Teamwork vs. independent thinking?

Teamwork vs. independent thinking?

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If we are to believe people like President Obama who famously said: “You didn’t build that”, we would conclude individual accomplishment is insignificant; only as a group we can build something.

While collaboration, trade, and learning are great benefits of living in a society, and we can often achieve more by hiring others and working together, such collaboration is of no value unless all parties are independent thinkers and doers. Ask anyone who has ever hired, managed, or worked with a follower: a person who blindly follows others instead of thinking for himself, goes through the motions of a job, has no opinions of his own but merely parrots the majority view or what the boss tells him. Such a person cannot offer much to others, nor is he capable of achieving rational values for himself—even if he were able to identify them.

The idea that teamwork can be performed successfully without independent thinkers is a collectivist myth.

Some leaders may think that it is just fine for them to drive the business, with employees obediently following their orders. But they are wrong. In fact, best teams are those where all the members are independent.

Independence does not imply inability to collaborate as a team—it is a requirement of productive collaboration.  Blind followers do not have any original ideas to contribute to the group’s efforts. They are unable to detect mistakes or problems in the group’s plans or practices. They may be able to perform routine tasks according to instructions, but the moment a problem occurs and a decision needs to be made, they are paralyzed.

A contractor friend once became so exasperated with workers who had an unthinking follower mentality that he started advertising for “thinking carpenters.”  A team building a home, designing a new product, operating on a patient, or trying to achieve any other rational goal cannot afford a member who does not think and act for himself.

Independence, defined by philosopher Leonard Peikoff as “a primary orientation to reality, not to other men,” is a rationally selfish virtue. It is in a person’s self-interest to adhere to facts first hand, as opposed to follow others blindly. You can achieve your values—a soundly built house, a successful new product, curing a patient—only by adhering to facts, comprehended by you, and not by following someone else’s possibly mistaken instructions without thinking.

Many flawed products: leaky silicone breast implants, exploding Goodyear tires, Toyotas with sticky gas pedals, would not have made it to the market had more independent thinkers (or even one) worked in the companies manufacturing them and raised an alarm.

The virtue of independence requires not only independent thinking but independence in action: supporting yourself with the work of your own mind, as opposed to being a parasite on others. Only a person who earns his own living and pays his own way is free to pursue his self-interest: his own happiness.

The virtue of independence has a particular relevance in business. Independence is a fundamental requirement of innovation, one of the most sustainable sources of competitive advantage for business firms. Only independent thinkers, whether working alone or in a team, are able to come up with new ideas, products, and processes. Only independent thinkers adhering to reality first hand can create the idea for the steam engine, the electric light bulb, the overnight package delivery of Federal Express, the laser technology to perform corrective eye surgery, the search engine of Google, the iPhone and the iPad. All these and countless other innovations were created by independent thinkers who made themselves and their shareholders millionaires.

Independence is a tool of self-interest, in life and in business—and it is a tool of teamwork.



Originally posted 30 October 2012


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3 Responses

  1. Than you Jaana. This is exactly what I teach and coach to software development teams and their management. It was a pleasure to meet you last June.

    The development teams are usually easy to get using an Agile, team-based approach. They enjoy the respect it shows for their independent thinking and collaboration. Swarming, Pair-programming and, more recently, Mobprogramming, are names for some techniques that are effective. (Mob mentality is the last thing we want, so Mobprogramming is a terrible choice of name for a good technique.)

    Middlemanagement is often the biggest problem as their job changes from giving orders to facilitating and supporting their subordinates. And that requires their independent and fresh thinking.

    To any readers interested in learning how I can help you, please contact me. Jay Conne,

  2. Excellent, thankyou.

    A fundamental is sound values, which leaders must enunciate and support continuously. ( is an example, though the company became bureaucratic.) If owners and managers aren’t honest people at heart there won’t be teamwork despite all the buzzwords blabbered, as individual employees can’t trust others. Thus mistakes aren’t admitted and departments become silos.

    Shifting thinking is difficult. One entrepreneur tried ‘empowerment’ after years of he managing. Didn’t work because employees became uncoordinated. Apparently he was not knowledgeable/capable enough to teach them teamwork. (One consultant was hired to evaluate employees, then had to tell the boss that employees were good but he was the problem.)

    1. I see the origins of bad ideas like “there is no I in TEAM” in bad philosophies, going back to Plato whose failure to understand the human mind spawned collectivism via St. Augustine, Immanuel Kant, and Karl Marx. Aristotle got the answer to Plato’s good question it right – there is one world, which the human mind can understand. Aristotle’s ideas surfaced later to enable the Enlightenment, the Agricultural Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and the progress toward freedom and prosperity of the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence. Freedom we live on today, here where we have much even though not enough.

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Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada.

She has lectured and conducted seminars on business ethics to undergraduate, MBA and Executive MBA students, and to various corporate audiences for over 20 years both in Canada and abroad. Before earning her Ph.D. from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, she helped turn around a small business in Finland and worked for a consulting firm in Canada.

Jaana’s research on technological change and innovation, value creation by business, executive decision-making, and business ethics has been published in various academic and professional journals and books. “How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book.

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