One of the most common phrases you’ll hear in a job interview is the ubiquitous “I’m a team player.” Like any personal quality, “team player” falls on a spectrum, but almost no one talks about it that way. This is one of those characteristics where one end of the spectrum is good and the other (“I’m not really much of a team player”) is bad. When we unbundle the term, we can start to understand – and value – how people and their comfort with teams may vary.
First let’s examine why everyone wants a team player. We assume that team players put the team first. They are committed to the team’s goals. They are collaborative and cooperative. They are reliable and give their best effort. They are nice.
The downside of teamwork is the danger of “group think,” where the desire for harmony or conformity in the group results in inferior, even dysfunctional, decision making. All those nice people may be so busy compromising that they eventually produce a product that no one objects to, but isn’t an optimal solution. Sometimes you need someone to shake up the group.
Marcia Bench, in her book Career Coaching; an Insider’s Guide, suggests that you can be a valuable worker without describing yourself as a team player. She writes that soloists prefer controlling their own projects; they are independent and find their value in questioning the status quo. They often have a skill set that lends itself to creativity, and they love to work on challenging problems – alone. They find it harder to explain, delegate and check in with other workers; they’d rather just do the work themselves.
This penchant for thinking differently and working on problems using their unique point of view can be a valuable asset for the team, as long as the soloist is invited in and allowed time to share alternate ideas or points of view.
Some workers don’t function well in large groups, but thrive when paired up with a partner. Less confident workers may not speak up in meetings, or they may be intimidated by more senior or more outspoken colleagues. But they thrive when teamed up with another person to work on a project. These people usually prefer to build close working relationships where the risk of working on new ideas is shared – along with the credit when things go well. In a partnership, the quieter worker feels like an equal partner and can test out ideas with a trusted colleague. It can be a great formula for success when the partners have complementary skills and work styles.
Don’t make the mistake of assuming that people who prefer working outside a large team are problem employees. If you can recognize their preferred style and allow them to work within it, you’ll be able to include them in the team umbrella. Your problem players are the ones who happily participate on a team and spend most of their time sniping at the other members and sabotaging results. They profess to be team players, but they’re playing a different game than the rest of the members. Teams can also provide cover for lazy people who like to be included but don’t bother to contribute much value.
Next time you’re in an interview, ask about the team culture of the company. Explain where you fit into the spectrum and watch your prospective manager’s reaction. Teamwork culture can play a big part in whether or not you fit into the company – and a big part of your satisfaction on the job. It should be acceptable to put some space between “team” and “work.”