Archive for June 4th, 2009

OK, I confess: I am not a team player – at least, not in the sense that the expression is usually used around an office.

This admission is so burdened with nasty connotations that finding the courage to make it has taken most of my adult life. Nobody ever says so in as many words, but the implication is that something is wrong with you if you are not a team player.

In an office setting, not being a team player means that you are uncooperative, unwilling to make sacrifices for the sake of the company for which you work, and probably first in line to be fired. It suggests that something is deeply wrong with you, and that maybe you have other nasty habits as well.

In many ways, the usage reminds me of the admonition by a crowd to be a good sport. In both cases, the implication is that you should conform and do what others want to do, regardless of your own inclinations.

In other words, the threat of being called “not a team player” encourages you to be polite and do what is expected of you. Otherwise, you are letting people (or the company) down.

Such behavior may make daily life easier for a manager. If nothing else, people afraid of having a negative label applied to them can be coerced in endless hours of over-time. But, while I don’t go out of way to be unpleasant, personally I would rather eat sushi made from raw slugs that conform for no better reason than someone else’s convenience.

More importantly, from my observations the sort of behavior implied when the concept of a team player is raised is the exact opposite of what you want when you need to accomplish something.

When I was growing up, I did my share of team sports, mostly soccer and rugby. Perhaps, I was lucky, but, at the time, the pseudo-military atmosphere that prevails in football had no place in those sports. Nor could it; you can easily memorize a few moves from a standard position, but soccer and rugby both require a more active sense of smarts that can adjust to an ever-changing situation.

In such fast-moving games, the last thing you want is conformists. Instead, what you want to know is that the people on your team can think for themselves – that they will be in the position for you to pass the ball to them because they have anticipated what is about to happen on the field. You relied on your team mates’ competence, not their dedication to the team.

In my favorite sport, long distance running, this lesson was even more obvious. Sure, there were cross-country teams and points were tallied for each school at a track meet. At times, someone who was slower might even run interference to help a faster team member break away from the pack. But, mostly, you were alone with your own training and sense of strategy. If your team won, it was because those on it were prepared and alert.

As an adult, I find the same lesson in the free and open source software (FOSS) community. Operating systems like GNU/Linux or applications like Firefox, or Apache have not excelled because they were made in an organization of conformists. Instead, they have succeeded because their development model assumes the competence of those involved. For the most part, people coordinate their work with everyone else, then do it largely on their own and return it to the community for peer review. It is this system of individuals coordinating their separate work that is the secret of such projects’ successes.

A group of team players in the ordinary use of the term needs to work much harder to achieve the same level of excellence as such projects – assuming, that is, they can reach it at all. As for innovation, forget it. So-called team players simply aren’t geared for it. Nor are they likely to have the degree of personal responsibility and discipline needed to work in such a loosely-knit way.

When I have worked in offices that emphasize teamwork, I have always found that my efforts to achieve excellence swamped by the need to appear loyal and to swallow my opinions and interrupt my concentration with endless meetings. Team-players are skilled in jingoism and giving the appearance of getting work done, but the chances of them achieving anything beyond the bare specifications is minimal. When they do, you almost always find that the source of the excellence is someone on the fringes of the team who works on their own as much as possible.

If that is what being a team player means, then I, for one, want nothing to do with the label. To me, it is a code word for mediocrity. I achieve more personal satisfaction – and, in the end, help those around me more (including my employers) – if I work on my own with consultation as needed, and can trust those around me to do the same.


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