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Blog : Team or individual?


Team or individual?

By Sol Arigós - Head of Technical Support

I was fortunate enough to have tickets for the Olympics; including the honour of being at the final of the women’s hockey (where my home country, Argentina, took home the silver medal). At each competition I could not help but wonder what went through the minds of the team members when they scored, received penalties, obtained injuries; when they won or lost. And then I asked myself, would this differ from the feelings that an individual competitor, say Usain Bolt, would experience during their chance of winning a medal?

For me, it really posed the question of why people choose either individual or team sports. Is it down to  personality traits? And, if so, do we choose our jobs in the same way?

The broadest category of personality traits involves extroversion and introversion. According to influential psychologist, Hans Jürgen Eysenck, extroverts tend to naturally be under stimulated; often bored and in need for external motivation to bring them to their optimum performance level. This means that they tend to be outgoing, talkative, lively, sociable and impulsive. They love the limelight, work well in groups, and tend to dislike being alone for long periods of time. According to Eysenck, introverts, on the other hand, are naturally over-stimulated and often nervous and therefore need peace and quiet to bring them up to the optimal level. This means they exhibit a tendency to be reserved, reclusive, thoughtful, calm, and rational. They are more interested in their own mental self, work better alone, and are controlled in social situations, preferring closer, more personal relationships.

Some studies on this subject have therefore suggested that team players are more extroverted; whereas those taking part in athletics, tennis and other individual sports are naturally more introverted. They found that individual sports require a high level of self-awareness and thinking; typical characteristics of introversion. Oppositely, team sports require sociability, and therefore openness, and lots of communication - skills of extroversion.

Other theorists, however, have found the opposite. For them, whist extroverts often work well in groups some; thinking back to Bolt, also like to perform solo for the glory and profile a win brings. They suggest that when the pressure is all on one person to perform, often the individual is required to be outgoing, energetic, spontaneous and, to some extent, egotistical – extroversion characteristics.

It would, therefore, appear that it's not easy to predict who is suited to individual sports and who to team activities based purely on personality traits. Could the same be said about work? Or is it easier? Are creative individuals naturally more introverted; and business leaders extroverts?

Earlier this year, The New York Times published the article ‘The Rise of the New Groupthink’ which claimed that solitude is out of fashion. They argued that companies, schools and culture very much revolve around the idea of ‘New Groupthink.’ This suggests that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place; most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, and for managers who prize people skills above all else. Lone geniuses, introversion, seem to be out and collaboration, extroversion, is in. 

Again it depends which school of thought you follow. Some research has proven that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist,  that the most creative people are often introverted. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.

A perfect example of this, and which the New York Times agrees, is Apple Corp, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Both introverts by nature, Jobs took on extrovert traits in order to help drive the company’s mission of creating world changing products. As a result, and as Susan Cain quotes:

“In the wake of Steve Jobs’s death, we’ve seen a profusion of myths about the company’s success. Most focus on Mr Jobs’s supernatural magnetism and tend to ignore the other crucial figure in Apple’s creation: a kindly, introverted engineering wizard, Steve Wozniak, who toiled alone on a beloved invention, the personal computer”

And in his autobiography Steve Wozniak’s offers this guidance to aspiring inventors:

“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me ... they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone... I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: work alone... Not on a committee. Not on a team.”

So where introverts are creative, they will require the support of, or ability to adopt, extroversion traits in order to drive ideas forward. The characteristics of both should be respected and it recognised that situations may need to be approached in different ways. And clearly, referring back to the Apple example, it’s beneficial to develop both skill sets.

Of course, and as much as we’d like it to be, sadly the world is not this simple. Individuals have many different traits and ways of working; thus we cannot assume that someone is suited for a role based on their personality. Team player or going solo; introvert, extrovert of somewhere in-between; it’s important not to generalise and instead to ensure each person can work towards their potential in the way that suits them best.

What do you think? Are introverts naturally more solo-orientated or can they work successfully as a team?

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