Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Why we should replace ‘team players’ with ‘mission players'

Are you a team player? Chances are you’re going to say ‘yes.’ Most people pride themselves on being team players. Job adverts specify team players. Job candidates plaster their resumes with ‘team player.’ HR departments send off people for ‘team playing’ training.

But let’s first see what ‘team player’ means in conventional wisdom. Typically, a team player is someone who works for the benefit of the team. Here’s a wonderful team player, as generally prescribed:

  • Communicates effectively
  • Is reliable
  • Has a positive attitude
  • Participates actively
  • Listens actively
  • Shares information willingly
  • Looks to solve problems rather than complain
  • Pitches in without being asked or told
  • Is adaptable
  • Is self-motivated and proactive
  • Makes the boss look good (unstated)

You get the drift.

In every list of desirable team-player traits, I’ve not once seen, “Willingness to openly dissent” or “Courage to tell the truth to power.”

Teams are considered to be successful if team-players nod their heads enthusiastically and nobody steps out of line, whoever defines that line (typically the boss). I googled images for ‘team player’ and predictably, all the images had happy people in groups – holding hands, exchanging high-fives, locking arms and so on. There wasn’t a single image of disagreement and someone saying, “Hey, we’re doing something seriously wrong!”

If the team is pulling in one direction and an individual disagrees and frantically pulls in another direction, the individual is not considered to be a team player. Because most of all, team players are not ‘disruptive.

Yet in reality, team players have been responsible for all kinds of problems and disasters, deaths even. This sounds ludicrous. But in many cases, team players - by their complicit silence, unwillingness to fight, or career-first pliability - have been instrumental in mission failure.

Bizarrely, truth-tellers aka whistle-blowers are ostracised for NOT being team players. This is a telling indictment of how we currently define ‘team player.’ It’s no surprise that individuals who call out wrongdoing are labelled with a term (whistle-blower) that is separate from ‘team player’. In many whistle-blower cases, team-members get away lightly and are often rewarded, while the whistle-blower suffers a ruined career.

The point is, in relation to mission success, it may be critically important to step out of line and not be a ‘team player.’ For example, in the space shuttle Challenger disaster, an engineer, the late Roger Boisjoly, went against the decision to go ahead with the launch – he repeatedly made representations that a disaster was waiting to happen. Clearly not a team player then. He was over-ruled, though he was subsequently proven right by events. Nonetheless, his career nosedived. But had his team focused on mission success rather than team ‘success,’ the disaster would not have happened.

The problem with focusing on the team’s success is that team members may have implicit short-term goals based on their individual careers. A company may have a long term mission focused on the next 10 years, whereas the teams could have quarterly goals achievable only by damaging the mission.

The worst part is, if there’s mission failure, the first thing that's checked is, “Did the teams work properly?” ‘Properly’ as defined by conventional wisdom of course. If the answer is yes, nobody seems to care that the mission itself was compromised. All the effort then shifts to shunting and hounding out any whistle-blowers, ie non-team players. This is insanity but unfortunately, it’s reality.

So what we need are mission players. We need to start using the term ‘mission players.’ We need to seek out mission players. We need to look for resumes that show proven ability to tell the truth to power. We need to advertise for people who can focus on a mission.

Of course, I am not saying that team-skills are unimportant. They are. But the ability to focus on the mission should count the most. Only then will whistle-blowers be respected and rewarded, rather than penalized.  

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