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Archive for June, 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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The other evening, we received a call from someone we knew fifteen years ago. We hadn’t heard from him for several years, and, while we had nothing particular against him, we were content to drift out of touch. But there he was, a disembodied voice bringing up names that these days we hardly thought of from one year to the next, and urging that we should get back in touch with people with whom we no longer had anything in common. The experience was sad and guilt-provoking in equal measure. At the same time, I resented it, because our caller believed he still had the right to make demands on us.

All in all, it was a perfect example of what American fantasist Harlan Ellison once called taking a tour through his life. He meant, as you can probably figure out, somebody leaping to conclusions about how he thought or felt, then acting upon them rather than responding to what he actually said or did.

I don’t have one-fortieth of the name recognition that Ellison had in his heyday, but as a writer who publishes mostly online, I have people taking tours through my life all the time. They miss the sarcasm, take a phrase out of context, or misread, and then they take me to task for what they imagine I said or believe.

For example, once when I did a brief commentary in which I suggested that a woman-only distribution of GNU/Linux might be worth trying. Among other things, I wrote, “I’m not a great believer in the idea that women are less aggressive than or interact differently from men. Yet even I have to admit that most of the regulars on free software mailing lists for women are politer and more supportive than the average poster on general lists.” Then one of the commenters inferred that I must be single and a loner who knew nothing about women, because they obviously were different from men. He apparently stopped reading with the first sentence of the passage, and was willing to blast me on the basis of his incomplete understanding. Never mind that another five seconds’ reading might have prevented his mistake and public embarrassment.

As an ex-university teacher who tried to encourage careful and sympathetic reading among students, my first impulse is to correct such statements as politely as I can. However, experience has taught me that the effort is usually a waste of time. Nobody likes being proved wrong at the best of times, but, when they are also proved incompetent, most people become defensive and angry. I save everybody’s time and keep my blood pressure lower if I don’t respond, or, at the very most, stop the email exchange after my second message.

That probably leaves the commenter thinking that they’ve won, but I can live with that. I don’t know them, after all.

But some tourists through my life are not simply on a self-conducted tour, but trying to sell other people tickets as well. There’s only two or three of them, but they spend a surprising amount of time on their blogs and web sites attacking me for what I did or didn’t do, or for what they imagine I said.

Why they attack me in particular, I have no idea. Maybe it’s because I write online and seem accessible.

What disturbs me about these tour guides is not that they disagree with me. They have every right to do so. Occasionally, they even point out actual mistakes (although they frequently confuse the concepts of “mistake” and “different opinion”). It is not even their relentless anger (explicable to me only as too much caffeine and too little sleep), their refusal to follow even the basics of civilized discussion, or the question of why they don’t write about someone important.

Rather, what disturbs me is the cognitive dissonance that sets in when I read their comments about me or my articles. Possibly, they get carried away by their own rhetoric, but the image they present of me or my articles is so far from any possible perspective that I can’t even call it a distortion. I suspect they are projecting an image drawn from their own imagination or systematic misreadings and over-simplifications. A Microsoft shill or dupe? A writer who is one with Dan Lyons and Laura Didio? Considering that an even larger group of readers identify me as completely biased to the free software school of thought, these accusations would be laughable if only they were not so humorless and ill-natured.

Emotionally, what they say about me has no resonance whatsoever. It simply strikes me as bizaare.

When I first started receiving these attacks, I used to respond to them, thinking that I couldn’t let such outrageous comments stand unchallenged. But doing so, I quickly found, is an even bigger waste of time than responding to those on the self-guided tours. The tour-guides never give in.

For these reasons, I rarely read the tour-guides. The occasional pingback to my blog or a note from a friend tells me that they are still out there, but I mostly catch only snippets of their latest rants. I tell myself that to be known as someone attacked by such people is a mark of honor, and, considering their other targets in the free software community (many of whom I’ve met and liked, although not always agreed with), I should consider their attacks a sign of distinction, no matter how undeserved.

But increasingly, just as with the former friend who called, when I happen across the tour-guides, what echoes inside my head is Ellison’s reply to the similar people in his own life:

“I don’t know you, and you don’t know me.”

And I, for one, am very content to keep things that way.

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