Managers will tell you “there’s no ‘I’ in team” – but any great team needs its lone drifters

In both sport and business, players with independent temperaments are often dragged into the middle ground, undermining their value.

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A heresy will not leave me alone. It cuts against almost everything I have ever been told to believe about teams, sport, management and leadership. Yet the more I guiltily reflect on the idea, the truer it feels. My theme is very simple. Much of the effort that goes into management and team-building is not just fruitless, but detrimental. It is ­precisely when a team begins to think and feel “as one” that it becomes newly vulnerable. “There is no ‘I’ in team” is perhaps the best-known cliché in management. What if there shouldn’t be a “we”?

A team – any team – is more resilient when its mood is diversified. So the effort should be towards de-correlating individual performances. A team can survive one or two people being off colour. It is when everyone goes down together (case study: a batting collapse) that disaster strikes. The ever-expanding management class, however, by constantly trying to bind colleagues into a unit, accidentally increases the risks facing the team.

The concept of diversification is drawn from finance. A portfolio is diversified if the risks are not correlated – that is, if one asset goes sour, it does not do so under circumstances in which the other assets also perform badly. It is a form of not putting all your eggs in one basket.

Teams are bad at diversification. One episode from my cricket career underlined how healthy and natural diversification is constantly at risk from managerialism. The team was full of highly talented batsmen. And yet the runs wouldn’t come. We were all giving our wickets away carelessly. Only one batsman was in form, magnificently so. On the morning of an important match, I struggled through my pre-game practice routine before turning to watch my in-form colleague. I’d never seen (or heard) anything like it. Every practice shot sounded like a rifle, the sharp crack of a perfectly struck cricket ball. It was a flawless display: confidence, conviction, clarity.

Although I admired the spectacle, I also wanted him to stop, because the central risk he faced was of some rogue force – external advice or unwarranted introspection – that might knock him off stride. The ideal scenario would have been to fast-forward time and insert him into the match immediately. His form and mindset were unimprovable. Influencing them before play could only make things worse.

Later, during the walk to the pavilion, the team coach fell in step with me. “I’m going to call a meeting before play,” he told me. This was seldom good news. “I’m going to tell all you batsmen to play differently,” he continued, “to stop giving it away, to get stuck in.” Here comes the critical moment of his illogic: “We are all in this together and we’ve got to get out of it together. Tough it out. As a team.”

The coach possessed five main batting “assets”. Four of them were underperforming (for a variety of reasons). He was now proposing to drag the one highly performing asset into the vortex. Any meeting that began with the words “Now, look, we need to start doing things differently . . .” would unintentionally but inevitably meddle with the player who was, as things stood, in the best form of his life.

Fortunately, one of the batsmen suggested that instead of one collective meeting, the coach might have a word with each of us individually. He also described what I had just seen in the nets and suggested leaving the in-form player well alone. The coach went along with the plan. The in-form player made a huge hundred and we dominated the game. The avoidance of a meeting, a meeting that most people would have considered perfectly sensible, helped us win the match.

The phrase “he does his own thing” is often used as a criticism. It implies an inadequate degree of teamwork, even selfishness. A good team, however, needs a blend of temperaments: some happiest in the thick of things, others that are relatively impervious to the collective mindset. A team needs people who can turn the tide as well as those who ride the wave.

It is also a mistake to assume that these independent types are necessarily “difficult”. Not all independents are mavericks. Moeen Ali, the devout Muslim who has shone for England this summer, is gentle, polite and easygoing but his form is highly de-correlated from the team’s. That is his greatest strength. In a crisis, he doesn’t so much react (as the iron-willed Steve Waugh used to do) as not really notice. A batting collapse? The Ashes on the line? The nation on tenterhooks? He plays as though nobody got around to telling him. In tight situations, while others become weighed with anxiety, Moeen plays freely and lightly. He is not a battler in the conventional sense of the word – more a drifter. It is a rare and precious kind of drift.

The contribution of independents is undervalued and seldom nurtured. The concept of a “team player” – bubbly, socially needy, energetic, conventional – is far too narrow. In reality, a squad full of good team players would be lopsided and lacking in diversification.

Worse, in both sport and business, players with independent or (heaven forbid) introverted temperaments are often dragged into the conventional middle ground, undermining the value of the insurance they offer against risk. Managers are conditioned to favour convergence – of mood, temperament and opinions. Instead, they should foster divergence.

Real team spirit, often mistaken for a gleeful state of transitory frothiness, is an environment that nurtures natural diver­sity. An uncomfortable thought emerges. For an optimal team outcome, when a captain or coach gives a team talk he must urgently hope that some of his players aren’t listening at all. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article appears in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses