Ah, a team player. That's what everybody should be. (Right?) In fact, I would argue that Millennials in particular have heard this so much they pretty much consider it a prerequisite for getting a job. You must go into that interview, so the idea now goes, and prove you can play nice with others. But every time I hear it, I can't help but give a little bit of an internal shudder.
It's not that teams aren't vitally important. They are, simply because no one person has the time, resources, or expertise to handle everything on his or her own. And nothing is going to get done if your staff sits grumpily at their desks, hunched viciously over their keyboards, hissing at anybody who walks by. Nobody likes narcissistic roosters who have to crow about their own awesomeness, either.
Rather, my issue is that, when we become too hyperfocused on teams, groupthink can take over. We lose the ability to trust our own intuition and knowledge, and suddenly it's ridiculously difficult to make any real decisions on the fly without checking with everybody else first. In this way, forcing people to work collaboratively at every turn can hold great leaders back, because they never truly get to practice handling the full responsibilities of planning and executing.
The reality is, those who have been hired into a business have their jobs because they're supposed to be skilled and knowledgeable to a certain level. They are "the experts." And sometimes, it's necessary to be away from the group to make the most of those skills and knowledge. For example, do you really have to be in a meeting for 50 minutes when only 10 minutes actually pertains to you? Why not spend the other 40 minutes doing some research? Or why not use the quiet of that 40 minutes to discover your own opinions and concepts without fear of immediate judgment of those around you?
To put that into perspective a little, according to enterprise software company Atlassian, most employees are attending 62 meetings every month (three meetings a day) for a total of around 31 hours. Workers consider about half of these meetings to be time wasted. All that wasted time is thought to add up to about $37 billion dollars, and that's just for businesses in the United States. But as perhaps an even bigger eye-opener, roughly three out of four employees (73 percent) do other work in meetings. If people are going to do other stuff, anyway, why make them attend in the first place?
Synergy is a very real thing, and there are plenty of occasions where people do more together than they would alone. But statistics like those above suggest that people need to unplug from the hub occasionally, too. And it's not just a matter of productivity or efficiency, either. More than any other thing, today's workers want personal acknowledgment. They want to be part of the bigger picture, yes, but they also want to have individual contributions seen and appreciated, to feel like what they can do has a value that's not immediately replaceable. Without that, they suffer psychologically, wondering what their purpose is, what direction to take and if they actually matter.
So the bottom line is, maybe we should rethink our definition of what it even means to be a team player. To me, being a team player has nothing to do with the amount of physical time you spend with other people. Lab techs, programmers, and remote employees, for example, might spend most of their hours relatively isolated, but do they contribute any less? Are they any less passionate about finding an answer? Are they any less articulate when you ask them to present findings?
Being a team player is an attitude or philosophy, not just a timestamp or checkbox of observable, "must-do" behaviors. It's about dedicating yourself to the goal the group has and being personally self-confident enough to bring others something they can use in ways that are uniquely appropriate to your situation.
You can't always bring something to the table if you haven't had time to prepare by yourself, if the voices of others have become so loud that you don't even know what you're capable of or what you want to say anymore. Group health, perhaps ironically, depends as much on the health of our individuality as it does our ability to be respectful and empathetic. So don't force people to collaborate simply to give the impression your company is open-minded, diverse, and progressive. Invite them to based on real need. Recognize that some people, by the very nature of their job or personality, are going to deliver more to the group if you just give them a little more space. It's arguably worth far more than the quantifiable $37 billion.