When Is a Team Player Not a Team Player?

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Summary:
It may seem like a contradiction, but you can view yourself as a team player and still impede your team's ability to succeed. Consider one team that Naomi Karten observed during a four-hour problem-solving session.

Moments after the group gathered, Jonathan, a personable, outgoing fellow volunteered to facilitate the group's efforts. At that, he positioned himself at the flipchart, marker in hand, ready to take notes. Jonathan had previously told me with pride that he was a team player and he truly saw himself as one. He wanted his team to succeed and was highly motivated to contribute to their shared effort.

But once at the flipchart, Jonathan did as much to obstruct the team's effort as to support it. For example, he dismissed several ideas that differed from his own, and discounted some suggestions without trying to understand the reasoning behind them. He seemed unfazed when several people spoke simultaneously. As the effort proceeded, he failed to notice expressions of annoyance on the faces of some team members - or if he noticed, he did nothing about them.

Jonathan's heart was in the right place. He was a team player. How could it be otherwise, given how strenuously he wanted the team to succeed? Yet from the way he worked, it was as if he'd been directed to do all he could to make the problem harder to solve than it actually was.

The same was true of other participants—team players all. For example, one team member said she was good at listening to many simultaneous speakers; then moments later, she misstated a key point one of them had just made. Another said he'd support any solution as long as the session ended quickly. Then he continually inserted ideas that prolonged the discussion.

None of them seemed aware of how their behavior was counteracting the very success they wanted the team to achieve. Under the pressure of time, they acted in a manner that ensured their effort would need more time rather than less.

Partway through the session, with the team's energy plummeting, I asked them to describe their reactions to the team effort. Several said they were frustrated, impatient, or disappointed. Yet they said nothing until explicitly asked.

Did they solve the problem by their deadline? Yes, they did. But they could have solved it with fewer frayed nerves and ruffled feathers if they had built a foundation of respect and caring as their starting point. When time isn't spent up front building a strong foundation for working together, even more time is inevitably needed to repair the foundation when it cracks. The mark of a successful team is not just that it achieves a successful outcome, but that team members enjoy working together and would like to continue doing so.

A team that destroys itself in the course of accomplishing its mission is no team at all. Even if everyone is a team player.

User Comments

6 comments
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Oh so true Naomi -- people using the phrase "team player" yet not truly clear on what that means. The first example you mentioned -- power of the pen -- was in full swing it would seem. The second, listening skills, is often missed as a key element of teaming. Great post that will take all teams to a new level of discovery.<br>Kate Nasser

December 16, 2009 - 7:37pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

The real issue is that Jonathan was not a very good facilitator. Just because he wants to be a team player does not imply that he can then play a role he is not well trained for.

December 16, 2009 - 7:37pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

"You're not being a team player" is one of those coded bits of exclusionary speech meant to message that "you" are not being a compliant. It's Dubya's, "You're either with us or you're with the terrorists" ploy. There are times (and I believe often), when being a "team player" does a disservice to the organization. Too much "team playing" and you have nothing more that groupthink. BTW, too little team playing and you find chaos-- there is a middle ground... I use the term "controlled contention" to describe that magic spot where there is a balance of team cohesion, but a clear willingness of participants to speak up and challenge the group to think a different way.<br><br><br><br>

December 16, 2009 - 9:43pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Kate, thanks for your comment. I agree. People use the term "team player" because it sounds good and it's something they want to see in themselves. But often, they don't appreciate what being a team player entails. ~Naomi

December 18, 2009 - 9:16pm
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Richard, yes, exactly right. Each team player has strengths and weaknesses, and viewing yourself as a team player doesn't mean your weaknesses suddenly become strengths. ~Naomi

December 17, 2009 - 1:52am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous

Kenneth, you've raised an interesting and important point. Too often, management uses "team player"(as in "you're not one") to suppress behavior they don't like or don't know how to handle. In my post, I was focusing on behaviors that were well-intended, but that led the team in a direction that was counterproductive. But I agree with you about the potential for group-think when there's too much team-playing, and I like your notion of "controlled contention" as the middle ground between too much team playing and too little. Very thought-provoking. ~Naomi

December 17, 2009 - 1:59am

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