Disclaimer: Before this post gets under way, I want to provide my perception of the Americanism team player. Team player is a noun that originated in the late 19th century that describes a person who willingly works in cooperation with others. As you know, cooperation is a joint action. We do this instead of doing it myself, you get the idea. I’m of the opinion that in a joint action, no one should ever wonder “why am I working harder than them?” By the time you’re thinking that thought, the team has already broken down. There’s not much joint in the action and there’s no action in this joint.
I’m not a team player. That’s the one phrase that you’ll never say during a job interview. I often mutter to myself, “this is why I hate working on teams”. You see, it’s not that I’m not a team player. The issue is that others are not team players and the people in charge of the teams rarely do anything to stop social loafing (more on that later). How many times have you heard this one, “Together everyone achieves more!” It’s true. If we work together to build this house, we’ll achieve more than if I were to attempt it on my own. I’m guilty of preaching another nonsequitur to my former team. “If everyone does a little, no one has to do a lot!”, I would say. It wasn’t until I found myself in a non-leadership role again that it occurred to me that everyone has a different definition of doing a “little”. Some people are fine with mediocrity, have no ambition, and do the bare minimum. That’s not a judgment, it’s truth. Don’t believe me? Work in management for two weeks! Going back to one of the previous statements, it’s true that together everyone achieves more. But, that doesn’t mean that everyone attempts more or gives a stronger effort. In a team environment, it’s quite the contrary. This week’s post is about what I call the TEAL factor (Together Everyone Attempts Less) and what you can do about it as a leader in your organization (corporation, sporting environment, non-profit fundraisers, etc.) to mitigate such behavior.
It’s worth mentioning… There is a Grand Canyon-sized difference between leaders and managers. I could write 2,000 words on that subject alone. But, there’s a good chance that you can tell the difference between a leader and manager through your colleagues that are in managerial roles. In short, all leaders should be managers but not all managers know how to lead.
If you’ve taken a psych class, there’s a good chance that you’ve heard of Social Loafing. No, it’s not that internet rabbit hole time suck that causes you to lose track of the day due to fucking around on the social internet. Social loafing is what happens in a team environment. Most people will try to pull their own weight but, they’ll be resistant to pulling anyone else’s weight. Because of that, people make less of an effort. I’ve certainly been guilty of it. On a recent clean up crew, I would size up how much had to be moved and how far it had to go. Based on the number of us to get the work done, I did some quick math and figured that moving two stacks was more than my share. So, I did more than my share and I did it faster than anyone else. While everyone else was struggling with one stack, I was done and ready to bounce. Then everyone was looking at me because I wasn’t helping them. I was resistant to pulling anyone else’s weight. Perhaps, I’m not a team player. Perhaps they should have worked just as hard as I did. Another way to define social loafing is when there exists a task that everyone views as low priority. Everyone will assume that someone else will get that. It will get done, many will say. No one will actually do it.
It’s worth mentioning… One definition of team player is a person that is willing to assist their team members in a task when their abilities are not as substantial his/her own. It’s like the Hulk doing more of the heavy lifting than the rest of the Avengers because of his strength.
Perhaps you’ve also heard of the Ringelmann effect. Have you ever been at a picnic when someone starts selecting people and positions for a rope tug of war? What do you notice? The person that’s organizing the game will try to evenly distribute the strength of the two teams. Some insist that the strongest should be in front. Some insist that the strongest should be in back. Which team will use their strength to win the war? Well, the disappointing news is that strength won’t determine the winner. The Ringelmann effect can best be summarized by stating that individual effort is inversely proportional to the number of people in the group. Let’s say that you are able to pull 100 pounds attached to the end of a rope. If we were to measure the amount of effort you put into pulling a rope while alone, we’ll call that 100 pounds 100 percent effort. Now, let’s make this a tug of war with you and someone on the other side of equal strength. Both of you exert 100% effort in your respective groups of 1. Now, let’s give each side an additional person and make groups of 2. Both group members will only exert ~92% effort. Assuming that 1% is equal to 1 pound, two people would be able to pull 184 pounds (together everyone achieves more). If they were to give their full effort (together everyone attempts less), the two group members should be able to pull 200 pounds. Back to the tug of war. Let’s bump each group up to four per side. Each group member will only exert between 78-86% of their full effort. The range of effort tends to float around those same numbers for groups of five or six. Here’s the best part. When actors were paid to pretend to pull on the rope on the same side, group members were tested one at a time and they still exerted less than their full effort. Why? Some believe that group members felt their contribution would do little to change the outcome if five other people were pulling with them on the same side. I’ve been guilty of it. I was in an organized tug of war a few years back and I kept thinking how stupid it was and how I wasn’t going to fuck up my hands for a silly game. I did not give my full effort. Neither did anyone else. You are not a team player.
It’s worth mentioning… This information on the Ringelmann effect can be found in the textbook Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology on pages 173-174. The suggestions below were inspired by a combination of the textbook and my own personal experience and language to put it in my own words. I’m not just restating the textbook.
So, before you begin bragging about how well your staff works together as a team, I challenge you to ferret out how often Social Loafing or the Ringelmann effect are happening under your supervision. When you find that it is (and it is) here are a few ways to reel it in.
-Create Specialists As a leader, you should be able to rattle off any of your team member’s special skills at a moment’s notice. Whenever possible, give your team tasks/roles that are specific to their talents. Some people-in-charge (PIC) have a tendency to just say “git-r-done” without assigning specific tasks/roles within the team. Instead, ask individuals on the team to do what they’re good at, treat them like specialists. Specialists don’t assume that their contribution won’t matter.
-Acknowledge Individual Contributions To The Team (This is very different from giving everyone a goddamned trophy just for showing up. If that’s happening in your kid’s school, you might want to consider what this will do to their future work ethic.) When the project is complete, take the time to say thank you to team members by name for the specific contribution they made to accomplishing the goal. Based on the size of your team, this may be difficult. You may end up (intentionally) leaving some people off of the thank you speech because they didn’t give their strongest effort. In that case, see the next suggestion.
It’s worth mentioning… Make sure that you can see the effort in full before you judge it to determine each player’s level of contribution. This is easy on a 5-person basketball team, not on a 100-person corporate team.
-Conduct Individual Meetings This is the most important way to improve any team. Preaching to the choir is pointless. They already believe in the gospel. When one teammate is fucking up, don’t send out a choir email suggesting that everyone stop doing [fill in the blank] when there are only a few fuck up ducks that are doing [fill in the blank]. I’ve asked PIC to not send me emails asking me to stop doing things I’ve never done. It’s a form of passive aggressiveness. It’s even worse when a PIC sets up a meeting to make sure that everyone is on the same page. The same thing happens at every meeting, the fuck up duck goes quack and never shows. So, the entire choir is sitting around listening to the gospel while the heathen (the reason for the team meeting) is not in attendance. Set a one-on-one meeting with the fuck up duck and set them straight. It’s the only way the weak link in the chain will be fixed.
-Role Reversal When possible, have your team members walk in each other’s shoes for a while. Maybe this only makes sense during a practice session. But, there’s no better way to form appreciation for what the rest of your team does than by doing it. As the PIC, try to make this happen during your next team building exercise and then talk about feelings and shit to make sure that everyone gets the point of the exercise.
It’s worth mentioning… Not being a team player isn’t necessarily a bad thing. So, as a PIC performing an interview, encourage people to be honest about their feelings towards teams. If someone says, “I’m not a team player.” Ask why and let that answer be the catalyst of your decision. If someone claims that they work harder on their own, think back to the Ringelmann effect. They’re not just blowing their own horn or bullishitting you. People actually work harder when they think that all of the responsibility is on them.