There is no ‘I’ in team – or is there?

There is no ‘I’ in team - as the saying goes. But new research suggests it is important for individuals to feel personal ownership towards a team project in order to be more creative.

This drives team members to invest more time and effort into a project. However, managers should also be aware that individual ownership minimizes collective effort: teams with high levels of individual ownership are less collectively engaged, which decreases team creativity.

The research was undertaken by Dr Ieva Martinaityte of the University of East Anglia (UEA)’s Norwich Business School, Professor Kerrie Unsworth at the University of Leeds and Dr Claudia Sacramento from Aston University.

The researchers investigated two types of psychological ownership – personal (‘this is my project’) and collective (‘this is our project’) and how these influence individual and team behaviour in a project that required creative output.

The results show that although collective psychological ownership has positive effects on engagement and subsequently on creativity, for both individuals and teams, personal psychological ownership drives individual engagement and creativity, but has the opposite effect on team outcomes.

It may sound trite, but a team is more than just a collection of individuals. When team members only think of themselves as individually owning the project without collective ownership, then creativity drops. There has to be an 'us' as well as an 'I' in a successful team.

Kerrie Unsworth, Professor of Organizational Behaviour, Leeds University Business School

Dr Martinaityte, a lecturer in business and management at Norwich Business School, said: “Human nature to possess can be a powerful motivation to enhance employee engagement and creativity. Managers should invest time in making each team member feel like a project owner to maximize individual outputs, but equally focus on teams developing a feeling of collective ownership, ‘our project’ rather than ‘my project’, if they expect higher team dedication and more creative project outcomes. Without team members experiencing collective ownership, there is a risk that team performance will be lost.

“For employees it is about being aware of psychological ownership as a powerful driver to engage and perform in the team project. If they are not willing to put effort into the project perhaps they should consider whether they feel they don’t own the project.”

The study analysed data from 39 teams and 186 individuals – including team members and project managers – working at international organisations based in the United States, United Kingdom, Lithuania, and China. Examples of projects they worked on included developing mobile software, creating and implementing a building design and launching an event.

In an initial questionnaire team members reported their personal psychological ownership and collective psychological ownership towards the specific project. In a second questionnaire three weeks later they reported their levels of individual engagement in the project and their own creativity. At the same time, project managers rated the team’s engagement in the project. Finally, three weeks later managers reported team creativity.

‘Is the Project “Mine” or “Ours”? A Multilevel Investigation of the Effects of Individual and Collective Psychological Ownership’, by Ieva Martinaityte, Kerrie Unsworth, Claudia Sacramento, is published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology on Wednesday 18 December 2019.