"My team is not happy with me. They have told me that I am not a good team player", said the young engineer. The latter part of his statement triggered alarms in my mind. Over the years, I have learnt that when it comes to receiving negative feedback, one is in a much better situation if the negative feedback is about some particular action/task that one has done. In that case one can understand the mistake made and try to do better/avoid it next time. However, if one receives feedback like 'you have an attitude problem' or 'you don't have passion for work' or 'you are not a team player' then the situation becomes much more tricky. Firstly, it is often very difficult to figure out what exactly one did wrong. Secondly, it is usually very difficult to change these impressions/perceptions (regardless of what one does).
Let us come back to our young engineer. What happened in this case was that the team/ work group that he was part of decided to on a picnic to a neighbouring state. Our friend did not go along with the team for the picnic. He did not want to go out of station for very strong (but very personal) reasons. However, he covered for the team during that period by putting in extra hours in office- including many night shifts. This lead to a peculiar situation. Our engineer felt that he displayed 'team work' as he had put in additional effort - enabling the team to minimise work disruption while they enjoyed the picnic. Some members in the team felt that our engineer did not display 'team work' as he did not join the team for the picnic (or as he declined to 'play with the team' !). So what could have been a 'win-win' arrangement degenerated into a 'lose-lose' situation.
There are many dimensions here -the possible differences in the understanding of even very commonly used terms & their adverse impact, power of metaphors in our thinking and of course our primary topic - mysteries of 'being a good team player'. It has been argued that human thought processes are mainly metaphorical and that we understand and experience things and concepts (e.g. the concept of 'team work' in our case here) in the network of their metaphorical affinities.
The underlying metaphor in the case of 'team work' is essentially that from the field of sports - a sports team. While this appears rather straight forward, there could many complications here. There are many types of sports/games. The type of 'team work' that is required varies widely from game to game. The type of team work required (and hence what makes someone a good team player in that context) is different in the case of a soccer team as compared to that of a cricket team, a relay team (in athletics) or a Davis cup (tennis) team. Now the amount of interdependency among the players in a soccer team is higher as compared to that in a cricket team and much higher as compared to a relay team. In the case of a relay team, what is required to be a good team player is essentially to run his/her part of the race as fast as possible and to exchange the baton well with the other team member(s) involved. In the case of a Davis cup team, all that is required from a team member in a singles match is to win that match and get a valuable point for the team/country. Obviously, the same type of approach will not make one a good team player in a soccer team!
Now let us take a closer look at 'team work' in a workplace context. As we can see from the above discussion, when different people say 'team work' or 'team player' in a workplace context, they might be using the sports metaphor (team) with very different types of games in mind. This can lead to a lot of misunderstanding. Actually, there are additional factors involved here that could complicate the situation even more. The tacit definition of 'team work' in highly individualistic cultures could be significantly different from that in collectivist cultures. It has also been observed that there could be gender related differences in the understanding of what makes one a good team player. Part of this could be because of the fact that young boys and young girls tend to prefer playing different types of games (e.g. 'war games' and 'doll games' - to use a stereotyped example)! By the way, it is interesting to note that we can learn a lot about an individual/ team/ organization from the metaphors/expressions they use to describe key experiences.
It can be seen that, from a team effectiveness point of view, different types of team work are required in different workplace contexts. So it would be a good idea to analyse, understand and agree upon what exactly is type of team work required in the case of a particular team/work group in a particular organization context. This would also help us to develop and communicate a good 'operational definition' of 'what makes a good team player' in that context. Of course, an 'operational definition/working definition' is not very glamorous and it does not fully capture the mysteries of the 'broad concept of team work'. But it can help to avoid a lot of 'avoidable unhappiness' at the workplace!