Smells Like Team Spirit or is it Really Office “Teamplayer” Politics?

Growing up I loved, loved, loved watching Scooby-Doo. You know the cartoon series that started September 13, 1969 that involves a group of four teenaged mystery solvers and their dog named Scooby Doo. I loved the group dynamics and I have always had a fondness for mysteries. I even watched Murder, She Wrote (insert joke here). The thing about Scooby Doo is that even though he is the title character, the show is really an ensemble cast with strongly defined characters. Freddy is the de facto leader, an overly enthusiastic detective bent on building Rube Goldberg-style traps; Velma is the geeky, analytical clue-decipherer and fount of technical knowledge; Daphne is the danger-prone damsel in distress (though she has become more self-sufficient and somewhat more astute in later incarnations, and thus representing the voice of reason) and infatuated with Freddie, and Shaggy and Scooby-Doo are best friends more motivated by hunger than any desire to solve mysteries. They run in the opposite direction of danger. Despite their various strengths and weaknesses they pull together as a successful team. And if it weren’t for those meddling kids, more bad guys would get away with their nefarious schemes.

As a child, I wanted to be part of a Scooby Gang. Actually, I wanted to be part of group that was more like a cross between the Scooby-Doo group and Charlie’s Angels. The idea of solving mysteries in a van (while armed) just seemed totally cool to me. I was an only child throughout some of my major developmental life periods and thus I kind of fantasized about being part of a group that would act as a constant source of companionship, support, and resources. Or as my mom would put it: I was a chatterbox and wanted a traveling audience. So, there I was growing up an independent actor who wanted to be part of a team. That was then, this is now.

The idea of team projects set my eyes on a rolling-backwards trajectory. Business schools love assigning team projects. Lazy teachers love assigning team projects (in my humble opinion). The Wonder Pets extol the virtues of Team work! Hmpf! I have been involved in way too many team projects to be fooled into thinking they are actually efficient. Sure, teamwork can be effictive if it truly was “work done by staff members with each doing a part but all subordinating personal prominence to the efficiency of the whole” in the Scooby-Doo style. Then teamwork would be the panacea to all that ails organizations, and in particular, non-profits. At the root of teamwork is the premise that it can lead to better decisions, products, or services. In the type of community mobilization efforts that non-profits often engage in you need partnerships and collaborations to make progress. Inevitably, however, doesn’t the individual ego start to get itchy and want to push out front? There appears to be a constant source of tension between wanting to share the limelight while making sure the spotlight is shining brightly on oneself? It is a fine line many individuals and organizations walk.

What does it mean to be part of a team or to be a team player when the hunger for the spotlight is so strong? In particular, considering the current workplace environment which consists of bullying, mobbing, over-inflated titles along with over-inflated egos that demand constant praise, how does one remain a true team player? And does a team player really exist or is it just a mythical creature invented by management consultants and guidance counselors? Once you reach a high enough level at an organization can you ever be part of a team effort? Does sitting with the team and sealing envelopes count as teamwork or is that just being a team player? Yes, I have made an attempt to differentiate between teamwork and the team player. For me, the phrase teamwork truly means working as an integrated unit to bring a project to fruition-looking at the larger picture and the larger need. However, there has been a slight shift in the world of non-profit organizations from emphasis on team work to maintaining the role of the team player. Look at how annual review forms do not ask about the staff member in terms of their capacity to engage in team work but oftentimes now asks instead about their characterics as a team player. So, the question has become what are you doing as an individual for the overall good? What are your exact contributions?

Look at the following historical workplace example: A clothing manufacturer changed the workplace environment from production line work (with bonuses given for individual performance) to teamwork (in which an individual’s earnings depended on team performance) and caused workers to resent having to monitor each other.

How about this scenario? When a particular team was fresh and new and eager and new (all new) we pulled several all-nighters where we worked on putting binders together, photocopying, working on curricula into the wee hours of the night in an effort to administer a large-scale event. People were drained, yet energized simultaneously. Nowadays, more efficient systems were put in place to produce the binders and other such materials in a more timely manner. Yet, you do not necessarily retain the teamwork experience anymore. People drop in to help (when an email is sent out for a few hours of help to stuff envelopes or binders) and do their two hour slots and then leave. The person by putting in their time, is labeled as a team player. But in reality there is no real team work going on. Because everyone puts in their time and no more, inevitably someone gets stuck having to take care of the remaining materials and boxes while everyone else who has put in their time has left. And people leave with no sense of remorse or regret. They oftentimes leave feeling quite proud of themselves for having helped out when that particular task is not in their immediate job description. Scooby and Shaggy would rather be eating, but they always suck it up and act as bait for the monster no matter what it entails.

In industrial organizational psychology Benne and Sheats put forth group roles: task roles; social roles and the disruptive roles (that’s more my term they labeled it the dysfunctional/individualistic roles). So, in the situation I outlined above, it isn’t only that people come and help out with the envelope or binder stuffing. What happens often is the following: there are the ones that actually set about doing the task at hand, thus fulfilling the task role. There are the cheerleaders and the ones that figure out a system for efficiently doing the task; thus fulfilling the social role. And, lastly there are those that come in with snarky comments or who remind others of how much work they have done. These are the disruptive individuals. All three of these types will claim to be team players and expect a raise at their annual review.

The quality of teamwork may be measured by analyzing the following six components of collaboration among team members: communication, coordination, balance of member contributions, mutual support, effort, and cohesion. The Scooby gang scores highly on each of those 6 components especially with each member being seen as vital to the whole. If one Scooby gang member is missing, there is no Scooby gang. Nowadays you would think communication would be enhanced in the workplace through the use of emails and text messaging and the like. But that is not necessarily the case. Cohesiveness does not necessarily a result from the new enhanced communication methods. I am not convinced that mutual support exists when people are reviewed as to whether they are team players. Mutual support is only as good as the shine from the spotlight.

Yet, despite the adverse reaction I have to team projects I dutifully ask job candidates the forced choice question of “team project or individual project: what’s your preference?” There is no correct answer to my question. Although, saying that you like them both in different circumstances just makes you sound like a social psychologist parsing out moderator variables. I didn’t go into real-world CBO setting to be parroted an academia-lite answer. It won’t endear you to me. If you truly like team projects, be a cheerleader. If you like individual projects, shine bright!


2 replies »

  1. Oh man, bullying and mobbing make being a team player a liability rather than a functional and advantageous behavior! I studied English not business but I was taught business management in a small environment by a successful individual who studied business. He would fire anyone who truly refused to be a team player, no matter how qualified or talented they were, and he taught me to make the same call. And, team members did act a lot like the Scooby Gang. Ironically, there was sincere competition regarding being the best team player, like there often is in sports teams. It’s possible, for real! 😀


    • Thanks for the thoughtful note. I agree there is a true need for team players. I currently have one of those gems that is about to move on to another place and i cannot tell you how much that person will be missed! I love a good scooby gang 😉


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