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Thoughts from the Field - Issue #7 - The Case of the

By Glenn Lyday - July 2011

The Case of the “Me Player”

They lurk among us. In our office buildings, on the soccer field, in our churches, sometimes even over the phone lines. Their very presence can eat away at your life in ways that very few other beings can. They’ve been called aggravating, annoying, acerbic (among other words that begin with the letter ‘a’), but they’ve also appeared on the covers of both Fortune magazine and Sports Illustrated, proving that even they can be successful given the right environment. These people roll their eyes when they walk by your office poster exclaiming “There’s no I in TEAM”. They’re the furthest thing from a “Team Player”. Yes, these are the “Me Players”.

And now you’ve got one on your team. While the rest of your colleagues are genuinely excited about working together to achieve the team’s goals, the “Me Player” seems genuinely, well…disinterested. You’ve seen it in his showing up late to meetings, in his lack of engagement in team discussions and decisions, or in the general negativity that seems to ooze out of his pores as he settles into his chair at team get-togethers.

As the leader, what do you do? Many leaders tend to simply ignore the problem. Those that are willing to address the issue usually take the most formal approach, but also potentially the most troublesome: the performance improvement plan. While the idea of all of that exciting paperwork and all of those awkward conversations mediated by HR might be the most straightforward, I would encourage you to start on a different path. Start by asking yourself the questions below to help clarify how your team dynamic contributes to the “Me Player”. By looking at your “Me Player” situation through these different lenses, you can begin to manage him more effectively within the team or, if all else fails, manage them out.

Consider the following:

  1. Can I afford to just put up with it? 99 times out of 99, that answer is unequivocally, ‘no’. And yet often we employ the ‘boogeyman’ philosophy of management; that if we just convince ourselves long enough that the problem doesn’t exist, then eventually it will go away. As the saying goes, one bad apple spoils the bunch. I recently witnessed the bad apple and the spoiled bunch (a great band name, by the way) with a client. A team member was not willing to contribute to a major team project that was underway, despite the entire team deciding that this project was critically important to the business. When questioned as to why he hadn’t put any effort into the project, he consistently exclaimed ‘I have too much real work going on that’s piling up on my desk’. Not only did this negatively impact the specific teams’ tasks this individual was responsible for, but the leader found that after awhile other team members had begun to let tasks slip as well. While we worked with the team leader to convince her to do something -anything – to show the rest of the team that she was fixing the problem, she never had that difficult conversation with the “Me Player”. By letting it slide, the leader implicitly said to her team ‘this type of behavior is ok’, and the morale of the team cratered. Take action, and be sure the team knows about it.
  2. What, specifically, are they doing wrong? We’ve overused the word team so much, and yet most of us really have very little idea what it means. Ask yourself and your team members this question: What are the behaviors we must change in order to truly be a team? Do you need to debate ideas more often, stick to the decisions that you’ve made more frequently, see each other on a more regular basis, be vocal in every one of your team meetings? One could write an entire book on the behaviors that are important for team members, but fortunately for us Lencioni already has. Once the team has established the specific behaviors you expect from all team members, it will become much easier to call out individuals who are not measuring up. Ideally all members of the team are calling out those negative behaviors (peer-to-peer accountability), but at the very least the leader must be willing to do so. The “Me Player” will either respond to this newfound sense of clarity and accountability or rebel. Either way, the leader will get a clearer picture of the players’ future as part of the team.
  3. Do we REALLY need to be a team? This next point may be controversial to some. You don’t HAVE to be a team. You and your colleagues (or direct reports) don’t have to be a team simply because your desks are next to each other, or you all have the same boss, or you all wear matching Hawaiian shirts on Friday. Teamwork, unsurprisingly, takes work, quite a bit of work actually, and if you don’t have a compelling purpose to work more closely together, then you’re likely better off simply as a work group. Because of your limited level of interdependence amongst each other, you can come together for specific tasks, but you may not need to make the sacrifices required to be a team. I certainly believe that in most cases teamwork can have tremendous benefits, but it’s not for everyone. Decide this before holding team members accountable to the ‘team’ behaviors discussed above. For the “Me Player” who is more internally focused this may be a relief and allow him or her to continue their work solely as an individual contributor.
  4. Is my “Me Player” doing this intentionally? The individual’s egocentric ways may not even be intentional. Their behaviors might just be a product of personality type rather than any negative intent. Your extroverted team members may love the back and forth of good debate in team meetings, while your introverted team member may think that’s about as thrilling as performing your own root canal. Perhaps that individual needs a task that will benefit the team, but one that they can work on in the privacy of their own office. With the door shut. And no interruptions. The point is, we all have different motivations, working styles and preferences. By using a personality tool like the Myers Briggs Personality Type Indicator, both the leader and team members can better understand and work with the natural differences of the “Me Player”, and all team members for that matter.
  5. Is everyone clear of our purpose and objectives? Jim Collins argues in his book Good to Great that we must first decide “who, then what”; that as leaders we need to get the right people ‘on the bus’ and then decide the direction and strategy to get there. I believe that it’s absolutely critical to do both at the same time. As you determine who your team should be and how they should work together, you must simultaneously determine and communicate your vision for where you’re going. After all, without giving your team direction, what happens when you tell them that the bus is going to Cincinnati rather than San Diego? For many employees (including “Me Players”), if they cannot see their team direction, and how they contribute to that plan, they can feel directionless, even bitter, leading them to behave according to their own expectations.

By embracing some of these ideas, hopefully the “Me Player” will come around, see the benefits of teamwork and decide to get on the bus. Or, over time, the “Me Player” may come to realize that a culture of teamwork is just not for him and self-select out of the team. If those two scenarios do not play out, the leader may have to remove the “Me Player” and his destructive behaviors from the team. In any case, the leader is setting the tone for expectations and sending a clear message about the importance of behaving like a team.