What does being a team player in a business environment mean? It’s probably easier to describe the characteristics of a non-team player. In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart wrote about a decision on pornography by saying that he couldn’t define it, but “I know it when I see it.” Thus was born a new colloquialism that many hiring managers apply to the characteristics of the ideal candidate for a job. It’s frustrating for sourcers and recruiters because they are supporting someone who can’t communicate the exact qualifications needed, but are adamant that they will know the right stuff when they see it. Part of the problem with this undefined rule of decision making is that it is a marriage of two other misunderstood terms: culture fit, and ability. Both involve a sense of intuitive thought processes that in the current methodologies for hiring involve human bias and personal experience. We know how to spot a toxic environment, but deciding which potential employee will not lure us into that minefield is not something that can enter a decision tree to produce automatically perfect results. AI advocates take note.
One of the biggest problems with using sports analogies to describe business prowess is that there is no universal perception of what these terms mean. Being a team player in the office doesn’t mean bringing a bigger bat to the conference room for meetings. It probably does mean avoiding situations where two colleagues hate each other, lie for no reason, pursue a personal agenda at the expense of group goals, and otherwise metastasize the cancer of hostility throughout the organization. The dilemma from a human resources perspective is to monitor and administer hiring practices without making decisions based on personality, but with an eye slanted toward maximizing harmony. It’s not easy, but there is a logical progression through the list of desirable characteristics that lead us to the meaning of a team player.
A good place to start this definition of an undisputed team player is to take a look into the elements of effective communication. Working alone or with others means an employee shares ideas, goals, and results. Despite some managers claim to clairvoyance, you won’t know without a conversation with the individual. The words used in an interviewee’s response to questioning can give a clue as to their ability to both share and learn from co-workers. An interview gives them a platform to toot their own horn, and they should not shy away from talking about their accomplishments, but there can also be hints to a degree of obsessive egoism in the language of “I” and “me” vs. “we” and “us.” Communication is a two-way process, and the ability to listen actively can be demonstrated in an interview as well. Being an active participant in group activities is closer to the definition of a good employee than calling for a team player.
The next link in the chain describing characteristics of an individual with an ability to play well with others is the unique application of expertise. Learning and experience allow an employee not only to have the knowledge to perform a skill but also to use that ability to become an expert resource for others. Most people look to the concept of a sports team to highlight the ability to excel alone and with others, but most sports analogies fail because franchise players always seem to draw more credit for winning than their teammates. Being a talented specialist in a group setting doesn’t mean that there is never a need for individual effort. It is only when a player in an orchestra specializes in one particular instrument that the ensemble can create the harmony necessary to make pleasing music. Harmony in the workplace is the most desirable conditions to maintain.
It follows that expertise can’t happen without a native intelligence to learn, absorb, and execute. There are ways to measure intelligence using structured testing, but most companies won’t go to the trouble or expense to do it. Validation and administration of such tests are daunting! Even if it were easy, intelligence alone doesn’t guarantee that its owner will use it for the benefit of others. Some very smart people can be socially inept and standoffish. The ability of a candidate to see themselves as others see them and adjust their actions for the best outcomes is applied intelligence in action. The willingness to contribute well thought out ideas for the mutual accomplishment of corporate goals is a key to success. In an interview situation, giving evidence of successful contributions to team success supports the element of team play.
Another contributing factor is the demonstration of a proven work ethic. Looking at the steps taken to achieve group goals that require selfless activity regardless of difficulty or personal sacrifice shows evidence of good team play. Behavioral approaches to interviewing fall short when it becomes a routine question and then drilling down to believable answers. Interviewers who can provide real-life daily examples of problems to be solved will be better equipped to determine if the potential employee will do the tasks required to meet deadlines and reach important targets. Working hard won’t overcome serious shortcomings in other areas, but not working is much worse. Working hard on the wrong thing goes in the wrong direction and takes the group along for the ride.
Finally, a look at team play means searching for someone who acts in collaboration with others. Why focus on leadership in non-management jobs? It’s simple. Often the focal point in brainstorming shifts from person to person until the consensus finds a common best solution. Interim leadership is just as important as organizational leadership when teamwork is the desired culture. Another component of being a collaborator is the undefined but essential element, followership. Nobody teaches courses or offers seminars on followership, but occasionally shared leadership means that the majority of people on the team must know when to follow and the best way to do it. Another way of describing good collaboration may be flexibility.
No discussion of the concept of a team player would be complete without looking at both sides of the hiring situation. Even though employers should offer precise definitions of the desired characteristics of a prospective employee, they don’t always follow that rule. How does the job seeker show they meet the criteria of being a good team player? It does not mean throwing around that term without thinking. Claiming attributes such as being a people person or working well with others is just as open-ended as calling yourself a team player. Following the thought progression uncovered here, the evidence rests with communication, expertise, intelligence, work ethic, and collaboration. Concrete examples of accomplishments demonstrating these skills may indicate a high degree of being a team player. Is it important? Absolutely! Prove it even if they don’t ask.
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