What is a team player?

I’ve never heard of a person in a professional setting disclaim themselves as a team player. This in spite of two general views on the definition:

  1. A team player always puts the needs of the team above their own. The tactics decided on by the team will be acceptable to this viewholder even if they are not aligned. The viewholder is likely to work well in the team as potential conflict is negated.
  2. A team player works well within the team. Much as in sport, the team’s goals are almost always the same as the individual’s goals. When the team requires the viewholder to prioritise the team’s objectives in conflict, the viewholder has room to disagree.  Disagreement does not mean exclusion and it may resort to consensus or compromise.
  3. A team player is someone who can be counted on to do their work and not let the process or other operators down. I discount this view as you have your KPI right there and I will assume the other views above naturally include these attributes in their definitions.

These two viewpoints may seem largely similar until conflict arises and then it resolves to a dichotomy. Regardless of the reader’s feelings on free will or group dynamics it is impossible to hold both viewpoints.


Tribal party politics experience these problems, which is where the system of ‘party whips’ is evoked. Rationality and merit then disappears as game theory dictates the opinion holders to go for the predicable option.
In organisations with a strict authoritarian culture viewpoint 1 is more prevalent although some military structures famously included consensus decision makers (boers, ANZACs)

In the first viewpoint the only reward for being a team player is inclusion. Inclusion may translate to safety, benefits or status. In the second system there is some scope for self-actualisation.

It may seem the case is being made for the second viewpoint only although it should be argued that they are different options at different times. One would not encourage viewpoint 1 in school, novice manufacturing or in some forms where accelerated decision-making is required (emergency services).

A viewholder may hold the belief that they can work for the team best by being outside the team. They prefer not to be involved in group dynamics which often scupper rational and meritorious decision-making and find their position on the fringes of the group. They necessarily can’t be leaders yet are specialist peers. In sport they are likely to be the specialist coaches; in politics perhaps functionaries in the civil service and in corporates they are probably consultants, internal analysts, business development managers or some project managers.

These viewholders tend to be specialists or ex-specialists and carry management and organisational skills. They prefer not to use influence or informal channels as often the weaker decisions triumph in those settings. They twin their objectives with that of the team but expect to leave when the job is complete.

When you’re next asked the glib “Are you a Team Player?” question, ask them to define their terms ;-)

About Derek

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