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Even when you’re putting in your best effort at work, it’s inevitable that someone will see things differently. You keep a low profile, steer clear of water cooler chat, and avoid mingling with colleagues altogether, all so you can focus on the job and be as productive as you can. Then suddenly, you get called into a meeting with HR and are suddenly asked: “Why can’t you be more of a team player?”
During the hiring process, companies will advertise a job position as requiring someone who’s strong-willed, independent, ambitious and outspoken, when more often than not, the job calls for anything but. Most organizations simply want someone who respects the rules and plays well with others. While it’s inappropriate to question the company’s motives, it’s only fair to consider the intended meaning of the words, as they carry high impact.
What does being a team player mean?
When someone tells you that you’re not a team player, what they’re really saying is that you’re self-absorbed, uncommunicative, or just simply disagreeable to work with. You can practically translate those words as saying that you’re not interested in the company’s success, that you’re only in it for your own gain, and that you can’t see the bigger picture. It’s a pejorative phrase that can leave you vulnerable if you’re not prepared, after which you could end up explaining yourself when you really don’t need to.
In many American workspaces, a ‘team player’ is thought to be someone who’s nice, agreeable and friendly. But what many consider to be the acceptable definition is, in fact, the naïve version of the term. Teamwork is based on mutual trust and respect, not likability or lovability. Being a team player means your teammates can rely on you to do your job well, regardless of the manner you go about it. And with that, an outstanding team player is someone who:
• Understands their role in the organization and what is expected of them.
• Holds themselves accountable for the team’s performance.
• Backs up goals with actions.
• Develop weak skills to be more of help to the team.
• Isn't afraid to ask probing questions until a satisfactory answer is given.
• Shows genuine commitment to the cause
Likewise, when a company subscribes to the naïve version of ‘team player,’ it ignores the fact that the most valuable employees are often independent, uncaring of other people’s opinion, impatient, awkward, and even weird—all of which aren’t necessarily negative traits to have. As long as you respect your colleagues, trust them, and communicate with them effectively, the team can get the job done, and the company can be successful.
So what do you do when someone tells you that you’re not a team player?
If a manager or colleague hits you with this problematic phrase, stand your ground and be direct, but remain diplomatic, and don’t go on the defensive. Instead, tell them something to the effect of, “I’m sorry you feel that way, but as far as I know, I have demonstrated consistent, organized, and productive work habits, and I have given my 100 percent in every project I’m involved in. I believe my track record proves this. Perhaps this misunderstanding is because we’re not exactly on the same page on what being a team player means. Just so I’m clear, how do you define it?”
Team player can hold different meanings for different people, and so it helps to be specific. If being a team player is part of your job description, it would be in your best interest to think about what the phrase means to you personally, so that when you’re confronted about it, you can give an honest, articulate, and well-thought-out reply.
Say your piece, and listen
Naturally, when you’re told that you’re failing as a team member, you’ll be given a chance to explain yourself. Again, there’s no need for you to do so. In fact, it can be detrimental to your case if you did, because explaining yourself signifies that you’re embarrassed by your actions.
Instead of apologizing, what you need to do is initiate a clarifying conversation between you and your managers. Invite ideas about how you can constructively respond to the feedback they give you. During this clarifying conversation, you’ll want to get your manager’s take on areas of your performance where you could be sending and/or receiving the wrong messages. On the one hand, you feel that you’re being productive and pulling your weight. On the other, they’re saying that you’re not jiving well with others. Let the conversation be the time for everyone’s voices to be heard. Speak, and listen.
Turn vague definitions into actionable to-dos
The goal of your conversation should be to answer the question: How does the company define being a team player in concrete terms? How do you? Is it possible to initiate a paradigm shift in perceptions, or is your company inflexible with their definition? Once all sides have been heard, you can brainstorm how to meet each other’s expectations.
Follow up with a thank you email
After your meeting, send a positive email thanking your superiors for their time and sharing their thoughts with you. Make sure to include the critical points of the meeting to remind them of the issues discussed and the resolutions agreed upon. Your email is a way to document the meeting and put discussed items in writing, which is very important should any complications arise in the future. Keep the tone upbeat, because you don’t want to alert anyone that you’re simply using the email as a tool to build a case for future actions.
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