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Is There a Dark Side to Being a Team Player?

Have you ever wished one of your staff members would be more of a team player? Have you ever been told you’re a team player? Or maybe you’ve been told you weren’t acting like a team player at some point. We talk a lot about being a team player, but today I want to breakdown this concept, including its dark side.

Many of us have grown up with the notion that it’s good to be a team player. If you look at it from a sports perspective, it’s about actively contributing to the team’s success vs just being in it for yourself. If you’re a Ted Lasso fan, you know that at the beginning of the series Jamie Tartt was definitely in it for himself. The team wasn’t happy. The coach wasn’t happy. The fans were happy when he scored, but not when the team lost. Most of his story line was then dedicated to his transformation from show-off to a team player. Why? Because as a society we believe it’s better to be a team player. Or rather, if you’re not a team player, you’re somehow being selfish or working against the team.

When we apply this work, it’s a similar concept. Again, at its core we’re talking about how you actively contribute to the team’s success. That seems like a good thing, right? But what does it mean to be a team player? It is really the gold standard we make it out to be? Or is there a dark side of this idea of “being a team player?” Hint – Yes, there absolutely is, as noted in the title and introduction.

Now, I’ve heard this term “team player” pop up quite a bit over the past few years. I’ve had coaching clients ask “how can I get _____ to be more of a team player?” I’ve had other friends and Institute participants talk about how when they expressed an unpopular opinion or perhaps suggested they didn’t have the resources to tackle another project, they were accused of “not being a team player.” The thing about being a “team player” is it’s a phrase that’s often thrown around, but rarely defined in specific terms. I mean what is it that you’re supposed to do – or not do – that makes sure you’re hitting the target, both as a supervisor and an individual on a team.

As with everything on a team, this starts with the leader of the team. In sports, this is the coach. At work, this is your direct supervisor for you and you for your team. Yes, there are going to be outside influences from administration, institutional culture, larger society, etc., but if you recall from previous episodes, managers account for 70% of variance in employee engagement. Yes, yes, I know. We JUST talked about engagement last week, but it’s absolutely connected. Right now, my point is how much influence supervisors have over their team – even if you don’t feel like that’s the case. We’ll get more into how engagement comes into play in a bit.

Since the leader/supervisor is the one judging individual contributions, that means ultimately you are the one defining what being a team player is, right? Just like your supervisor is defining it for you. Well, the problem is, that definition seems to vary widely. I gave a general description earlier - actively contributing to the team’s success. But what does that actually look like and who gets to decide what defines team success?

When I was coaching one supervisor, we talked about how - let’s call them Larry – how Larry just wasn’t being a team player. That was frustrating for both her and her team, because seemingly Larry was doing less work than other people. Okay. That seems like a legitimate issue. So, I asked what was the problem with Larry’s behavior. Evidently, Larry would do his work and then sit and wait for the next assignment or task. Meanwhile, it was enrollment time, so everyone else was answering emails and reviewing forms whenever they had any free time. Now when this supervisor would tell Larry to answer emails, he’d do it without complaint. But she had to tell him specifically what you wanted him to do vs. him instinctively knowing or sensing how he could “contribute to the team’s success.”

Some of you are probably going, “Yes! I have a Larry too! What’s their deal? Why aren’t you working harder?” The deal in this case, at least in part, was unclear expectations. For all intents and purposes, Larry was doing his job, right? He did his specific tasks and when asked, did the old “other duties as assigned.” But that’s not what most people think of as a team player, is it? We seem to be looking for folks to go above and beyond their job description. But, if the assumption is you should go beyond your job description and also do ____, ____, and ____, for the benefit of the team, then why isn’t that simply an expectation? Why do people insist on having these invisible expectations that we hope people rise to even though we don’t explicitly say it?

It reminds me of a cartoon I once saw about a couple fighting. One was complaining to her partner that they never did the dishes unless they were asked. The partner snapped back, “What’s the problem? I always do them without complaining when you ask!” Her reply was, “I don’t want them to do the dishes, I want them to want to do the dishes.” In this scenario, the couple had obviously not had a clear conversation outlining expectations about the dishes. So, it wasn’t good enough that the partner was willing to do the dishes when told, they were expected to mind read and just want to do the dishes. We do this all the time at work. We reward some people for meeting our unstated expectations, but punish people or look down on others for doing what they were told to do. How is that fair?

During this particular coaching session, we talked about how yes, some people will pick up on what others are doing and/or see a need and jump in to do it, but Larry really wasn’t doing anything wrong. If she wanted Larry to behave differently, she was going to have to give him those specific expectations. We’ve talked about the importance of specific expectations in other episodes, so I don’t want to go too deep here. But one of the problems supervisors often have, is that they aren’t clear on what they want – they just know when it’s missing. In this case, she wasn’t clear that part of Larry’s job was when he had finished his specific tasks, he was expected to check the group email, check their forms, and reply.

If you want your people to do specific things, then you need to be specific about what they are. It’s that simple. Larry wasn’t underperforming. Other members of the team were either choosing to do more which happened to meet the unstated expectations of the supervisor. The very first question on Gallup’s engagement survey is Q01. I know what’s expected of me at work. Saying someone isn’t a team player because you haven’t defined what you want is blaming Larry for you not being clear.

Now, that being said, you may have underperforming staff members. That’s a completely different thing than “not being a team player.” It’s about performance management. We’ve talked about this in other episodes, as well. Part of your job as a supervisor, is to manage your team member’s performance. This includes setting clear expectations, checking in along the way, and then holding them accountable. Complaining about people not being a team player or even worse, asking other staff members to “be a team player” to make up the work is not a solution that’s going to build a strong, successful team. The ninth element of Gallup’s engagement survey is Q09 - My associates of fellow employees are committed to going quality work. Focusing on people’s attitude or commitment level isn’t realistic. But you can address poor performance. In fact, must address it in a timely manner. When you don’t, it can negatively impact everyone’s engagement level, especially when they’re being asked to pick up the slack.

Now I want to go back for a second and talk about what I mentioned earlier – being accused of not being a team player. This could happen for the reason we’ve just been discussing – unclear expectations. But I’ve also seen and heard of it being used when someone offers a different perspective or if they push back because boundaries are being violated. We think being a team player is a good thing, so if you’re not it’s automatically considered bad. So, if you want someone to stop what they’re doing – whether it be challenging the status quo, a decision, or making reasonable requests, a great way to do it is to say they’re not being a team player.

But here’s the thing, “being a team player” is only a good thing if it actually benefits the team AND each of the individual members. Jaime Tartt figured out that working together ultimately meant more wins for the team. But he also had better relationships with those team members, so much so that when things didn’t go well, they were there for him in a way no one else ever was. There was success in winning, but also success in the wellbeing of each team member. It was literally a win-win.

As I’ve previously mentioned, I’m a Gallup Certified Strengths Coach, so we’ve talked about how differences are an advantage and how we need other people before. We all see the world through the lenses of our talents. This can lead to great things, but we have to understand that our way is not always the right or best way. It’s simply “our way.” And when you’re stressed, you’re more likely to double down on your talents – aka how you see a situation – even if your talents are showing up as weaknesses. That means you’re probably missing something, which means poorer decisions and outcomes.

As a leader, you need to be aware of your biases toward your own talents. Sure, some people aren’t the most tactful when they’re offering alternative views, but remember engagement element Q07 – Does your opinion seem to count? I’m not at all suggesting you change every decision you make because someone disagrees, or refuse to move forward until everyone is on board. But what I am suggesting is that if you label folks who do disagree or bring up potentially valid issues as simply not being team players, then they and possibly others on your team are going to stop talking altogether. Instead of trying to make things better than they found them as engaged employees, those individuals are just going to stop being psychologically invested in their job – aka stop being engaged. And the folks around them who might not have spoken up but feel the same way, are going to know that if THEY speak up, they’ll be labeled the same way. So, you’ve silenced them too.

In addition to lowering the engagement level of your team, it’s also potentially and ironically interfering with team success. You – or perhaps your supervisor – may believe that X is the right way to handle a situation, but what if it isn’t. Would the team actually do better if you changed a system or a program? Would students be more successful if you expanded your view of the situation? It’s easy to assume that people are complaining or just trying to get in the way of progress, but that’s not always the true.

There are absolutely cases where the individuals who are questioning decisions or suggesting alternate perspectives ARE doing it for the group’s success. They ARE trying to go above and beyond to try to leave things better than they found them. In fact, if they’re doing it when they know you’re not going to be receptive, they’re putting themselves in a very vulnerable place in the hopes that they can get you to see things from a different point of view. But because this idea of “being a team player” is so loaded, it’s easy to use it to just shut folks down. This is a huge problem because it will absolutely impact engagement and how much your team trusts you. If you’ve ever had this happen to you, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

I have a lot of thoughts on this topic, but I want to make this both thought provoking and relatively short so more folks will have time to listen. I’m going to try to bring this together by talking about when this team player business can be a positive thing, and when it’s a red flag. This is true for you as a team member and as a supervisor.

As I mentioned, earlier being a team player is only good when it brings success to both the team and each individual member. They say a team is greater than the sum of its parts, but if the parts aren’t healthy or well your team isn’t going to be either. If the team you’re on isn’t aligned with your values or keeps asking you to ignore healthy boundaries, you need to think long and hard about whether it’s the right team for you. When you’re being asked to do any of the following in the name of “being a team player,” I’m calling a red flag…

  • Being asked to do an unreasonable amount of work

  • Doing extra work without getting compensated

  • Doing extra work to make up for an underperforming team member

  • Being asked to do another person’s job because they can’t afford to replace them

  • Helping others, but rarely getting help yourself

  • Being asked to silence your thoughts and perspectives

  • Being told not to question decisions or processes

  • And again, doing anything that violates healthy boundaries, including all the above

And just to clarify what I mean by red flag, it’s that all the benefits of this supposed team work is for others – students, other team members, your supervisor, the administration, etc. And if your wellbeing is being compromised, that’s a team who’s focused on achieving goals not about the success of the overall team. If that’s the case, they’re using “being a team player” to manipulate you – not matter how good their intentions may be.

Now as with most things, there’s also a positive side to this team player concept. I’m already going longer than I’d planned, so in a nutshell, if you’re being asked to do thing that will ultimately benefit you and the team without sacrificing healthy boundaries then it can absolutely be a win-win. I’m talking about things like…

  • Taking on an extra assignment that is legitimately a professional development opportunity

  • Pitching in to help a staff member finish a project, because you know they’ll do the same for you in the future – and you’ll be sure to ask them too

  • Understanding your team’s talents and using them to develop complementary partnerships that allow everyone to be more effective and productive

  • Asking you to share your input so a project, policy, or decision can be improved

Neither of these are exhaustive lists, but hopefully you can tell the difference between the two. All of this being said, I hope you can see how the concept of “being a team player” has the potential to strengthen a team when used in a way that takes into account the wellbeing of the individuals as well as the team. It also has the potential to be used as a weapon to keep people in line or to manipulate people into doing unreasonable things that aren’t in their own best interest.

As a supervisor, you need to careful how you use this term. If you’re just trying to get someone to work harder or stop doing something you don’t like, you need to step back and ask yourself some questions. Are you being clear with your expectation? Is this person shining a light on a systemic problem or offering another perspective that I’ve missed? Or are they underperforming and I need to better manage their performance?

Likewise, as an individual, you need to think about whether the things being asked in the name of the team are aligned with what’s best for you. If they’re not, it maybe time to find a team that is.

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