Wanted: Team Players – REALLY?

Debunking a flawed way to recruit people for a team

This week I spent some time investing in my own development, part of which was hearing from business owners about how they recruit (effectively talking about values-based recruitment). I picked up a couple of interesting ideas, yet there was one comment that, on reflection I wish I’d challenged at the time.

One business owner spoke of their generally very impressive recruitment and induction process. They target sport science graduates. As a sport & exercise science graduate myself I understand that – the degree fits with the nature of this person’s business. But here’s the thing… The first question potential candidates were asked was ‘what sport did you play at university?’.   If the answer wasn’t a team sport they were, we were told, immediately crossed off the list of potential hires. The inference that those who opt for individual sports can’t be great team players at work pushed my buttons (not least because I was a boxer, runner and swimmer).

More important than my own indignation, is that this sweeping generalisation is a great example of how flawed thinking can lead to recruitment errors or missed potential.  Allow me to explain…

Firstly, think back to any press interview you’ve seen immediately after the success of an individual athlete.  Whether it’s Andy Murray or Jessica Ennis-Hill the first thing they do is pay tribute the their team – their coach, their physio, their sport psychologist, their nutritionalist.  Individual athletes ARE working in a team.  Now, at this point you might be saying that’s only at the highest level.  The person who runs on their own of an evening doesn’t have a team.  Well, remember the business owner in question is recruiting sport science graduates, many of whom will be competing at national level, and even local runners often belong to a club where they support and encourage each other to achieve.  But that’s not the only reason this is faulty assumption.

The sports people choose to participate in don’t necessarily reflect a teamwork competence.  From a physiological perspective, most team sports are intermittent in nature, meaning they involve sudden bursts of high intensity activity.  Where individual sports like distance running demand the ability to sustain sub-maximal intensity exercise for a long period of time.  Our genetics influence our muscle make up.  Some people have a very high percentages of something called slow twitch muscle fibers that make them more likely to excel at distance running, endurance swimming or cycling.  If you’re good at something because of your genetics, does that mean you can’t work in a team?  Add to that, anyone who’s ever completed a Myers-Briggs assessment will understand that the extrovert/introvert personality factor is NOT about how out-going you are.  It’s about how you replenish your energy.  The truth I’ve always known about myself is that when I’m mentally tired, time alone (for example with my head underwater swimming) recharges my energy so I play well with others at work.  Does that mean I’m not a good team play?  Of course not – at least I hope not!

Lastly, let’s look at this from the other side.

Does playing in a team mean that the team is actually a well functioning team?  I used to work in a leisure centre on 5-aside night.  Probably the most successful team in terms of winning matches included 3 brothers.  Sure they scored goals, but they were also the team that argued the most; almost constantly in fact.  If someone tells you in an interview that they played a team sports, you still don’t know if the team was effective, harmonious or successful.

Finally, and I saved my killer punch for last… social loafing.  Social loafing is a concept in which people exert less effort when they participate as a group.  In a literature review of 78 separate studies of individual verse group performances, a staggering 80% of studies found evidence in social loafing in team performances.  Only in 20% of cases, when people felt the task was important or challenging, or being part of the team was very important to them was there evidence of social labouring (increased productivity).  Meaning in 80% of the team players you meet, could well have been social loafing.  On the flip-side, when it comes down to it, individual athletes have no where to hide.  At the point they have been working towards, if they don’t put in 100%, then they are letting down everyone else in their team – and they know it.

Building a ‘team’ at work

Of course most managers aspire to create teams of social labourers in our organisations, and recruiting the ‘right’ people is part of that.  But to screen people out on their sporting choices isn’t the best way to do that.  So what should you do? Here’s four tips to get you started:

  • Establish IF you need team players  – there is a difference between a team and co-operative group (think football team versus track and field athletics team).  We include team building in a lot of our management training courses and I love that moment when people realise that they have a co-operative group. It’s a subtle but interesting difference.
  • People make different contributions to team work.  Do you know what you need someone to do?  Think about a football team – do you need a ‘visionary leader’ directing the game on the pitch, do you need someone who can pour oil on trouble waters when the pressure is on, do you need someone who comes up with innovative solutions when you’re behind or someone who can get the others fired up in the dying minutes of extra time? (you see I do understand team sports).  My preferred tool for this is Belbin Team Role profiling.  You can read my interview with Meredith Belbin here.
  • If you do want people to be team players (and in my opinion that’s a nebulous and overused phrase on job descriptions) – recruit for it effectively, use values-based recruitment questions or competency based questions, or better still try adding in an evidence-based psychometric tool.
  • If you already have staff – more important than what sport people play is how well they will play with your existing team.  When we hire (and when we help people develop managers to recruit well) we always ensure that potential candidates spend time in the office with the people they will be working most closely with.  If they don’t fit in the team, then it’s likely to bring more headaches than solutions.

If you want a better phrase than ‘team player’ for your job descriptions, want help to improve your recruitment or have a troubled team that you’d like some advice on – you know where to find us!