so hard on this project, I just wanted recognition for my effort. It was incredibly depressing, and I was so mad I stopped making Valentine notes entirely.
One of my best friends, though, kept working furiously. He hated crafts, but was producing more than anyone else. He also looked really sad, and I had no idea why.
I found out weeks later that he’d connected pretty deeply with the man who’d brought the candy every time – and that man had passed away a few days before we’d arrived. He had been looking forward to seeing his grandkids on Valentine’s day, but his sudden death meant he’d missed seeing them entirely.
My friend was shaken up about his death, and took it upon himself to make sure the group made enough Valentine’s gifts for every resident in the building so no one would have to go through another day without a kind word, just in case it was their last day. He was working extra hard because he’d seen how slowly and methodically I had been working; he didn’t care about any individual recognition, he just wanted the team to finish so our project would be a success.
Often, when working on team projects, we thirst after individual recognition. We labor, we sacrifice, then we see credit for our work go to the team as a whole – or worse, to the leader of the team individually. How often has a quarterback taken sole credit for his team’s win? Or a manager for her team closing an important sale?
It hurts to see credit awarded unfairly, so it’s very tempting to try to stick out and be “that guy” who ultimately wins the competition that exists nowhere else but in our own imagination. Ultimately, though, it hurts the team. The football team is less unified, the sales team struggles in the next pitch meeting, one of my best friends lost a bit of respect for me before 3rd grade …
The statement, “there is no I in team,” is another way of saying there is no individual reward for a team effort. Those who fail to understand this create a conflict between themselves and the rest of the team with whom they work.
This conflict will never end well.