Sunday, February 18, 2007

FINDING THE `I' IN `TEAM'

In football, baseball, basketball or hockey, one of the worst things you can say about a person is "He's not a team player."

Appearing recently on a CNBC talk show, former NFL coach Mike Ditka commented that one reason for the recent resignation of coach Bill Parcells after four years with the Dallas Cowboys was that star wide receiver Terrell Owens was not a team player. After spending a season struggling to overcome various distractions from "T.O.'s" antics, the old coach simply felt burnt out.

If so, who can blame Parcells for being frustrated? In a team sport such as football, 11 men have to work in close coordination to succeed on a single play, and all 45 players on the team have to be on the same page if the team hopes to win. A player who thinks only of himself can cause his team to fall apart.

Hence the old sports cliché "There is no `I' in `team,"' a saying that is also popular in the business world, where bosses use it to rally their workers to get a big job done.

But what happens when the boss takes advantage of his position to ask employees to do things outside of the normal parameters of their job, anything from picking up the boss's laundry to OKing a few vouchers that that they know to be inaccurate to hushing up a possible sexual-harassment case, "for the good of the team?" Is an employee obligated to fall in line and follow the boss's game plan simply because everyone else seems to and because he or she wants to be "a team player?"

Absolutely not. Good employees serve their boss best by speaking up when they believe that a decision could cause harm. The decision may stand, but at least the employees have had a chance to offer alternatives.

In some cases, of course, employees may feel reluctant to speak up out of fear. If that is the case and if the company in question asks employees for reviews of their supervisors, they should not hesitate to let the boss's bosses know when a manager is reluctant to listen to his employees. Listening is part of his job, and making employees too fearful to speak is no substitute.

Nor does being a team player mean covering for a boss who's doing something wrong. Several months ago I told readers the story of a manager who asked one of his employees if he could use the employee's name on his expense report to justify an expense that wasn't business-related. Readers were justifiably appalled.

That kind of boss typically chooses a target carefully before making an inappropriate request. The employee chosen might have been in trouble in the past and been gotten out of it by the boss, or he or she might be up for a promotion and really need a positive review from the boss.

The right thing to do when a boss asks you to do something wrong is to say no, and then either call an ethics hotline, if your company has one, or report him to his boss. Agreeing to do it implicates you in the action -- "I was only following orders" isn't a good excuse anymore. Don't worry about the same situation recurring: You can bet that, if you turn him down once, it will color his perception of you as a team player and cause him to move on to his next victim.

The concept of being a team player doesn't mean letting go of your individual self-interest. It's merely a recognition that in many situations the long-term good of the team is also to the long-term good of the individual. When that isn't the case, when the "team spirit" that's being solicited actually works against your long-term interest, you're under no obligation to comply.

All too often, in fact, this sort of request isn't in the long-term interest of either you or the team, and it's up to you to take individual action to make things right.

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