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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Muller

Teamwork vs. Looking Out for Yourself

This topic was one that I finally learned well about mid-career, but it is a lesson that you can encounter at any time in your career.

Clearly, in the business world, ‘team’ skills are critical to develop and refine throughout your career. It may be an oversimplification, but I found that certain individuals that had never played sports growing up or who had never coached a team or had not led some sort of organization, usually struggled to learn, and even understand, what team skills are all about.

The foundation of team skills in the professional world seems very logical. That is, to treat others as you would want to be treated. But it goes further than that because at all times in the business world you will find yourself on multiple teams concurrently. For instance, if you are in middle management, you are the leader of the team of people reporting to you. You are also a member of the team that is led by your supervisor. You typically might be assigned to less formal teams, such as a process improvement team.

The further along my career progressed, the more I understood that excellent team skills were not only important but mandatory to even keep your job longer term. But, what about the importance of YOU? That is, you need to be looking out for yourself, right?

If you have a family, they likely are dependent upon you to provide for them, to keep your job, to provide health care coverage, education, food, housing, etc. Certainly, that is crucial, and for many of us, the real driving force behind working so hard to succeed. But teamwork is all about being effective, not only for the team but for YOU to perform and succeed, as well. So, to me, good team skills equal good career success.

Let’s walk through some real examples. During an assignment in a functional area, I was managing a fairly large team. Over time, I noticed that I had an employee reporting to me who was struggling to perform. I was not sure if it was because they lacked the training they needed or if they were having family issues or maybe they had their priorities wrong and were just not focused on the job they needed to do. It was obvious to my other direct reports that this employee was struggling because they had to deal with him almost on a daily basis.

I found it very common that some managers tended to avoid tough discussions with problem employees until the end of the performance period, and then they would basically document all their problems, have a serious discussion about what the employee needed to do in order to correct their problems, or sometimes even discharge them during the same discussion. In those situations, the employee gets blindsided and, typically, will get angry that they did not even know they had a problem.

It is always better to have those discussions sooner rather than later with the attitude that you can likely help the employee to perform better through some agreed upon action. If you do not take proactive action, you are letting down the employee, but also others on your team. You can be sure other teammates are talking among themselves wondering why you are letting this employee get away with poor performance, while they are all ‘carrying the load’ and doing their jobs well.

When I talked to Sam about my perception of his shortcomings on the job, he seemed shocked, which surprised me. I went through a few examples to explain why I was talking to him. It was an excellent discussion, and in the end, we agreed that there were two particular things that Sam needed to focus upon going forward. We agreed to sit and discuss this again in a month to see how he was progressing. In the end, Sam turned things around, and his peers noticed the difference. Well, isn’t that just expected that the supervisor, me in this case, does their job? Certainly, but it is also an example of good teamwork because handling the situation any differently might not have been fair to the other employees on the team. The worst situation would have been to let Sam keep performing the way he was.

Another real example I encountered was mid-career with a management team. While in a half-day performance review with my boss and all of her direct reports, it was late in the day, and we were all getting tired. My boss began to challenge one of the managers (one of my peers) on his team about why he, Mark, was providing a certain direction for his team about a policy when, clearly, it was the wrong direction. Mark took the challenge a bit personally, and he pulled out the minutes from a prior meeting that stated that our boss gave us a certain direction a few months ago, and that he was just following orders from the boss. Clearly, this was one of those things you don’t necessarily want to do. In effect, he was telling the boss that she was now providing a different direction than what she had before. He clearly read these minutes just to take the heat off of himself, but in so doing, created an embarrassing situation for the boss.

You could see that the boss got miffed, her face got red, and she basically said that if we couldn’t understand how to lead our respective teams, that she would do it herself and issue a directive to her team about this topic, and she walked out of the meeting!

Oh boy, now we were ALL in trouble! At that point, it would have been easy for everyone to start yelling at Mark about what he had done, but that would not have been good teamwork. After a long silence, I suggested that certainly our boss, once she cooled down, didn’t really want to create some new communication and directive. And that we all knew that Mark was accurate in what he said . . . because we all remembered what our boss had said a few months prior. I offered to go talk to our boss, or call her if she was on her way home, and tell her that we all felt bad about the whole discussion, and we wanted to handle this in a different way if it was okay with her.

Since nobody else had any better idea, and since nobody wanted to be the one to call an angry boss, they agreed and thanked me for volunteering to do that!

I began to think I was crazy for suggesting those steps because I had no idea how angry the boss really was because I had never seen her leave a meeting in anger before. I left the meeting and went to her office, but saw she was not there. I asked her administrative assistant where she was, and she said she was on her way home. Just then my cell phone rang and it was the boss. I started with a simple, “Hey, are you alright?” That got a chuckle, at least. The discussion got better from there. Clearly, she was embarrassed that this issue had gotten the better of her when she knew she should have handled the situation better. I told her that the team felt bad about the whole discussion and that we agreed that if she was okay, we would handle the resolution in a different way versus her having to write some new directive.

Her answer – “Good! I didn’t really want to spend my evening writing that anyway!” I also tried to get the boss to realize that Mark was just reacting to getting some heat, and that we all knew that Mark was a great guy and someone we all respected. The boss agreed, but was clearly still a bit agitated. Anyway, after a few days, Mark called me and thanked me for sticking up for him as he also talked to our boss, and the boss shared that I was complimentary about him. This cemented our good relationship even more.

Some might have considered slamming Mark in the discussion with the boss as a way to show alignment to the boss, thus making themselves look even better. But that would have been an example of bad teamwork and would have resulted in making an enemy of Mark for the long-term. As much bad press as the business world gets, it is always a positive to me that what is effective in the business world is usually what works well in the rest of the world, namely ‘treat others as you want to be treated.’

Clearly, there are those in the business world who operate with a ‘stab them in the back’ or ‘talk about them behind closed doors’ mentality, but in the great majority of cases, those people do not last long in their positions or end up getting less responsibility, not more.

OK, so are there situations when you should be looking out for yourself vs. being a good team player? Absolutely!

For example, sometimes you get challenged by someone else, either publicly in a team setting, or offline via email or text or voicemail. There is nothing wrong with someone challenging another, but sometimes the style of the challenge is not a great example of teamwork on the challenger’s part. In those situations, you need to stand up for yourself and explain your point of view in a calm, professional manner. If you are really caught off-guard and know little about the topic being discussed, it is fine to just say that you aren’t sure of all the facts related to this situation, and that you will get back to the group or individual once you have some time to get more facts.

The worst thing to do in those situations is to back down and admit that the challenger is right and that this is something that is in need of correction. I have seen others do that, perhaps feeling that being a good team player is all about admitting when someone else is right. But I have found that when someone challenges you personally, they are not aware of all the facts and are not aware of other factors that may come into play.

I had a situation mid-career where another leader at my level was on the attack to discredit my division and myself, in an attempt to have me removed from the job so that they could take over all of the divisions and make all the decisions. The first thing I did was to discuss this with our boss, to see if they understood the political issue as well as the issues being challenged. Luckily, my boss saw clearly what was happening, and basically gave me the leeway and confidence to stand up for myself and division and to not tolerate this in the future. That situation was a difficult one, with many political issues involved at multiple management levels, so the day-to-day environment was very difficult for all involved. There was no easy way out of the situation without personnel changes, and it demonstrated clearly how healthy it is to have a team where all are excellent team players, and how poisonous and frustrating it can be when a team has a few poor team players who are looking out only for themselves.

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