Re-examining the meaning of “team player”

Team player imageCrystal Spraggins, SPHR

Quick—what qualities come to mind when you hear the term “team player?”

How about someone who is:

  • Cooperative,
  • Conscientious,
  • Helpful,
  • Flexible,
  • Hardworking, and
  • Honest?

Now here’s another question. Why do all of these qualities cease to have meaning the moment someone goes from the “in” group to the “out” group, such as when he or she gets on the bad side of someone “important”? (Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.)

Hold that thought.

Here’s yet another question. Why is it, in this modern day, fast-moving economy, that qualities like…

  • Innovative,
  • Opinionated,
  • Passionate,
  • Forward-Thinking,
  • Willful,
  • Sharp, and
  • Brave

…never seem to make the “team player” list? Is it really true there’s no “I” in team? And why is that, exactly?

What is a team, anyway?

Merriam Webster defines “team” as simply “a group of people who work together.” However, anyone who’s spent any length of time in the corporate world (as I presume readers of this blog have) knows that when it comes to teams, “people working together” doesn’t describe the half of it.

At their best, teams are comprised of individuals with complementary skills who work collaboratively toward a common goal, each one using his (or her) particular talents to good effect.

At their worst … well, let’s leave that for another day.

How come there’s no “I” in team, again?

A common idea of a “team player” is someone who gets along with everyone by doing whatever anyone asks, but when you think about it, that’s kind of dumb.

An ability to not make waves shouldn’t be the end all be all of a good team player. Where’s the creativity? Where’s the innovation? Where’s the thoughtful analysis? Besides, everyone knows it’s impossible to please all the people all the time, which means that if a team is together long enough, or if the stakes are high enough, or (better yet) if people care enough, conflict will occur.

And so, the expectation that a good team player is someone who never angers the wrong person is silly, and it hurts people, too, oftentimes good people who are committed to their jobs and their company’s success.

It’s also a huge mistake to assume that someone with a strong will isn’t capable of subordinating his (or her) ego for a common cause. That’s just not true. Emotionally mature folks are able to place their egos in check, even when they have a strong viewpoint they care to express.

In other words, there’s no good reason why anyone’s personhood has to disappear for him or her to be considered a good team player. In fact, a smart employer should welcome employees’ individuality. It keeps life interesting and results in better decision making, too.

A good team player …

To recap, the definition of a “good team player” (who contributes on and to a high-performing team) needn’t hinge on an individual’s ability to be eternally likable by everyone—including the office curmudgeons/tyrants/bullies, who like hardly anyone—and there’s no reason a person needs to take the “I” out of “I” to be a valuable member of the team.

In fact, anyone who can’t respectfully consider someone else’s “otherness” might want to rethink his (or her) willingness to be a “good team player.”

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