When there is an I in team: How to handle self-focused staff

Every company is made up of teams with members who should support each other and the team's goals as a whole. But is this always true? Here are some ways to see and address these issues.

self-centered employee

Image: Lyamport Galina Vyacheslavovna, Getty Images/iStockPhotos

We've all heard that adage, "There's no I in team," but the unfortunate truth is, there are many teams that have at least one person who believes in the power of "I." When a team member stops focusing on the success of the team, it can become highly disruptive and damaging to the rest of the staff, their effectiveness, and your company. 

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Here are some tips on how to prevent and manage self-focused staff to prevent more damage to your teams.

Hire well

It starts with the hiring process. Although many companies are seeking ways to hire emotionally intelligent employees, often the process itself is flawed and sometimes leans toward the candidate that least intimidates the leader making the final decision. The leader or the person doing the hiring may lack emotional intelligence, which defeats the purpose. This isn't always the case but is something companies need to consider when hiring middle managers and other executives. 

When self-focused leaders are hired, they hire self-focused staff who are not necessarily thinking about the impact on the team or company. This isn't conducive to high-performing teams. 

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Sometimes, even when the right person is hired, over a period of time, they may start to focus on their own career aspirations over what's best for their team or the business in general. Either way, the outcome is the same: It creates a toxic environment, making other team members resentful. The other team members then start to withhold information, decrease their output, and stop wanting to interact with the rest of the team, especially a leader. They enter into a state of only providing what is required and nothing more. The self-focused leader simply can't buy loyalty, but only compliance. In the end, the entire team and company lose. 

Watch middle management

Globalization further creates competition among leaders and their teams by making it harder for employees to cope with change and remain compassionate. If the "I"-focused person is at the very top of a company, it can be problematic, but the most dangerous place for this mindset to exist is middle management, the people between teams and the executives. Even though the executive team may believe in, communicate, and walk the talk of teamwork, middle managers can carry-out a different truth: One that tells all other staff members that the entire leadership team doesn't believe in teamwork. 

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Keep an eye on individual motives

Within the teams themselves, individuals can also sow additional animosity within and among teams. One person's self-focused or self-important behavior can be devastating to the rest of the team if it is allowed to continue. This gives other team members the feeling that they are of lesser importance to the team lead or manager than that one employee.

What's the takeaway in all of this potential disruption? Leaders from the top down need to focus on internal self-awareness, talk with their peers, and also develop mechanisms to closely monitor and correct behaviors in middle management and problematic teams. This level of team dysfunction may not seem important on the surface when compared to other strategic initiatives and goals, but it directly impacts success. 

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By Moira Alexander

Moira Alexander is the Founder of PMWorld 360 Magazine and Lead-Her-Ship Group, and a project management and digital workplace columnist for various publications. Moira has 20+ years in business (IS&T) and project management for small to large busine...