Teamwork is Overrated

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34 Responses

  1. Tod Kelly says:

    Interesting post. If I had one (fairly major) quibble, it would be this:

    “It was clear from the job posting that the person hired would need to “identify new sources of funding and raise adequate funds to enable the organization to carry out its work,” along with various responsibilities in grant writing, managing a budget and overseeing audits, and all kinds of other tasks that don’t involve “hiring people to do the work for you” or “having long meetings with your peers in which you discuss via groupthink how to do the work so you can avoid taking full responsibility for the outcome.”

    In this paragraph, there is an insinuation (quite a realistic one, considering the position described) that the person being hired will need to reach out to and work with corporations and individuals who share her organization’s vision, obtain grants (which, at least in me experience, come with a working relationship with the grantor), work with whatever bodies oversee the organizations operations, and, of course, coordinate with the receptionist.

    I find it profoundly odd that this shows up on Jennifer’s radar as having no team, not needing to lead a team, and not needing to work well with a team. It seems obvious to me that the exact opposite is the case.Report

    • Murali in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      If you are doing short term face to face marketing, the job is solo-able. You just need one person to knock on everybody’s door until enough people answer that a sufficient number of interested people apply. It’s when you have long term on going campaigns that hiring more bodies becomes necessary.Report

    • zic in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      In non-profit speak, however, these are not team members, they are partners that the non-profit ‘partners with.’

      (This usage bugs me, too.)Report

    • Kim in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      Being a paid beggar is far different than managing a team of people who get to beg for you. Requires a simper attitude.Report

      • Murali in reply to Kim says:

        In order to know how to manage a team of paid beggars, you’ve got to have the requisite experience being a paid beggar. In fact, if you are not often on the ground soliciting donations with the rest of your team, you do not know what problems they face. It is also difficult to build loyalty. And loyalty is what is needed to ensure that your team of highly trained salespeople do not leave during dry spells. Paid begging is one of the things in which you have to lead from the front. In fact, there are a lot of parallels with leading an infantry section.

        Also, some core skills remain the same. Selling is about managing emotions. You have to know how to manage your own emotions so that you are always perky (or at least appear to be). You’ve got to manage your customer’s emotions so that your customer is in a frame of mind to buy the thing you are selling. Those same skills carry over when it comes to managing your team.Report

      • Kim in reply to Kim says:

        You’d think that. But then you’d also think that to manage programmers, you should know how to program. This is rarely the case — and it’s honestly not always even needed (what is needed? Understanding the time-management aspect of programming — particularly bug hunting).Report

      • Murali in reply to Kim says:

        I don’t know about programming. But I have done what you call professional begging. I have also lead a team of such people and I have seen others lead similar teams. In none of those teams have I seen consistent success when people lead from the back. Perhaps you can manage programmers without knowing shit about code. You can’t manage a direct sales team without doing direct sales.Report

      • morat20 in reply to Kim says:

        Murali: They actually have an entire degree for project managers from software. It requires learning some basic coding, but just the basics. It spends a lot MORE time on the tricky bits of trying to estimate time and costs when all your inputs are fuzzy, and trying to work out critical paths and the like.

        It’s not particularly easy and you need to know enough coding to grasp that coder’s can’t always tell you exactly how long it will take, and where the sticky points are in a project, and a lot of rules of thumbs and tools to try to come up with an approximate cost for it all.

        There’s a reason big coding projects generally launch late, buggy, and over-budget.

        Either you get good at it through painful experience, or you get a deep background in all the ways it can bite you in the butt, and then you…get good at it through experience (just, hopefully faster AND with less expensive mistakes).Report

    • Vikram Bath in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      I would suggest that we divide into two baskets “people skills” and “teamwork”. The latter term is used when you are working with others who share your objectives. People skills include teamwork, but also involve dealing with people outside of the organization. I don’t think a person would ordinarily characterize trying to get money from a person as an example teamwork however much it involves playing well with others and EQ.

      It sounds like this was a case where the individuals were used to working on a Grant Proposal Team where there are kick-off meetings and strategy sessions and were unfamiliar with the idea that there are projects where you skip all that because you’re responsible for the whole thing.

      But I do wonder whether the job description somehow wasn’t as well-specified as it could be. If it brought in a bunch of applicants who didn’t fit, they job description must not have been getting through to readers for some reason.Report

    • Patrick in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      I find it profoundly odd that this shows up on Jennifer’s radar as having no team, not needing to lead a team, and not needing to work well with a team. It seems obvious to me that the exact opposite is the case.

      I don’t know that it doesn’t show up that way on Jennifer’s radar so much as it’s not the colloquial idea of “teamwork” in all those business magazines and learning environments that she’s mentioning.

      I agree that it’s an odd view of teamwork, fwiw. But then I would.

      Vikram’s point down below about teamwork v people skills is a notable note, but I think your observation here, Tod, is colored by the same general attitude that’s shown in your sidebar post about taking ownership, and I think it’s all part and parcel of the idea of leadership, as opposed to teamwork, or anything else.

      When you’re engaged in leadership, in a healthy way, the idea that someone needs to be underneath you, or report to you, or somehow be under your control in order for them to be part of your team/be someone you lead is the dark side of leadership.

      I’ll quote Lois McMaster Bujold on this: there is a difference between being in control of a situation and being responsible for the outcome of a situation.

      Lots of people see leadership as both-of-those-things-or-neither. If I’m not in control, I can’t be held responsible for the outcome, I’m not leading. It’s not my problem.

      There’s a problem and somebody’s going to have to solve it somehow and that person might as well be me whether it’s my job or not ’cause otherwise we’re all up the creek, that’s something else.Report

  2. Kim says:

    You design as a team, you program alone.
    Many jobs are like this…Report

  3. zic says:

    Awesome, Jennifer. We are so focused on ‘team’ that we often fail to appreciate the importance of time to think and focus alone.

    Were I a skilled at making video, I’d make a series for business based on jazz performance. It starts with the apparent ‘team,’ the musicians on the stage at any given gig. There’s all this non-verbal communication that goes on, a deep level of listening to the other people on the team (the band), and responding the the customer (the audience).

    But when you dig deeper, you might discover that, despite the seamless appearance, there’s a good chance this particular combination of musicians has never all played together before. They’re making music that sounds highly professional because they know how to work in a team, no matter who shows up on the stage.

    Dig deeper still, and you’ll discover that the musicians shine in the team because they’ve done their alone work, the thousands upon thousands of hours mastering their instrument, the ongoing reinforcement of memorizing thousands of standards. They also are technically competent, meaning they know how to use a mic, how to set sound levels, and their equipment is all in working order.

    A team is only as good as the mastery of skills required that the individuals bring to it, and to master skills, one must often work alone, and diligently, at the task.Report

  4. Saul DeGraw says:

    I would think it depends on the nature of the work. Some work is inherently team oriented like a lot of creative and design work. No one comes up and executes an entire ad campaign or season of clothing on their own. Theatre, Film, and TV are also highly collaborative even if you are the director and/or producer in charge, you still need to listen and be mindful of your writers, actors, designers, and their ideas.

    Working alone is important but so is having the ability to have some check your work and such.

    I am a lawyer and not an MBA type person and one constant lament I have heard from old-timers about everything that is wrong with the legal profession is the lack of mentorship. My legal ethics professor (whose main form of income was a solo practice, she just taught because she liked to teach a class a semester or so) said that when she was a young associate at a big firm, a partner would review everything she did with a red-line pen and this was true of every new associate. Other senior lawyers talked about how important mentorship was in their careers and lament how it was gone. They were given small but challenging enough projects to handle and prove themselves. There was a senior partner who watched out for them and taught them things.

    Now I see a lot of law ads that look for self-starters and people who can handle their own case loads. I take this as meaning that people are no longer interested in mentoring or training new lawyers even if it is a firm that operates on a flat fee or contingency basis instead of an hourly rate. A big part of the big law crisis was that the corporate clients said that they were no longer willing to pay for associates to be trained on their dime.

    This raises that old saw paradox of “How does one get experience without having experience?” A lot of law school grads are told to just go solo and open up their own shops. Theoretically this is possible. In actuality, it seems like a recipe for disaster and possibly losing your license. Lawyers are a bit hamstring in their sources of fundraising money and the upkeep costs for law firms can be huge. There is malpractice insurance, court filing fees, West Law or Lexis Account for legal research, and then the issue of how and where to find clients. Chances are most people who would hire a straight out of law school lawyer can either pay very little or not at all. There are also issues that law school does not teach you about like when you are handling a wrongful death case, you need to set up an estate with an executor and if there are minor heirs, you need to get a guardian ad litem appointed.Report

    • No one comes up and executes an entire ad campaign or season of clothing on their own. Theatre, Film, and TV are also highly collaborative…

      How true is that? Is it possible that you have something very specific in mind when you say “entire ad campaign” that necessarily excludes any efforts that a single person could do? I would suggest that when you say “ad campaign”, you are thinking about Coke envisioning what particular pivot it wants to try this summer and planning on how to accomplish that pivot. Part of Jen’s point (I think) is that the local restaurant might want an ad campaign too, but resources might be limited to a photocopier, $100, and 10 hours of your own time. This might not meet your standard of what constitutes an ad campaign, but it is something that might have to be done nonetheless, and it is something that we in the business schools of the world don’t really teach our graduates to think about.Report

  5. North says:

    Thank you for your contribution Jennifer, it was an enormous pleasure to read.

    I have little to add but for a Murphy’s law quote:
    The intelligence of a group is equal to the intelligence of the dumbest person in the group divided by the number of people in the group.Report

  6. Damon says:

    Talking about how good you are in teams is very common, because folks are looking for that. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked about it. But “team” is flexible: in one company it was THE ENTIRE ORGANIZAITON of 30 people, from President to the Engineers. in another, it was one department, in a third it was the entire group performing on a contract.

    I think it’s always wise to talk about how great you are in a “individiual contributor” and “team enviroment”. And I’d have re-defined team in the above scenario to mean, “if it’s all on me, the team is “all the other execs” that this “executive level job” interacts with on a daily basis…Report

    • Kim in reply to Damon says:

      I think a lot of “can you work in a team” is secret management code for “Are you Captain Asshole? He doesn’t get along with anyone, and sucks to be around.”Report

      • morat20 in reply to Kim says:

        It’s certainly secret applicant code for “I’m not a jerk and can communicate with people without making them grab for a hammer”.Report

      • Damon in reply to Kim says:


        Dear god there once was an employee that I longed to run over in the parking lot. He was such an ass and so difficult to work with.Report

      • morat20 in reply to Kim says:

        lol. A coworker of mine loathes a previous employee (well before my time) that, to avoid the eye twitching, no one even brings up his name. We refer to any work done by that person in the code…elliptically.

        As in not “When Bob rewrote this…” but rather “When this code was redone several years ago…”Report

  7. Damon says:

    BTW, the kitten pic is adorable.Report

  8. Philip H says:

    Teams are what you make of them. I have 3 direct reports physically in my office, and another 12-15 people spread across the country who do work with and for “us” but aren’t people I supervise in terms of signing pay or leave slips. making promotion decisions, etc. These folks aren’t my “partners” but they aren’t my “staff” either.

    And I generally call a spade a spade. I have too little energy (as a mildly social introvert) to waste trying to placate people by being overly polite. Plus I find if I am direct I can get to my stated end point much faster.Report

  9. notme says:

    Don’t tell Obama teamwork is overrated. No one built anything alone, right?Report

  10. Maribou says:

    I think the bigger problem, of which this is merely a somewhat deceptively-presenting facet, is that many many people are better at selling themselves in a short-term context, like an interview, than at getting anything done (and also that other people are aces at getting stuff done and terrible at selling themselves, but that is another speech).

    So, after spending nearly half my life observing and/or participating in hiring decisions, I have become deeply wary of the following phrases:

    “I do my best work as part of a team” —-> I’m a free rider (in the way that Jennifer describes above)

    “I know how to put my head down and get things done.” —> I am rude, and everyone will feel like I hate them.

    “I really dislike office politics” and/or “I do my best to get along with everyone.” —> I am a toxic coworker and will destroy morale.

    “I like solving problems.” —> I’m not happy unless something is broken and if nothing is broken I will nitpick EVERYTHING.

    “I’m very self-motivated.” –> I do not give a flying fish about anyone else’s needs and I will spend a lot of time reading in the back room when I’m supposed to be helping people.

    and so on.

    The challenge, of course, is that some of the best workers I’ve known also have said those phrases – it’s just that THEY not only meant what they said in the positive light in which one would like to hear it, they were also self-aware enough to be accurate in their self-assessments. I’m not the biggest fan of behavioral questions (“Tell me about a time when…”) because I think they’re just as easy to spin if someone is at all canny – probably easier for the canny person to handle than the incredibly honest person. They also heavily select for skills I don’t actually care about (like the aforementioned selling yourself as better than you are) – and these days a lot of the people I’m hiring are trying for their first job, so I don’t like putting them on the spot – it’s not a good predictor of how they will perform in the relatively comfortable, safe, supportive environment they’ll be working in. If the job involved being interviewed a lot, that would be different.;)

    However, behavioral questions + process questions (“How do you handle mistakes or problems?”) + reality-based scenario questions (including skill-test-esque scenario questions or even outright skill tests) + giving the interviewee A LOT of room to shoot themselves in the foot? Do a pretty good job of helping you to figure out whether to trust what someone is saying about themselves. Much better, in my experience, than asking them to talk about what they would do in a job they haven’t started doing yet. (I do ask them stuff like “what appeals to you most about this position?” or “what do you think would be most challenging about this position?” but that is a mix of a) reading comprehension, b) interest level, and c) foot-shooting options … not expecting it to actually say anything directly positive (let alone accurate!) about the day-to-day specifics of what will happen once they are hired, only give me a lot of indirect (but pinpointable) eveidence. Often people who are really wrong about what will be the best or toughest parts of the job for them turn out to be really really GOOD at doing that job.)

    Anyway, sorry for the tangent into hiring-ville (but not sorry enough to delete said tangent 😉 ). My point is, this isn’t a “lone wolf” vs. “collaborator” problem; it’s a self-reporting problem.Report

    • Damon in reply to Maribou says:

      True enough. I once had a job interview wherein my interviewer asked me how I would add two numbers in Excel together. I answered correctly, but she later told me she had been stung on several hires who actually didn’t know Excel, claimed they did, and sucked at doing their job. I was stunned. Lying that blantantly is easily caught.Report