Why isn't a Good Team Player good for a team?

Posted by Andy Singleton on December 15, 2008 11:47:00 AM

A candidate described himself as a“good team player” in a resume he sent me last week. While the angel on my right shoulder was saying to me “We have teams. We need a good team player,” the devil on my left shoulder was jumping up and down and screaming “Stay away. He's a loser. You want someone who can do the whole damn job by himself.” Statistically, the devil is right. We have found that if someone puts “good team player” on a resume, the probability that he will succeed in a trial is low.


Even stranger, it often happens that someone who describes himself as a good team player will not deliver on something that his teammates need, frustrate the other team members, lower team morale, and actually provoke a request for removal.


It seems to me that “good team player” means that the applicant is reliable and co-operative from a management point of view, not from a team point of view. It means he will do what the boss tells him to do. It doesn't mean that the other team members can rely on him to carry their burden.


My friend Doug Smith in “The Wisdom of Teams” makes three points that will explain what is happening.


1) He observes that high performance teams are not necessarily composed of people who like each other. Instead, they are composed of people who share the same goal. In pursuing the goal, they can achieve high performance even if they might be described as bad team players. Winning at work is great positive feedback to keep them going and support their relationships.


2) He points out that in a high performance team, leadership moves from person to person. When challenges arise in the area where one team member is working, he will step forward to lead an effort, point out the need for change,or finish something important. This type of team rewards people that are good at their jobs.


3) If you have a “single leader”who tells everyone what to do, it's not a team by the definition of“Wisdom of Teams”. It's a bunch of relatively interchangeable people following instructions. This can be a good management model if the leader/manager is sure he knows what to do. The “single leader” is the target of the “good team player” line, not the team.


I am reminded of the story of Patroclus, the sidekick of Achilles. Patroclus was a definitely not a team player. He grabbed Achilles armor, and ran onto the battlefield under a false identity. For one glorious afternoon, the sidekick was the leader, pulling the Achaeans forward, driving the Trojans back. Then, by not following instructions, he got himself killed. In doing so he turned the tide of the war and united his teammates.


The team fielded by the Achaeans in the Illiad is a management nightmare, showing off, arguing over women,carrying baggage from past gigs, fighting violently, and threatening to walk off the job. But they win the war. I will not allow someone to threaten to walk off the job. Someone who does that is surely not going to support the team, and I have to take him off the job pre-emptively. But I have come to believe if you keep your heroes motivated with a clear goal, which suppresses disagreement, you can have a winning team.

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About the author

Andy SingletonWorking on Continuous Agile and Accelerating Innovation, Assembla CEO and startup founder

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