The gatekeeper is a critical responsibility of a leader. It means making sure that the right people get on the bus and the wrong people stay out. Right and wrong don’t mean whether they are nice or not. It doesn’t mean whether they are smart or not. It means whether they are the right fit for the company and align with its values and goals. And, of course, whether they are team players.
As Patrick Lencioni notes in The Ideal Team Player, when building a culture that values teamwork, you want people who work hard, are good with people, and don’t put their ego above everything else. Lencioni suggests you hire hungry, humble, and people-smart employees.
You want those who want to be there
You want to have on your team people who want to be there and want to contribute. If there is someone there only for the paycheck or the status, they won’t be a good team player. It is those who are hungry, who want to get things done, who want to do their best, and who want to grow, who will be a great addition to the team.
These are people who always look for more. They want to do things, achieve results, learn, take more responsibility, and work hard. They don’t need to be pushed to work. They are self-motivated, and you can depend on them. They are also open to feedback and welcome opportunities for personal growth. These are great people to have on your team. Just make sure the hunger doesn’t consume them. You want those who can still balance other aspects of their life with what they do for the team. Also, don’t confuse hunger with blind ambitions. Someone can be extremely committed and works hard only up to their next promotion, and once they realize they hit the ceiling, they start slacking off.
You want unpretentious people
There is a group of employees you could describe as jerks or jackasses. They are often smart and with big egos. They rarely make good team players. If the organization you are trying to build is based on teamwork, then these people have no place in it. They will be detrimental to the overall health of the organization. They will quickly alienate everyone around them. They will seed discord and envy. They will create a toxic environment. You will then have trouble retaining the real team players who will become fed up with how they are treated.
People you want in your organization don’t put their ego and need for status ahead of the team. You don’t want politicians who will always look for an edge they can have over others. You want people who are unpretentious and who care about more than themselves. You want people who are humble.
Humility is critical for any organization trying to build a team where people care and help each other. Anyone self-centered with a colossal ego doesn’t belong, regardless of their skills. It is challenging for many managers to accept this. It is even more difficult to let go of a star employee who is arrogant and alienates others but is the best individual performer. The fact that he or she may be the cause of increased attrition in the organization is often invisible or not being taken seriously. So while this employee performs, the rest of the organization works at suboptimal levels.
Emotional intelligence is a thing
Even the most intelligent employees will struggle to collaborate with others if they are not socially aware. There certainly are places where a genius without any social skills will be valuable, usually in very specialized creative roles. In most of the roles, however, communicating and working well with others is a must.
As Lencioni proposes hiring smart people doesn’t mean intelligent, but people smart. These are individuals who can use common sense when dealing with other people. You could say they have emotional intelligence. They listen, ask good questions, always find a way how to effectively work with others. They can predict how their words, actions, or inaction will impact others.
Not so ideal team players
The ideal team player is someone who combines these three virtues. All of them. Lencioni suggests that if an employee has only one or two of them, they won’t fit the team player category.
Pleasant, humble people without the drive to succeed are inoffensive. They will do as they are told but don’t have the skills to build strong relationships, and they don’t have the drive to get things done. They can thrive in teams that value harmony and don’t expect performance.
Overly ambitious and driven employees without humility and social skills are often high-performing employees who will plow through others to get things done. They don’t care what the impact on others is. These are the brilliant jerks who can create a toxic environment. Yet, they often survive in the organization longer than they should because managers value their output.
Likable, socially smart people make friends with everyone in the organization. But if they don’t have the drive and humility, they would spend their days talking with others and won’t get much done. It is all about their enjoyment. What is worse, they can be a huge distraction as they won’t let others get their work done either.
Every organization has politicians. They are driven, ambitious, and socially skilled. However, their ego prevents them from being good team players. They are the most toxic of employees. They are good at dealing with people and will work hard, as long as it suits their goals. Because of their self-interest and skills with people, they can manipulate others with ease. These employees know how to make their work noticed or take credit for work done by others, so they are more likely to get promoted than any other employee type. Any company that rewards individual performance over teamwork is bound to have management ranks comprised of this type of people.
Humble and socially aware people are great to be around. They are often funny with self-deprecating humor, and everyone likes them. Unfortunately, they won’t do more than is required. They will do what they are asked and don’t have an interest in personal growth or making the organization great. They are not the worst thing that can happen to the team, but they still require oversight and constant external push to keep going.
The hidden gems are driven, humble people who don’t have good people skills. They are hard workers who get lots of stuff done and don’t have big egos. They produce results but occasionally create a messy situation when they clash with others. They don’t communicate well and don’t realize how their actions impact others. They are not selfish and don’t want to hurt others, but because they are clueless when it comes to people, they often create unhealthy friction. They want to succeed, and because they are humble, they will listen to feedback. With regular coaching, these employees can become great team players.
How to hire team players
How do you hire a good team player? The key is to understand what types of behaviors and what answers to what kind of questions will help you analyze who is driven, humble, and have people skills. There are a couple of best practices to use.
Don’t ask generic questions that everyone else is going to ask. Prepare a couple of questions to dig into the three areas and don’t get satisfied with half-answers. If the response to your question is not satisfactory, ask it again and dig deeper. It is okay if your questions make the candidate a bit uncomfortable. It will most likely mean that they understand that they are not a good fit for the culture you are building. They may decide to withdraw from the process, and that is great. When someone asks you what you think about the candidate, you must be able to provide a detailed answer. “I think the candidate is fine” isn’t a satisfactory answer.
While some people may prefer non-traditional interviews like going for a walk or interview over lunch, I wouldn’t recommend that. It may help you understand how the candidate behaves when not being asked rehearsed questions in the interview, and you may see how they interact with others, but it also has significant drawbacks. You won’t see their true selves anyway as they still understand they need to make a good impression. What is worse, it will lead to you introducing a whole bunch of your own biases into the process. Chances are, you will hire a less diverse team. Not good.
When recruiting new team members, you want to paint a realistic picture of the organization and culture. When I interview candidates, I want to sell the company, but I want to do it in a way that the candidates like what I’m saying only if they are a good fit. I try to scare those who are not. I would describe the company but exaggerate a bit the things that make us unique and different, both good and bad. People who are not a good fit will feel that the company is weird and opt-out. Someone who is a good fit will feel that it is different than other companies they talked to. A bit weird, but in a good way. They will be more excited and more likely to accept the offer.
Putting it all together
Hire those who want to be in the organization and who identify with its values and goals. Hire those who are driven and want to deliver results. Hire those who will put their ego aside for the good of the team.
Having an organization comprised of team players is not only about good collaboration. Team players, as a general rule, don’t create a toxic work environment. They are more willing to have tough constructive conversations. They are more inclined to help each other and the organization. They are more likely to build a diverse and inclusive environment where everyone feels like they belong.
What is your take on the topic? How would you describe an ideal team player? What do you believe is the most important characteristic of a team player? Do you believe that drive, humility, and people skills are all important for team players? What would you add?
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