(FORTUNE Magazine) – Squatting between the lines of the "new contract" between employer and employee is an ugly and befuddling contradiction. You know what the new contract says: We, your employer, no longer offer or even imply a guarantee of employment--you're here only as long as we need you. Instead, we offer you employability--stick with us, kid, and we'll reward you well, and when we dissolve the bonds, no hard feelings, no stigma, no problem. Plenty of people will want you because you picked up valuable skills here. Two birds in the bush are worth one in the hand.

That's the deal; here's the contradiction. On the one hand, you're on your own. You're responsible for your career. You're the CEO of "You Inc." in an every-man-for-himself universe of individual initiative and reward; whatever color your parachute is, you sew it and pack it yourself. Ah, but on the other hand, folks here at ol' Amalgamated don't cotton to self- aggrandizement. We want team players, all for one and one for all, because we're a team and we work in teams. Teams may hire their own members, manage their own work, receive rewards as a group, and parcel them out to members according to their collective view of each person's contribution to the group's enterprise. Of the skills you learn here, the most valuable is teamwork.

So it's You Inc. vs. the Team. Says David Witte, CEO of Ward Howell International, an executive search firm: "Do we have a problem here? Oh, yeah, we got a big problem. Talk about individual responsibility--it's absolutely important. But you're part of a team--that's absolutely important. But has anybody married that?" The short answer: No, and maybe the marriage can't be made. But maybe we can find ways to help You Inc. get along in a world of teams.

Mind you, this taffy pull--toward the self, toward the team--is ancient; it's probably as old as the use of sports images in business. Under the old dispensation, however, obeisance paid. When Organization Man subordinated his ego to the group, he got safety in return. Now you can do that and still be on the street when this project is done.

Today's teams are, well, teamier--less a metaphor and more a reality. Gone is the phony "team" where the leader tells the finance guru to run some numbers, the marketing wiz to do some research, the manufacturing maven to come up with cost and capacity data, and everyone to report back two weeks hence. These days team members are likely to work together many hours a day, mucking about in one another's specialties and jointly hammering out the final product rather than slotting together individually made components.

Why does teamwork matter more? First, the content and culture of knowledge work require it. Simple-minded work--may I offer pinmaking as an example?--permits a division of labor in which people don't have to work together so long as the pieces of the system fit. But knowledge work--designing a product, writing an ad, reengineering a process--rarely moves systematically forward. It's an open-ended series of to-and-fro collaborations, iterations, and reiterations. Says Fran Engoran, senior partner for intellectual capital at Price Waterhouse Consulting: "Complex, cross-functional business problems demand a diverse set of skills. 'It takes a team,' Mrs. Clinton might say."

Fly solo on these teams, and you'll be ostracized so fast one would think you'd been caught wiping your nose on the tablecloth at Lutece. The ethos is to make your teammates look good, not to make sure the boss knows how much you contributed. Him you can fool, but your teammates value only substance. "Shark skills are not appreciated," says George Bailey, a Price Waterhouse consultant who is an expert on teams. "Dolphins beat up on sharks." The cult(ure) of teamwork helps explain why people give themselves self-effacing titles like "facilitator" and "coach" instead of "boss" or "leader."

If knowledge work depends on teams, it makes sense to reward them, not individuals. People who move from project to project cannot be paid according to the number of direct reports they have any more than a road warrior can flaunt her status by the number of windows her office has. Top industrial-design firm Ideo Product Development (it designed the mouse for both Apple and Microsoft, and the snazzy housing for Silicon Graphics computers) is a good example. It has several "vice presidents" who awarded themselves the title to get the free subscriptions some magazines give VPs. Ideo's performance reviews used to be done by a person's boss and two peers of the employee's own choosing, but that system, offbeat though it was, had to be scrapped a couple of years ago when the company realized that for many employees (more than one in ten) it was impossible to identify a boss. Now people pick two peers plus one from a slate of six "management types." According to Tom Kelley, people tend to pick demanding evaluators: "The culture says don't pick softies, because this is about improving performance, not about getting ahead."

This kind of teamwork can be very seductive to the individual. At work or on the playing fields of Eton, everyone has experienced transcendental teamwork, a sweet spot of accomplishment and fellow-feeling. When it's working, says Ward Howell's Witte, "the more you contribute, the more other people promote you. It is inspiring." Out at Boeing, people on the teams that make the 777 jetliner weep when one of those babies rolls out of the hangar. "Hot groups," emeritus Stanford business professor Harold J. Leavitt calls them. While they last they can make you think, if your mind inclines this way, that Rousseau was right: In the state of nature we were noble savages, none better than any other, free adherents to a social contract, and if we could only extirpate hierarchy we could return to that paradisiacal place of mutual and reciprocal fraternity.

Teams can do extraordinary work, but it's a dicey proposition to put You Inc.'s fate in collectivist hands. Teams are often inhospitable to oddballs and to some forms of ambition. Says Ideo's Kelley: "I warn recruits, if your needs are to climb the ladder, don't come here. Ambition is getting on the coolest projects." Peer-oriented meritocracy flourishes at Ideo, says Robert Sutton, a professor at Stanford's engineering school who is writing a book about the company. But, he cautions, it succeeds partly because the work is so complex that the hottest hotshots know they can't go it alone, and also because Ideo sits smack in the middle of Silicon Valley, where a reputation as a great teammate is the ticket to new ventures.

But there are limits. From a company's point of view, teams are of doubtful value as nurseries of executive talent, because no one knows why great teams come together or how to replicate their magic. The experience might happen once in a lifetime. By contrast, Douglas Smith, a consultant and author of Taking Charge of Change, says that with the old machinery of promotion and rewards, "when superiors made a judgment to move you up a grade, they could be pretty comfortable that you'd live up to their expectations." As for money, companies can rarely offer significant incentives--the kind that change your life--to reward teamwork. A smallish company of 1,000 people might have a couple of hundred teams, with many people serving on more than one. "How in the world can you ever keep track of it all?" Smith asks.

Companies always say they plump for the pack over the wolf-- there's a reason it's called corporate life--but they're really looking for leadership. When Laurie Siegel, director of compensation policy at AlliedSignal, sees a great team, "I will ask, 'Was leadership what made it great?' The answer is always yes. Then I ask, 'Who were the leaders?' and it is always easy to name them." Those are the people AlliedSignal is determined to keep and to create careers for. To be sure, leaders need team skills--as Siegel puts it, "Lone Rangers or political types don't survive at this company"--but they're a means to what AlliedSignal sees as the greater end. Siegel calls it "a culture of individualism that drives team performance," a paradoxical phrase that brings us back to our problem, You Inc. vs. the Team.

So what's to do? First, Smith says, "get a life: You need team skills to succeed." You can find an argument about whether team players are products of nature or nurture, but people compete for status in any group. The "status auction" is more polite in a team culture like Ideo's, says Sutton--it might reward sharing and punish dissers or swaggerers--but it still goes on. Even a natural-born egoist can be a valued teammate and adapt to local rules.

But--second--don't believe everything you hear about teams. Take team-play rhetoric to its limits, and you'd think capitalism had spawned New Soviet Man. Look at the business plan instead. Says Witte: "If you've got a company with a 9% net profit and it needs to get to 11% or 12%, and a couple of divisions are way below average, you want someone to shake up that organization but good. A team player? Not necessarily. But if the strategy is niche acquisitions, improved customer focus, a new service organization--then you need a team builder."

Third, whatever you do, put yourself on what George Bailey calls "the shareholder value team." You ought to be able to tell a convincing story--that is, an honest one--about how your work or your team's work has increased the value of the company. If that story's true, You Inc. will be fine. If it's not, no team can help you.