Saturday, December 1, 2007

Why I am not a Team Player

Several times and by several people I have been told that I am not a team player. This was meant as a negative assessment of my performance, but every time it felt like confirmation of what I wanted to be; which is not a team player. I don't understand why being a team player is the desired behavior unless you're really on a team; the kind of team with a coach who tells you what to do and you do it because you're a team player.

Somehow the team metaphor has become corrupted in its migration to business. The problem is that bosses don't want to be seen as bosses even when they act as bosses. They want to be a member of the team just like me. The team vision in business is more of a socialist equality, which is very far from the reality of any business I've worked for or with. It's more of an Animal Farm socialism where some animals are more equal than others. Unfortunately, the irony is lost in the stultifying dishonesty of bland sincerity that pervades business behavior.

I can remember my first day on the job at the Allstate Research and Planning Center in Menlo Park, CA. Everyone, without exception, said "welcome to the team." This was the most hierarchical company I ever worked for: supervisors, managers, Directors, VPs. It's pretty standard practice in old-style companies and not so different from the military. It's easy to see that there's a certain necessity for following orders as a combat team member in the heat of battle, but we were just running statistical summaries on millions of insurance policies.

Most of the work I've done for the past twenty years has involved quite a bit more thought than action. I've been paid for taking responsibility, not needing supervision, working independently, all things that are pretty much the opposite of anything having to do with team membership. To be sure, there is much collaboration, but collaboration and following the boss's orders are really different things. Yet bosses, even the ones who say they really welcome your honest opinion, seldom want to hear what you have to say if it doesn't agree with what they think you should be doing. You might as well be a traitor as suggest an alternative to "the way we've always done things."

What it all boils down to is a metaphor gone amok. Team playing is supposed to be good, but I never want to work for a company that values blind, stupid, lock-step agreement. I am no sycophant. I do not play for a football team. I am not valued for my physical prowess or my ability to block when told to block or run when told to run. No suicide missions for me, no unquestioned obedience or respect when respect is not due. I can do many things, I can even be a leader when called upon to lead, but I cannot and will not be a team player.

Next time, it's "welcome to the cooperative," for me!


Frank said...

Amen to that. I wished I could add something to your thoughts, except that I always thought of myself as a good collaborator, someone who was able to imagine life in someone else's shoes.

Which is at cross purposes with my other identity, that of a FoN (Force of Nature). I tend to overwhelm.

Apart from that, I had some of the same thoughts over time...


Clay said...

Collaboration is a nice counterpoint to "team player." I played a lot of team sports in high school and I don't think we ever were called to a rousing cheer of "Go Collaborators!" Collaboration implies cooperation and working together toward the same goal. It is the way scientific research is done, the way books are co-authored. It's a bringing together of thoughts and there's a certain aspect of equality.

As editors, we collaborate with each other, with our authors, and with various other parts of the publishing empire known as Apress—sales, marketing, production. We do not tell them what to do and they don't tell else what to do. This is familiarly known as the Apress team, but in fact, we are the Apress collaboration. It's not very catchy, but accuracy was never the strength of marketing (with no offense meant to our marketing collaborators).

Meitar said...

This is familiarly known as the Apress team, but in fact, we are the Apress collaboration. It's not very catchy, but accuracy was never the strength of marketing (with no offense meant to our marketing collaborators).

I've never had a problem with marketing, but I do have a problem with people's actions when they don't reflect reality, and this post discusses an example of one issue why.

Clay said...

Sorry to delay so long in answering, but with such a timeless post, I don't think it's too late. I've done a fair amount of marketing in my day, mostly writing marketing copy, but also some design work. I've always tried to do it honestly, without stretching, bending, or otherwise mutilating the truth. But it has been said that marketing is a license to lie, and think this is too often the case.

So, like many things, good marketing isn't just about manipulation and does not rely upon double-speak more than the truth. Mediocre marketing isn't intentionally misleading, but there's still plenty of bad marketing.