How to identify a team player with three virtues

Most selection criteria include team player skills or working as part of a team.

There is a wealth of material that sets out what a team is and what desirable team behaviours are. When making a case for being a team player or seeking to confirm an applicant’s team skills, it is easy to use this material to claim skills or show you understand what an effective team is, without necessarily giving much evidence to support those claims.

A search for useful material reveals a distinction is drawn between what makes for an effective team and what makes for an effective team player. The lines between the two can blur, however an effective team is usually characterised by:

  • Having clear goals that are understood by all members.
  • Roles and responsibilities are clearly understood.
  • Everyone is committed to the results and deadlines of the team.
  • Competent members of the team.
  • A collaborative climate.
  • Conflict and dissent are dealt with.

How effective the team is then depends on the characteristics of the members. A list of desirable qualities can be long. They include:

  • Reliability
  • Collaboration
  • Perseverance
  • Sense of humour
  • Creativity
  • Competence
  • Integrity
  • Commitment
  • Active participant
  • Active listener
  • Shares information
  • Respectful
  • Problem solver
  • Cooperative
  • Skilled communicator
  • Willing to take risks
  • Trusts others
  • Encourages others’ development
  • Encourages feedback.

Patrick Lencioni’s book The Ideal Team Player presents a simple model of three virtues that he considers indispensable in team players. Ideal team players, according to this model, are:

Humble. ‘They lack excessive ego or concerns about status. Humble people are quick to point out the contributions of others and slow to seek attention for their own. They share credit, emphasize team over self and define success collectively rather than individually.’

Hungry. ‘They are always looking for more. More things to do. More to learn. More responsibility to take on. Hungry people almost never have to be pushed by a manager to work harder because they are self-motivated and diligent. They are constantly thinking about the next step and the next opportunity.’

Smart. ‘They have common sense about people. Smart people tend to know what is happening in a group situation and how to deal with others in the most effective way. They have good judgment and intuition around the subtleties of group dynamics and the impact of their words and actions.’

Lencioni suggests that a person needs all three virtues. Any gaps create problems. He says:

“… a humble and hungry employee who is not smart about people may accomplish a great deal but will often leave a trail of interpersonal destruction behind them.  And a person who is smart and humble but lacking in hunger will frustrate team members by doing only what is required and having to be constantly asked to do more.  Finally, a team member who is hungry and smart but truly lacking in humility, can have a devastating impact on a team. This type knows how to present himself or herself as a well-intentioned colleague, all the while looking out for his or her own needs. By the time team members figure this out, people have been manipulated and scarred.”

This model encompasses most of the above long list of qualities and deals with what makes teams dysfunctional. Lencioni identifies five main team dysfunctions:

  • ‘Inattention to Results
  • Avoidance of Accountability
  • Lack of Commitment
  • Fear of Conflict
  • Absence of Trust’

A humble, hungry, smart team member avoids these dysfunctions because they:

  • ‘Share accomplishments with everyone and leave their egos at the door.
  • Hold their colleagues accountable, always strive to learn and do more and constantly look toward the next opportunity.
  • Commit to team goals and do whatever is necessary to accomplish objectives.
  • Do and say the right things to help teammates feel appreciated and understood, even when difficult situations arise.
  • Build trusting relationships by being open and accessible.’

Lencioni provides tools to help managers and staff determine how well they meet the three virtues in the model. Each virtue has six behaviours against which you can assess yourself.  The list of behaviours for Smart is of particular value as it recognises the importance of listening, language, and flexibility.

Lencioni also provides a guide for hiring ideal team players. This guide lists interview questions to use to identify candidates who are humble, hungry and smart. Values are implicit in this guide. The questions about being hungry seek to identify people with a strong work ethic, who don’t have too many time-consuming hobbies, and who can give examples of difficulty, sacrifice and hardship, and are willing to work long hours.

Included in the list of questions about being humble is every applicant’s favourite: What is your greatest weakness? The advice on what to look for focuses on answers that are ‘real and a little painful’. Candidates who present their weaknesses as strengths, such as ‘I take on too much’, are to be prompted with a request for something on what you would change about yourself or what best friends would say you need to work on so as to see if the candidate is comfortable acknowledging something real.

While Lencioni’s material is useful for both applicants and selection panels, limiting the qualities of team players to three may overlook some of the practicalities of team work, such as whether they can be relied on to consistently meet deadlines, produce accurate work, deliver results, builds relationships, works independently.

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.