Monday, November 24, 2014

Everyone's a Team Player

For most of my life I've believed I am not a team player. When I was a kid, I didn't get picked for teams because I had no athletic skills, or so I thought. I probably did have such skills but didn't know it because no one encouraged me to play sports or do anything athletic, so I never practiced.

Since sports is where most people learn to be a team player, I felt like I missed out on that part of life. But being a part of a team, as I recently learned, is not limited to playing sports. People learn to be on a team because it's a naturally human thing to do. We are all on teams from the time we are born until we die because we are human and need to be with other people to survive.

Many times I've heard people say, "I don't need people. I don't need anybody." My father was one of those people. But he was wrong, and he knew it. We do need people, like it or not. And the liking of it is the sticking point for a lot of people who don't think of themselves as team players. Many of those people are proud of it, too. It's a badge of honor to be a loner in our culture, a maverick, a fiercely independent individualist. Unfortunately, that cultural value does not mix with the requirement of many occupations that an employee be a "people person" or to be able to "get along with coworkers"--to be a team player.

But the kind of team player most employers want is a very particular kind. He or she must be able to work together with others in a cooperative manner that results in getting tasks accomplished with creativity and friendly competition but no unpleasant conflict or strife. 

Unfortunately, that's only one kind of team and certainly not the experience of many, maybe even most people who grow up in families in this country. As I mentioned in the previous post, our first and most influential team is our family, and that team is probably not very much like the ideal team sought after by most businesses. But it is a team, nevertheless. And what people learn about team is learned in that first group.

For instance, I learned in my team to be anxious about my team mates, worried and uncertain about how they were going to react, trying to figure out what I needed to do to get attention from them.  I learned that helping and being cooperative were not valued. My father was an autocrat, so instead of cooperation, he got silent, smoldering acquiescence, or secret and sometimes bold, even at times harmful, rebellion. Constantly fearing rejection, my teammates never asked for help, or love, or attention from each other. They just got angry and sad when they didn't get it. 

And the the failure to give the desired but un-requested help was seen as a sign of disloyalty, as was being helpful or friendly to people from other teams (such as friends). In fact, how we looked at other teams and people in them was the clearest sign of our sense of being a team. We expressed our team spirit by complaining about, criticizing and fearing other people who were not part of our team. Despite our longing to be like the families we saw on TV (Cleavers, e.g.), we expressed disdain for them because they seemed like phonies or some other such contemptible type of person--not like us.

People who grow up in teams like mine develop into the particular kind of team player who will succeed in that kind of team. Unfortunately, when we are forced to join new teams--when we go to school, go to work, get married, join the military or a club or a church congregation--we might have difficulty. It's not because we are not team players, though; it's because the team we played for was different, sometimes drastically so, and learning how to play on the new team involves much more than simply learning the playbook. It often means learning a whole new way of thinking about the world.

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