The Great Team Player Hoax
If you’re a supervisor, that means you have a team. Maybe it’s just a team of one or two people. Or maybe you directly and indirectly supervise dozens of folks. Either way, we often judge our team members in terms of how well they contribute to the team – aka who’s a team player. What this usually means is the people who are going above and beyond are considered MVPs, while people who “just” do their jobs are looked upon as less valuable. We’re going to debunk this idea and talk about just how damaging it can be both to individuals and your team.
Now a few months ago, I wrote an article called “Is There a Dark Side to Being a Team Player?” While this is a similar concept, I want to take a slightly different approach this time because so many of you are in the process of onboarding new team members and preparing your team for the fall. First, I want to both expose how damaging our current idea of a team player really is. Then, I’ll give you some take aways on how to better assess team members and build your team in a way that’s beneficial for everyone. Specifically, to build your team so that everyone is contributing in a way that creates a healthy and productive team, but also allows for individuals to set healthy boundaries for themselves at work. And while that may seem like something that’s nice, but not really “your problem,” when folks have healthy boundaries it gives them the space to both be more engaged and productive at work.
I’m not a huge sports fan, but I played tennis and softball back in the day. One of the things I’ve noticed is that when sports teams talk about being a team player, it’s very different than what we tend to think of as being a team player in Higher Ed. I’m going to start out with a sports analogy that I think most of you will be able to follow. But even if you “don’t get” sports don’t worry. I’ll absolutely tie this back into work, so stick with me.
Let’s say you’re the coach of a competitive softball team. Maybe you’re not pros, but most folks are there because they want to win. Not to take you out of the story so early, but at work I’d wager that most of you and your team want to do your best to help students – aka win. So, I think this is the right set up for the analogy.
If you want to be a winning team, you as the coach have a few jobs to do. One is to assess the skills of each player to find out where they belong on the field. If you’ve inherited the team, you may have noticed that some people seem to be in the right spot, but some may not be playing in the right positions or just need to improve their skills to excel. If you were down a few players, you might have recruited some that were great at a specific position. Like maybe John was a successful short stop on another team, so you snatched him up. Maybe Alana was the catcher on a championship team, so you asked her to join yours. Now I know that some of you aren’t even playing with a full team, but we’ll get to that in a few minutes.
All the members of your team will have to have some basic skills to be successful, like throwing accurately, catching a ball in motion, hitting the ball, and running the bases. But at the end of the day, each of your players will be filling a specific position that function in different ways. You’ll need a pitcher, catcher, someone on all of the bases, a short stop, and three people in the outfield to make a complete team. Each of those positions has different duties and responsibilities for the team.
Now you may already be wondering, doesn’t it make sense to cross train everyone on the team, so you can move people around if necessary? Sure, a little cross training can be helpful. After all, if someone is injured or there’s an emergency and they can’t make it to the game, you might need to adjust your players. But keep in mind, the more effort players put into learning other positions, the less time and energy they’re putting into mastering their own positions and the specialized knowledge and skills that comes with it. When you think of successful athletes, they specialize in one position. They’re not changing positions each game. Besides, we’ve already talked about everyone having a similar baseline of transferable skills, so that should cover most situations where someone might have to cover for another player.
Okay, back to your softball team. If you’re a softball coach, what would you say makes a great team player? Or to really go all in on the sports analogy, what makes an MVP? At the core, an MVP is a person who excels at their specific job and works collaboratively with their team to bring about a win. They excel so much in their role that their contribution made a huge impact on the outcome of the game. That seems simple enough, right?
Athletes who become the MVP of a game or maybe even a season are typically the ones who push themselves during practice, and maybe even practice more than the team does to make sure they’re in top form. But what they don’t do is push themselves to the point of exhaustion or injury. After all a tired and injured player is no good to the team. They do everything they can to build on their talents, develop their skills, and practice until they’re almost perfect in their role. Yes, they work WITH other players on the team to bring about this success, but they stay in their lane. Note: If you’ve followed my articles or podcast a while, you’re going to notice that this very much echoes the CliftonStrengths philosophy.
Now what do you think of when you’re considering who is an MVP on your non-softball team? Is it someone who’s excels in their role? Someone who invests in their talents and professional development to make sure they know everything they can and develop the right skills to bring out their very best in the role? Maybe that first part. But usually, we prefer our MVPs to spend their time “helping out” other players and finding new ways to contribute instead of investing in their own role. When you talk about your team players, is it the people who pick up the slack from less skilled or motivated team members? Maybe it’s someone who not only does their job, but also volunteers for other jobs that seemingly need to get done. Do those people stay late and come in early? Do they answer emails and calls at home? Or all too often these days, if you’re down a position or two in the office, is it your team players who willingly agree to take over those duties?
When I’m coaching supervisors, the issue of being a team player often comes up. “What do I do about Brendan? It’s not that he isn’t doing his job, but he’s just not a team player. Sure, he does his job, but that’s it. I wish he could be more like Leshay. She just jumps in where ever she’s needed in the office.” There are, of course, team members that aren’t doing the basics of their job, but we’ll get to under performers in a minute.
Let’s think about what that would look like on the ball field. You’ve got a great pitcher. One who’s amazing at striking out the other team. They spend plenty of time practicing to make sure their aim is solid and communicating with the catcher to select the best strategy for each batter. What if instead of focusing on pitching, they decided they needed to be a team player like the ones we value so much in Higher Ed. Maybe they’ve noticed the player on first base isn’t super quick. Sometimes they miss the balls thrown to them or even when they catch them, they aren’t always fast enough to tag out the runner. So, your pitcher being the good team player they are, decides that in addition to pitching, they need to make sure they’re keeping an eye on first base. That way they can move to catch any balls headed that way, and if necessary, sprint to the base to make sure any runner gets tagged out.
If you’re like most supervisors in Higher Ed, that sounds pretty awesome, right? There was a weakness on the team and this great team player stepped up and took care of it. But what’s the problem with this scenario? Well first, the pitcher is now dividing their attention between pitching and covering first. Are they going to be pitching their best, if they’re also worried about covering first? Probably not. Second, outside of the game, your pitcher might feel like instead of spending all of their time practicing pitching, they need to spend some of that time working on first base related skills. Now, if they’re really motivated, they might not decrease pitching practice, but instead decide to add on more time to practice related to covering first base. That’s going to impact their overall performance because they’re going to be exhausted. And when you’re tired, you’re more likely to injure yourself. During a game, this additional role is going to wear them down more quickly, both mentally and physically, so the quality of both their pitching and their fielding is going to suffer.
The third problem is how might this impact their relationship with the first baseman? Sure, maybe at times they’re appreciative of the help. I mean who doesn’t need help now and again? But if it keeps happening, they might start to resent it. “Hey BLEEP-hole. I can do my job. You’re not even giving me a chance to improve.” A strong team needs to trust each other and communicate to win games. Unless the person playing first base has specifically asked the pitcher to help cover, there’s a good chance it’s going to cause problems between the two of them.
And finally, if your pitcher is constantly covering for the person on first base, what motivation does the first baseman have to improve? Sure, maybe they’re embarrassed or competitive and that will make them try harder. But even if that’s the case, see my third point from just a second ago. The solution to under performance is either more skill development and practice until they get it, moving them to a more suitable position, or removing them from the team. Ignoring the problem by putting one of your “team players” on it, is just going to run divide that persons focus and run them down more quickly. Yes, it's easier for you in the short run because you save the time you’d need to invest in that underperforming player, but long term you’ve created two problems.
In this example, the pitcher is just helping one other position. But in Higher Education, we’re typically not talking about just helping out in one area, are we? We’re talking about the pitcher pitching, covering first, running up and getting the ball if the catcher drops it, and maybe washing the uniforms after the game. With each new task, that’s energy and focus taken away from someone’s primary duties. Each additional “team player” responsibility means a decrease in the quality of their primary duty. We may call those people “team players,” but they’re not actually bringing the team closer to victory. They’re just try trying to keep the team from falling apart. On a competitive softball team, that means losing. In Higher Ed, it means our students may not be getting what they need, not matter how hard we’re working.
Now let’s address this idea that remaining team members need to absorb the duties of staff who leave or are out for a long time. On a softball team, maybe someone is sick or injured, or maybe there’s an emergency and they just can’t show for a game. Can one person cover two positions? Yes, if they’re physically close enough. When I played softball, I’d occasionally have to cover center and left field. But when I did, my performance for either position wasn’t as good. Why? Because it was physically impossible for me to be in both left and center field at once, so I had to place myself in the middle, scan both areas, and run back and forth wherever the ball was headed. That means it was more physically and mentally exhausting trying to cover both positions. I didn’t mind it for a game or two, but if I’d been told I was just covering two positions forever, it definitely would have impacted my enjoyment and engagement. If I had been asked to cover three positions, I would have just quit because it’s not sustainable and I’d probably end up getting hurt.
Many of you are dealing with more than one “missing player.” Either you’re waiting to fill the role, or too bad so sad, the position is being eliminated. Either way the expectation from administration is that your team keep doing all the things. In a softball game, you can play with eight people, but any fewer than that and you have to forfeit. You can’t just say, “Hey, don’t worry about it. Chris is going to cover all of the outfield. Becky can pitch and cover first, etc.” Without enough players to cover the key positions, one of two things will happen. One, your team’s going to get their BLEEP kicked. Two, everyone is going to be exhausted and possibly get hurt from trying to do more on the field than is reasonable. Okay, so actually both of those things can happen. But no matter which ones of those occur, it’s not going to lead to a winning team. Maybe a surviving one, but at what cost?
As a supervisor, you are the coach of your team. This isn’t just a sports analogy. I’ve talked about how important coaching is as a supervisor in other articles. A softball coach is very involved in both the practice and the game. During practice, they don’t just schedule the practice and say “okay you know your positions. Call me later and let me know if there are any problems. I’ve got other stuff to get done.” They are watching their team to find out who needs more work on batting or catching fly balls. Then they make a plan so those players learn the skills and get the practice they need to be successful.
Same thing during a game. Great coaches don’t just come to the game, tell everyone what position they’re playing, go to the dugout to do their paperwork, and then after the game wonder what went wrong. They’re actively involved in putting the right person in the right place at the right time. They make changes as necessary and communicate with the entire team to make sure everyone is on the same page. And when things don’t go well in the game, they immediately start addressing that during the next practice to make sure players have the skills they need to do their job well. Or they consider moving folks to positions better suited to their talents. If they don’t, those problems will continue to impact the entire team’s success.
What good coaches do not do, is pull aside their pitcher and say, “Hey I don’t know if you noticed, but Sam is having trouble at first base and I don’t have time to invest in making sure they improve. Can you cover that position too?” We’ve already talked about why that’s a losing strategy. When your pitcher can’t focus on pitching, they’re no longer going to be a great pitcher. And perhaps even more importantly, they could wind up injured because they’re trying to do too much.
MVPs are valuable players because they know their role in the game and spend all of their time and energy focused on being the best at that role. They depend on other players to do their role well, then work together to win. They are not valuable players because they run around the field doing everyone’s job.
When we ask people to do that, what we’re really doing is asking our strongest team members to cover systemic issues. Maybe the problem is the work to personnel ratios - aka too much work, not enough staff. Maybe the problem is that your institution hasn’t organized the various departments in a way that maximizes your productivity. Maybe you haven’t set up the right systems for yourself and your team. And just to be clear, I don’t mean that judgmentally. You’re probably just as overwhelmed as your team, if not more so. And if you’re like most supervisors in Higher Ed, you haven’t been given any sort of quality supervisor training to educate you about what you’re supposed to be doing. If you don’t have the right systems in place for managing your team’s performance or developing your team’s skills, it may seem like the solution is to have everyone pitch in everywhere they can. But that’s not effective and it ultimately hurts both your team’s performance and well-being.
You need to stop thinking of the folks who run themselves ragged to the point that they can’t possibly give 100% anywhere as being “team players.” When you do, all you’re doing is wearing out those individuals and keeping them from being successful in their primary role. You’re also undervaluing those team members who ARE focusing on their jobs and not buying into the idea that they should distract and exhaust themselves by doing 20 other things.
Finally, you’re failing your team members who may need to develop more skills and get more practice to become more proficient. No matter how talented and experienced an athlete is, they still practice with the team. They still learn new and better ways to perform. They focus on excelling in their position and communicating with their teammates to get the best outcome.
Supervising isn’t about crossing your fingers and hoping that you get employees who know exactly how to do everything perfectly without any investment or development. There are no such teams.
Now at this point, you may be thinking, “Okay, I get it, but there are no specific rules in Higher Ed about when a team gets to forfeit. My supervisor or administrators still expect my team of three to do the work of five.” What am I supposed to do about that?
That is an excellent question. And the answer is to start saying no. The answer is to start setting reasonable and firm boundaries for you and your team so you can be successful. If they - they meaning your supervisor or administration - won’t listen to your no, then you need to let your team fail in achieving these ridiculous expectations. One of the reasons people keep asking you and your team for more and more, is because you’ve been delivering more and more – even when it’s costing you and your team your wellbeing. So, stop.
I’ve had several friends complain that they keep getting more and more work and don’t know how much longer they can keep increasing their load. I asked them, “Why would they stop giving you work when you always get it done and get it done well?” And I mean, really, why would they? You saying, “I can’t keep going like this,” might make them feel bad for a hot second, but then they remember how much they need you to do so THEY look good, and they go into a pep talk about how awesome you are and how you can make this work.
And so many of you are trying to absorb this extra work yourself to protect your team. While that seems like a noble thing to do, YOU trying to embody this false idea of a team player is just as bad as your team members doing so. You need to be focused on your job – supervising your team. Getting distracted from your role does not help your team. If you’re not actively managing your team’s performance, helping them develop as a professional, and improving your team’s engagement, you’re not going to have a winning team.
The best thing you can do for you and your team is to start setting realistic boundaries and expectations. Stop believing the lie that team players are the ones constantly jumping around all over the place to take care of duties that belong to someone else, including hypothetical people that someone wished worked at the institution but don’t because “we can’t afford it right now.” But if that someone else already works for you, then you need to coach them to success, or remove them from the team. If that someone else is a person that quit years ago, then you need to work with your supervisor to decide what the priorities are so you can reorganize what’s expected of your team.
There are way too many of your team members being hurt because they’re being stretched in too many directions. Those wounds may not be sprained ankles or a torn rotator cuff, but just because you don’t see them limping around campus doesn’t mean they’re okay. People on your team are literally getting sick because of the stress at work – especially if they believe they have to live up to this false idea of what a team player looks like. Your team’s mental health, emotional wellbeing, and quality of life are negatively impacted. If we’re begin honest, you’re probably being impacted in the same way. And even if you don’t super care about how people feel or whether they’re tired, all of that is negatively impacting their productivity, engagement, and how they’re serving your students.
Winning teams are ones where everyone is focused on the things that they do best in a way that makes them shine in their role in the organization. That includes you focusing on your role as a coach. The real team players support the rest of the team by doing their own job well and doesn’t get distracted by what other players are or aren’t doing. Yes, they occasionally pick up a ball that comes their way to help out the team, but their primary focus is always on improving their own performance and making sure their responsibilities are covered.
In the last episode, I talked about three ways to build a winning team. If you haven’t listened to that, please do so. I talk about how important it is to focus on professional development, create better teamwork strategies – yes, including focusing on people’s talents, and improving your own management skills. I know you’re worn out from two years of covid and who knows how many years of Higher Education. But things won’t get better by hoping people are motivated enough to run around and pick up the pieces. Thinks will only get better by investing in yourself as a supervisor and in your team. And if you’re not already doing those things, the best time to start is now.
If you don’t know where to begin, we’ve got your back. I’ve talked about the Supervisor Strengths Institute quite a bit on the podcast, but I realize I’ve neglected to talk about all the other services we provide to support supervisors working in Higher Ed.
We offer workshops or retreats that can be done either virtually or in-person. When teams first start investing in strengths that typically includes an overview of the CliftonStrengths framework, as well as a team building element so folks can see how beneficial it is to focus on everyone’s talents. When we talk about coaching your team, Strengths is a powerful tool to help manage your team’s performance and development. But once you and your team understand your reports and how to start integrating Strengths into your daily routine, we can cover a variety of topics. We have more information on our website about our workshops. https://www.strengthsuniversity.org/teamservices. Or just shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now typically, we do workshops or retreats for specific teams. But as we were thinking about the fall semester, we wanted to provide some options for small teams. I mean if you have 10 or 20 people on your team, it’s easy to make that investment. But if you have a team of three or five, it seems like quite a bit per person. It’s still an excellent investment, but it might be a harder sell to your supervisor. To provide more options for smaller teams, Alicia and I have decided to do two virtual workshops this July for smaller teams. For just $125 per person, you and your team will participate in a (3.5 hour) workshop covering the Strengths basics and do team building exercises focused on your talents. We’ll put each team into their own breakout rooms for discussions and the team building exercises. You’ll have the option of purchasing CliftonStrengths codes for those team members who haven’t taken the assessment. The workshops will be on July 14th and 27th. We’ll have the registration page up soon. If you’re not already on our mailing list, you can sign up here - https://strengthsu.kartra.com/page/bundle. Not only will you be on our mailing list, but you’ll also get a Supervisor Success Bundle filled with information and tools to help you be more successful in your role.
I know this was a longer article than ones I’ve recently posted, but I hope it helped you see your team and how you should model your team players in a new way. Remember, you’re the coach. Your team depends on you to make sure they’re playing their best every day. And until next time, stay strong.
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