Your company is probably defining ‘team players’ Incorrectly

Think you know what a 'team player' is? Think again, says Mark Murphy.

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Jul 17, 2023

You’d be hard-pressed to find a company that doesn’t want to hire team players.

Whatever adjectives one uses to define the term ‘team player,’ the idea typically boils down to some version of somebody who works well with others, acts for the good of the group, and is conscientious and agreeable.

But while all those characteristics sound great, the reality is that there’s no one-size-fits-all definition of a team player.

In fact, overly simplistic definitions miss the glaring differences in the goals and composition of the cornucopia of teams that exist in the typical workplace.

We all need to re-think the ‘team player’

Consider a team working in a startup that is focusing on developing groundbreaking technology.

The market is highly competitive, and the technology is evolving rapidly. In such an environment, the team needs to be agile, adaptable, and willing to experiment with different approaches to find the best solution.

Now imagine a team that is responsible for ensuring compliance and quality control in a pharmaceutical company.

This environment is very different. It demands a high level of precision, adherence to established protocols, and meticulous documentation to meet regulatory standards and ensure the safety and efficacy of medications.

Now think about a team tasked with shepherding a company through a significant financial restructuring.

Tough decisions need to be made quickly, including streamlining operations, reducing costs, and possibly laying off employees to ensure the company’s survival.

Each of those scenarios calls for a very different kind of team player.

The first case calls for a team member who brings innovation, creativity, and out-of-the-box thinking.

The second scenario requires someone with a penchant for meticulous planning, processes, and procedures.

And the third needs someone to take a leadership role, guiding the direction of the team and making important decisions.

People most fit one of five types:

We know from the test “What Type Of Team Player Are You?” that people typically fulfill one of five roles when they’re working on teams.

  • The Achiever focuses on the nitty-gritty, ensuring tasks are completed efficiently and flawlessly
  • The Trailblazer ignites innovation and creative problem-solving
  • The Harmonizer weaves the social fabric, fostering collaboration and resolving conflicts
  • The Director takes the helm, steering the team through decisions and providing guidance
  • The Stabilizer is the backbone that ensures structure, through careful planning and organization, enabling the team to function smoothly and meet deadlines.

Someone can excel as a team player in any of these roles, and embracing this diversity is key to building robust, dynamic, and successful teams.

In fact, the data from the test tells us that people describe their most effective teams as containing a mix of all five roles.

Think about team characteristics too

Not only does the definition of a team player change depending on the role HR is filling, but even universally lauded team characteristics like extraversion or agreeableness can suffer from overkill.

One notable study, “Personality characteristics that are valued in teams: Not always ‘more is better’?” revealed a “too much of a good thing” effect, suggesting that ordinarily beneficial predictors like extraversion, conscientiousness, and agreeableness can reach inflection points, beyond which their positive relation with desired outcomes can decrease or become negative.

This makes sense. Extreme extraversion may hinder collaboration with impaired empathy skills and monopolizing conversations, thus shutting out other group members’ opinions and leading to ineffective problem-solving.

Excessively agreeable individuals meanwhile, might place more emphasis on accommodating others over essential tasks, resulting in weak or lengthy decision-making and hurting overall success.

So the lesson here, I believe, is to think critically about what being a team player really means.

Too often, it’s little more than a trite cliché. But if you think about what your teams and the company really need – whether that’s innovation, regimentation, direction, collaboration, or execution – then you’ll find that your definition of team players becomes far more relevant.

Sure, your definition might not fit neatly into one sentence or on a poster in the lobby, but your teams will deliver far greater results.