Back to Basics: Team Identity Changing "I" to "We"

Lt. Col. Rob Bonner

Lt. Col. Rob Bonner

MACDILL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- We in the MacDill AFB community are all part of many teams. Be it in the smallest unit, up through the military echelons of the combatant commands; we are part of many groups culminating to "Team MacDill". But, do you really identify yourself as part of Team MacDill? Does your team have conflict with another team? As a leader at all levels, do you embrace what your teams are doing? Team identity can help - a basic trait we often forget.

The recent Super Bowl is a great example of team identification. You're either a Patriot or Seahawks fan and likely used terms like "we" or "our" as you proceeded to describe how your team was going to crush the other. You likely wore your jersey, shook a bobble head, or proudly displayed a car magnet (symbols of your support). But, you don't play for them much less have any claim to ownership. Face it; you're not ON the team so why use "we"? Fans identify with their team and support what they do. Make no mistake, you are a PART OF the team even though you don't actually play for the team. 

Now look at how you refer to your unit, squadron, group or wing. You do play for those teams and have an obligation to act beyond simply cheering along. Do you still use "we" or does it change to "they" and even worse, "I"?  Remember, unlike being a fan, you ARE ON the team. More importantly, unlike football, you are not competing AGAINST others teams. You are working WITH other teams toward a common goal - our mission.

Words like "we" or "our" when referring to oneself in a larger construct is a clear indicator of support for the team. Yet, sometimes on Team MacDill, we use "I" or "my" - an indication of alienation or separation from the larger whole. "I" and "my" are acceptable when taking blame or acknowledging personal fault. But we on MacDill are a composite of high-performing teams - we don't fail and therefore its use should be the exception, not the norm.

However, if you do routinely use "I", you may be against the larger team in some way even though you think you support the overall goal. It's easy to demonize the external and retreat into oneself necessitating the use of "I". This is different than organizational competition where separating identity is important. While friendly rivalry and competition can enhance performance, it can be a distractor in higher organizational levels if not properly aligned to the overall goals.

There are many published articles on "I vs. We" leadership and its ability to positively motivate and inspire an organization to be deliberately excellent in all they do. "I" leaders and subordinates often create an environment of distrust that does not support open communications and risk taking and most importantly leveraging the abilities of the team. When people don't trust their leader or each other to listen to input they will often protect creative approaches out of fear of either criticism or losing credit for their work - changes from "we" to "I".

To help combat this and get people to use "we" vs "I", we need to get back to basics of what defines a team - shared culture, mission and identity. Unfortunately sometimes we get identity confused. When in doubt, simply look to the flagpole or down at your nametag. Those are simple reminders of your team. There is a reason military uniforms have the name of your service over your heart. It's how you prioritize your service before self. Similarly, football jerseys have the team name on the front with the personal name on the back. The team comes first. There is no questioning a sport fan's intentions when you see them wearing a jersey, painting their faces in team colors, or flying a flag on their car or home to signify their affiliation - GO TEAM! Similarly, you see this in the military every day. Be it the uniform, camouflage paint, or saluting our nation's flag, these symbols matter for our team identity. There is no "I" in team. "We" have one resolve - GO TEAM MACDILL!