Intersection of ego and team.


A threaded discussion began in the LinkedIn Organizational Learning group with the (paraphrased) question,

Why do kindergardners collaborate better than adults?

My initial response was brief, yet to the point.

Because they have not yet developed the egos that interfere with collaboration.

Upon further reflection and comments in the thread, I want to more clearly state that I was not referring to the negative connotation of the term “ego” as an inflated sense of self leading to selfishness and even intolerance. Although an overdeveloped ego may indeed lead to these antisocial tendencies.

Moreover, I was speaking to the culturally appropriate acquisition of personal boundaries and a sense of self as an independent player in the social community, capable of making one’s own choices and living with the consequences of those actions. It seems that the process that encourages the prevaling kind of ego development (at least here in the US), of rewarding individual achievements and “do your own work,” starts to diminish the value of collaborative effort. What is needed, I think, is an intentional effort to help our young ones develop both a sense of individual worth and responsibility, along with the same value for the group.

Living in Sacramento, I am something of a fair weather basketball fan (I’ll admit). It’s not that I mind that the Kings aren’t in the playoffs; but I do want to see a competitive game over a series of blowouts (especially when they play the Lakers!). And, in the context of this discussion, I think about the individual players who, at the ripe old age of 21 or 22, are saddled with expectations of excellence. Have they been pushed throughout their young lives to set themselves out from the crowd – to not share? To “stand out” from their peers so they get selected to play and not warm the bench? To be picked for the high school varsity as 9th or 10th graders? To be picked up by an NCAA college team (with, hopefully, a scholarship attached)? And then to be drafted by someone other than the Kings, Clippers, or Warriors?

Then, we expect them to play as a team? Announcers and fans deride them for “not sharing the ball” with a teammate who has an open look. It’s almost as if they have to un-learn all those childhood lessons of personal excellence – and, frankly, selfishness – that got them to where they are today, to succeed in the NBA. They can’t all be Kobe Bryant; and even he has to share the ball some nights…

Are we any different in any given workplace? Do we not learn to rely on ourselves more so than on our teams? Aren’t we all called to and measured by personal achievement in all of our maturational efforts? To be the best, brightest, strongest, most accomplished? And then we graduate (with honors, of course), only to enter a workplace that demands that we work as a team?

It’s no wonder that knowledge sharing projects fail in this environment of ego-tending.

The call to action, then, to all of us as parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, mentors, managers, and leaders in whatever form, is to help maturing individuals appreciate and balance personal achievement with a deep sense of social responsibility. All of us have unique (as well as overlapping) gifts that we bring to the collaborative, and we must learn to successfully negotiate when and where to best apply those developing talents, to the greater good of the whole.

In this way, we grow healthy egos in a healthy society.

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