Do you prefer to work independently or in a group? YES asked 370 Ithaca teens to respond. The results were split fairly evenly in three directions, with 31% preferring independent work, 34% preferring group work, and 35% claiming their preference depends upon the task at hand, their role in the group, and/or the members of the team. Teens who would rather work alone seem to enjoy the freedom of not worrying about other people and how much they contribute to a project. Those who like group work seem to thrive when they have help completing tasks that are too large for one person or when they don’t fully understand the subject.
At a glance, working independently and working as a member of group appear to be mutually exclusive activities. In reality, a team is only as successful as its individual members and the independent work each person can contribute. In the 1964 holiday classic, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Hermey and Rudolph humorously reveal an important truth about the importance of being independent together:
Hermey: I don’t need anybody. I’m… I’m independent.
Rudolph: Yeah? Me too. I’m whatever you said… Independent.
Hermey: Hey, whad’ya say we both be independent together?
Rudolph: You wouldn’t mind my red nose?
Hermey: Not if you don’t mind me being a dentist.
Rudolph: It’s a deal.
This conversation seems contradictory. Independence implies going at it alone and being without other people, yet these two ironically decide to be “independent together.” The scene is meant to be an amusing start to a budding friendship, but there is a deeper truth to be gleaned from these friends about how to successfully work independently as a part of a group.
Know Your Strengths and Weaknesses
Before deciding to form a group, Rudolph and Hermey discuss their strengths and weaknesses. For both, being independent is an important strength that sets them apart from their peers and gives them the courage to face the North Pole and the Abominable Snow Monster alone.
They then reveal personal characteristics that have made working with others challenging for them in the past. For Rudolph, the fact that his nose glows bright red has always been a problem that other reindeer just can’t get past. They won’t let him participate in reindeer games, and even Santa believes he’ll never be on his sleigh team. Hermey’s desire to be a dentist rather than an elf has made it impossible for him to work as a part of the toy-building team or even participate in the elf choir. After sharing their weaknesses, it’s obvious that neither Rudolph nor Hermey is bothered by the other’s perceived weaknesses.
Once each member of a group knows some important details about the other members, they can agree to use their individual strengths and weaknesses to best serve the team as a whole. For example, Rudolph would never ask Hermey to build a toy, but he might ask him to fix his teeth. In a work group, you’d never ask someone whose weakness is delegating tasks to be the group leader, but you might give them a specific set of assignments that only they need to feel responsible for.
Know the Group Goals
For Rudolph and Hermey, the unspoken group goal is surviving the dangerous elements of the North Pole. They rely on each other to watch out for the Abominable Snow Monster and to navigate the cold and windy landscape. Knowing that their group goal is survival allows Hermey and Rudolph to act independently, using their own personal strengths, in order to meet that goal. Rudolph’s nose can help guide the way through dark and blustery nights. Hermey’s dentistry comes in handy when they defeat the Abominable by removing all of his teeth.
At work, your team is unlikely to set a goal like surviving under harsh conditions, but it is just as important that every member of the group knows and agrees upon the purpose of your work. At a restaurant, for example, the goal of every employee, from line cook, to dishwasher, to waitstaff is to ensure that the customers have an excellent experience while dining at the restaurant. The waitstaff must be kind and attentive. The cooks must follow recipes and work quickly. The dishwashers must make sure the dishes are cleaned between each use. If any member of the team fails to perform their job, the goal will not be met, and the customer will not receive excellent service.
By knowing how to individually use their strengths and weaknesses to reach their group goal, Hermey and Rudolph are a successful team. The best teams are those that are full of people who are comfortable working independently and using their strengths to achieve a common purpose. Next time you’re working in a group, remember Rudolph and Hermey’s success when they decided to be independent together.
If you’re Superman, your greatest strengths are your x-ray vision, your proficiency in flying, your superhuman muscles, and your ability to pull off a pair of nerdy glasses when you’re not saving the world. If you’re Superman, it’s easy to know your strengths; if you’re a teenager, not so much.
This week, YES asked 320 Ithaca teens to talk about their greatest strengths. A few teens said they are good at problem solving, leadership, teamwork, and time management, but many of the answers we got were highly specific to each individual. One teen told us his greatest strength is knot-tying, and another told us her’s is her “god-like charm.” Not surprisingly, 10% have no idea what their strengths are. Another 10% referenced school subjects -- math, writing, history, science. Seventeen percent of teens reported interpersonal skills, such as being good with people, being good at talking and listening, or having a good sense of humor. About 8% said their athletic ability is their greatest strength, and 6% cited their involvement in the arts, such as music, drawing, and photography.
Highly individualized strengths like photography and skiing are excellent skills to have in very specific situations, but even slightly broader strengths have their limitations. If your greatest strength is knot-tying, for example, you will find great success in fishing, rock climbing, and docking boats, but you’ll rarely use this strength as a part-time cashier at Wegmans. If your greatest strength is math, you may one day have a career in engineering, architecture, and statistics, but your math skills probably won’t help you at your summer job as a camp counselor.
Developing the strengths you’re passionate about is important, but for most jobs, you’ll need a solid set of transferable skills that you can use in any situation. You probably already possess many of these skills, and they may even be related to strengths that you can easily identify. Let's focus on just three strenghts you use every day...
For those people who see their interpersonal skills as their greatest strength, it may be obvious that communication skills are useful across the board, but communication skills go beyond speaking and listening. People who are excellent visual or performing artists communicate ideas and emotions through mediums of drawing, singing, playing, sculpting, etc. Athletes communicate with their teammates to encourage and strategize, and they also read the body language of opposing teams to predict what they will do next. In class, you use your communication skills to listen to what the teacher is saying, follow directions, and ask questions.
Communication is a strength that you will always need in every job you’ll ever have. From listening to your supervisor, to asking for help from your co-workers, to passing on information to a customer, your ability to understand and respond appropriately is key.
2. Working Independently
School is full of opportunities to practice working independently. From the time you enter kindergarten until you graduate from high school or college, your teachers will always assign tasks that are meant to be performed alone. Maintaining your focus, completing your work, and doing your best without asking for help every five minutes is an expectation set for every student.
No matter where you work, your job will always require some level of independence. Although your supervisors will train you and offer help when you first begin, they will quickly expect you to perform all functions of your job without them. If they wanted to do the work themselves, they wouldn’t have hired anyone else to join their company.
People who participate in a team sport or in a performing ensemble obviously practice teamwork on a regular basis. In class, teachers often assign group projects or expect students to contribute to class discussions. Even maintaining order in the cafeteria takes a group effort. Everyone understands that the goal is to get lunch and eat it, so they follow a set of unspoken group rules and take on responsibilities to ensure success. You wait your turn in line, sit down once you have your food, take responsibility for cleaning up after yourself, etc. This team effort results in success for the entire group. Everyone gets food. Everyone eats. The lunchroom is ready for the next group. It’s a basic form of teamwork, but it’s a place to start.
At work, you will likely be a member of a team all focused on the same task -- serving customers, constructing a building, or making a profit for your company. Just like at lunch, your team will follow a set of rules and each member will take on a certain amount of responsibility in order to successfully meet your goal.
While these strengths may not help you leap over tall buildings in a single bound or save the world from a criminal mastermind, you’ll still need them at every job for the rest of your life. Even Superman uses his abilities to communicate, work independently, and work as a part of a team for some aspects of his job. For more help discovering and developing your strengths, contact YES to find out when we’re offering our Know Your Strengths workshop. Until then, try this...