I grew up when motivational posters were a big thing - "There's no "I" in Team" kind of stuff. While the intention of this message was to limit egos and selfishness, I find two modern issues with it. One, most companies still desire individual high performance over team performance. And two, it has a taste of colorblindness that I don't find useful to creating high performing teams. Today, I'll unpack the skill of the "I."
Philosophers have grappled with the relationship and tension between the individual and collective for ages. Anyone how has studied group dynamics, relationships or systems knows that there are many paradoxes related to the "I" and "we." For example, when a group gains unity or solidarity, then individuality is more legitimized. And when individuality is established, a group can feel more affirmed. Some of us rely on the strength and expression of our individuality to feel connected and "gelled" in a group. While others rely on feeling connected and welcomed before they are comfortable expressing their individuality. We want to feel both unique and part of the whole at the same time. And in some cultures there is not concept of "I" or "me."
Speaking from an "I" position (I feel, I think, I want, I am...) allows you to take individual responsibility for your unique experience, decisions, actions and consequences. When I speak of responsibility, I am not referring to ownership rooted in a hierarchical sense of superiority, ego, domination or power hoarding. I'm referring to your part in a relationship or a whole. I'm referring to the beauty of your complex experience and helping you locate yourself in a web of connection. Can you feel the difference?
While "I" sounds singular, it's actually a wonderful intersection, prioritization and exploration of multiple perspectives. We each hold many many lenses forged through our social roles and identities - how we self-identify and how we are collectively identified.
For beginners, list out your social roles and identities which may include: race, gender, sexual orientation, age, geography, physical/mental ability, profession, class, income, education, spirituality, political affiliation, marriage status, caregiver status... and more. As you work your way through these, note your degree of privilege and membership in the dominant culture (White, male, cis-gendered, able-bodied, etc.).
Next, think of a question that's been on your mind lately, or a problem you want to solve. How would each of those social roles or identities answer that question? Let's play.... what should I eat for lunch today?
Each "me" has a slightly different perspective. Let's play more...
We are so much more than just one "I" perspective. If we want to create more diverse and inclusive teams, and more equitable workplaces and communities, we must first welcome and cultivate the space for such remarkable diversity and belonging within ourselves.
Your entire life has been shaped by a collection of relationships, experiences and cultures. While there is no "I" in team, there is an "I" in Community. It is in those diverse communities that your social roles and identities have been shaped. As you practice speaking from a "I" position, remember that there is a legacy of communities you are speaking on behalf of - you are not singular, one dimensional and definitely not alone.