Not a team player
In one of those freewheeling discussions that have come to mark Elizabeth Large’s Dining@Large blog, a Sandbox member remarked yesterday, “I was gigged on my annual review as ‘not a team player,’ " to which I replied, “Every time I hear of an evaluation complaining that someone is ‘not a team player,’ I have deep suspicions that there is not much of a coach.”
In articles in the sports section and in readers’ comments on those articles, a team that performs badly exposes the coach and the owners to extensive criticism. But when business managers substitute sports metaphors for judgment, that sense of responsibility higher up evaporates.
There are two levels of this phenomenon, one innocuous and one sinister.
The innocuous one is the substitution of cant and bromides — “giving 110 percent,” “there is no I in TEAM” — for meaningful direction. This is a kind of noise that managers indulge in, as the worker bees meditate on other subjects while the droning continues. It is tedious but largely harmless, since no one pays any attention to it.
At the sinister level, team talk is a means by which an inept or vindictive manager strikes out at subordinates who exercise independent thought. *
You’ve known him: the kind of manager who is a sycophant to his masters and a tyrant to his subordinates. I had been a copy editor at The Cincinnati Enquirer for half a dozen years when my boss announced that henceforth all copy editors would be evaluated half on performance and half on “attitude.” This was immediately and widely understood to mean that anyone expressing skepticism** about corporate management of Gannett or its local satraps (several of whom were clearly — there is no way to gloss over this — stupid) would be subject to retaliation. That was the day I realized that it was past time to get a resume in the mail. ***
In 17 years as a manager on The Sun’s copy desk, I have never had occasion to use the word team to my colleagues (well, maybe sardonically). A couple of weekends ago, when I had to check into the hospital suddenly for what proved to be a transient illness, people showed up, reapportioned the work, got the paper out on time and in good shape. These are the people I work alongside, who see and correct my mistakes, who collaborate, who take and share responsibility even as a brutal business climate diminishes our numbers. People who know their jobs and perform them diligently have no need for team talk.
* Of course we’ve all known co-workers Who Do Not Play Well With Others. But you don’t imagine that any amount of Team Talk will bring them around, do you?
** It is the job of editors to be skeptical. That is not a kind of temperament or mind set that can be switched on and off.
*** When I told this boss that I had been offered a position on the copy desk at The Sun, he was so delighted for me that he announced my departure to the staff three days before I gave him notice that I had accepted the offer.