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.