Team Player

When you advertise for a "team player," what are you asking for? Seriously — this job seeker wants to know. January 2, 2012

I am on the search for employment in a shop that is better suited to my background. While sifting through various employment ads I come across the term "team player" constantly. As shop owners, what qualifies as a team player, in your view? Is this a veiled way of saying the candidate must be willing and able to do everything from driving the forklift to making local deliveries, etc. in addition to shop work? I'm confused.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor I:
A champion cabinetmaker once told me that the only person whose birthday is important was his boss's. He said that if you can figure out what this means, then prosperity will flow to you.

From contributor X:
Team player - I would presume they are looking for an individual who conforms to the standards they set and doesn't make waves. I take issue with that. I'm left handed and I do things different at times, so conforming to the others may handicap my performance. Working well and getting along with others is well meant and is a goal to strive for, but we are all different and excel in various ways. That why I stayed self employed.

From contributor I:
Let me rephrase myself. What do you think it means to be a team player? How would you answer this question if somebody brought it up during an interview?

From the original questioner:
I have no problem with doing what is asked of me. If a dust collector needs emptying, a truck needs loading, a cabinet needs making, etc., I'm on it. However, I think there is something to be said for a job description. If I'm considered to be bucking the team because I won't clean the toilet, so be it.

Note: this is not exactly the phrasing I might use in an interview situation.

From contributor I:
What is the problem with cleaning toilets? Do you not clean them at home or do you not use the toilet at work?

From contributor C:
A team player is someone who doesn’t ask what a team player is.

From contributor S:
A team player is someone who's willing to do whatever it takes to have the company as a whole succeed in what it's set out to do. Sometimes this means doing things you don't particularly like but that will support and benefit the team in the end. And yes, cleaning the toilet and many other things are part of this. People who aren't willing to be team players will stand out like sore thumbs and won't last long.

From contributor L:
A team player is someone who understands that the company or business is what is most important. If they can understand that with the success of the company comes their success, they are a team player. Many, many people can't think past what is in it immediately for them. As an employer this is a huge problem.

From contributor M:
I have 5 employees, do all the design, estimating and CNC programming. Guess what? I also clean the toilets when it is my turn.

From contributor I:
This is not rocket science. Who would you want to hire? What would impress you? What would impress you on a continual basis? Do you think it is important to be impressed on a continual basis? How would you respond to somebody who worked for you if they said they didn't do something because "it's not in my job description"? Everybody has a customer. You do too. When you stop impressing your customer, somebody else will take them away from you. It is the law of the jungle.

From contributor J:
When an employer says "team player," I bet most often it is code for "subservient yes-man" (or woman). In my opinion, however, a team player is one who communicates with their co-workers. One who is more likely to ask questions than isolate themselves and try to solve a problem on their own. One who seeks out ways to work with others to finish a project, rather than seek out ways to isolate himself. This is a problem for most cabinetmakers, who are usually introverts.

A team player lives outside their own head. They think about things that impact the whole company, not just themselves. They aren't threatened by new employees or other workers; they work to help make their co-workers' jobs easier. They see a problem and take action, so it doesn't fester.

My grandpa said his long marriage was successful because they each contributed 80% to the relationship. If things got rough they were both giving at least enough effort to keep the marriage whole. That's teamwork.

From contributor Q:
An employee may know how to row, but if they smack my oars more than once, they are not a team player.

From the original questioner:
The responses so far have been very telling. I believe the assessment of a team player being synonymous with "yes man" is accurate in most cases. If you are the owner and you do any and all duties, good for you. You might be successful due to your commitment to your operation. However, and this is just fact, I generally command a high wage because of my skill and ability. If you would prefer to pay me ($18-$24/hr, depending on region) to clean toilets, it speaks to the level at which your company operates on the whole. This tells me there is a lack of general organization and planning within the company. It tells me this is the type of company that needs a less skilled, youth oriented personnel base... An outfit which has some growing to do in how they get things done. In short, not the professional environment I'm looking for.

Keep 'em coming... Some of you guys are so easy to rattle ;)

From contributor M:
I don't know you and you might be a great employee. If you're looking for an employee's point of view, you're looking in the wrong place.

To me a team player is most of the things mentioned above and has nothing to do with being a yes man. It is the guy who stays over 30 minutes if he knows it will save 120 minutes the next day; the employee who hasn't forgotten that his check and his productivity are still related.

My shop is immaculate and I do have a man that works 16 hours per week keeping it that way. He has no other duties, but yes, if you shit in the toilet, you will be expected to take your turn wiping the toilet out. I find it improves everyone's aim, including my own. And yes, my top men make more than your high end quote and if we need them to deliver and install a job, it's not a problem.

From contributor I:
I can remember reading a coffee table book about black women in America. They interviewed a lot of very productive people. One of them was a teacher whose students included famous statesmen and military officers.

When they asked her how proud she must be of these leaders, she said that she wasn't that impressed at all. To her at least 10% of any group had some leadership capability. What impressed this woman were the people who could provide leadership but who could also still be led.

Is this the "yes man" you disparage?

From contributor L:
I agree completely with contributor M. Even bringing up the concept of the yes man means you've got the wrong mindset. What's best for the company? There's no other question. The fact that you'd question the organization and quality of a workplace based on you being asked to clean a toilet, based on your perceived skill level, makes you not a team player. Just my opinion as an employer. All of our guys can do the most complicated veneer inlay and also scrub the toilet if that's what's needed. I wouldn't have it any other way.

From contributor K:
Team player means playing for the team, not just yourself. The more you focus on you and your role in isolation, as opposed to the benefit of the teams, the less of a team player you are. If you think it beneath you to clean a toilet you use, when everyone else is willing, you are not a team player.

A "yes man" does it to gain favor with the boss... A team player does it to be part of a team. It all comes down to attitude. Just as you say it's telling that an employer would want you to clean a toilet, your attitude regarding cleaning the toilet is also telling. When everyone else is willing, I guess what you have to ask yourself is what makes you so special that someone else has to clean up after you, or someone else has to be paid to clean up after you?

As far as "rattling" us goes... another personality red flag.

Funny thing is, I've lived long enough to know that the minute you think you are indispensable, the Good Lord provides a way to humble you. Best of luck in finding an employer that matches your attitude.

From the original questioner:
So, as being a team player obviously is up for interpretation, why not outline your expectations clearly? Why so cryptic? This game of secret code is setting everyone up for disappointment. All personal views aside, this is about clear communication. That was the original point of the question.

From contributor U:
"The four cornerstones of character on which the structure of this nation was built are: Initiative, Imagination, Individuality and Independence."

- Eddie Rickenbacker

From contributor K:
You've been given some pretty clear definitions and they've been pretty consistent. I think the lens from which you are viewing this is cloudy. Wipe away your preconceptions, look at it from the point of view you asked (employers) and it might become clearer. Just imagine you were a manager or boss.

From contributor R:
Contributor K summed it up the best. It's basic knowledge you learn as a member of any part of the U.S. military. When I was in, doing any task contributed to the success of the mission. Doing what needs to be done to make the company's mission successful is the key. Yes, cleaning toilets can be one of those.

From the original questioner:
Contributor K, as always, you make a terrific point. Sometimes I like to stir things up a bit. Apologies if I come across with a prima donna tone. It is not intended.

This profession is not a typical corporate job. I have, and if necessary will continue to: clean toilets, make deliveries, stack lumber, sweep floors, etc.

Just remember, if you have a guy you value, treat him (her) as a professional. They take pride in what they do and have fed their families with their skills for years. Treat them with some respect - and maybe throw in an "atta boy" every once in a while. It can go a long way.

From contributor B:
The "atta boy" you speak of is also part of the team player mentality. What some owners forget is that if you want a shop full of team players, they must be one as well. The coach who only barks and belittles his players will not receive maximum potential output.

I am not an owner, but I am a manager. When an area of production is lagging behind, my primary responsibility is to find out why and see if it can be corrected for the future - but as a stop gap, I will get my hands dirty and help get things back on track. When I do this, I make myself subordinate to the person who was originally tasked and do what they require of me, even though I am the boss. If given the choice of how to help out, I always take the crappiest portion of the project on myself. I do this to show the staff that I will never ask them to do anything I am unwilling or unable to do myself. That, to me, is being a team player from a leader's perspective.

As far as the expectations I have for my staff? Treat each other with courtesy and professionalism (getting into a screaming match here will get both parties a three day period at home to think up better conflict resolution methods, regardless of who started it), volunteer help to coworkers rather than waiting to be asked, show up to work on time every day, and work right until the end of the day.

From contributor O:
"Team player" is a loaded phrase, and as such, means different things to different people. The laissez-faire boss means it to read his mind and stay two steps ahead of his vague assertions and goals. The techno detail guy means it to lend him your understanding and support when he misses a crucial 3D detail a bench man would not have overlooked. The harried employee can only see it as an attempt to please everyone except the lowest guy on the pecking order, lest he become that lowest guy.

Being a popular catch phrase and open to interpretation, team player should not be used for meaningful communications. It is just too much of a linguistic shorthand. If I were being interviewed and heard it without an extensive qualifying explanation, I'd consider looking elsewhere. I apologize if I ever used it in an interview with a candidate.

Sort of like asking if you like babies or puppies, who would ever say no?

I once had a boss that said "I'm a real team player, as long as everyone on the team understands I'm in charge." This was clearer to me than if he said he wanted me to be a team player. Different teams exist in any business larger than a few people, even though no one will admit it. "On the team?" Everyone will nod in agreement, even if the production manager that knows the schedule is impossible thinks the boss is crazy and resents this exercise of getting everyone together and extracting team player agreements despite the impossibility of the task. Is he to be faulted for not being on the team?

From contributor Z:
From an employee's perspective, the term "team player" in ads is just a generic buzz word thrown in to say "we need someone who will do whatever we ask, or is needed." In some cases, they want indentured servants who will snap to attention and follow instructions without question or complaint. In other cases, they are looking for someone who can get along with others, not just the boss. In still other cases, they are looking for someone who will go above and beyond their job description and have a whatever-it-takes attitude to make the company profitable. You have seen all those in the responses above.

You should have the latter attitude, because it is in your best interest to do so. But when you are interviewing, you should interview them as well to determine what their attitude is. If they say they are looking for a team player, ask them to describe the prefect team player. This will tell you if they want a servant to scrub toilets when told, or someone who will contribute to the success of the company.

I'm a very well paid and valuable employee. If I'm asked to clean the toilet, I'll do it without complaint, and try to do a better job of it than anyone else in the company. I want my employer to understand without a doubt that I will do whatever it takes. But while I am doing it I will be wondering why they are wasting my talent on a minimum wage task. I may also begin to look for other employment where my skills won't be wasted.

This is an issue that cuts two ways. You need to be the kind of person they are looking for, and you need to know if you can be satisfied working there once you find out.

From contributor Q:
Looking for a job? Want to impress an employer? Be able to verbalize in an interview what they are looking for. What are they looking for? The same thing you look for in a boss. You can make this list yourself: start with dependability, honesty, perfect attendance, common sense, commitment, good teacher, great learner, team player, etc. How many more adjectives can you come up with for the perfect boss? You possess many of those qualities, don't you (so you wouldn't be lying)? The interviewer will think you are reading their mind, and you will soon be working at your new job.

P.S. Be prepared to define team player for them. Follow up by living your life like you say.

From contributor J:
I'm with the questioner on this, and the employer responses here are exactly what I suspected. Most employers - as near as I can tell, nearly every one that's posted here except myself - above all else wants a yes men. They don't want to be challenged. They want the obedience of a well-trained dog.

As an employer, I too don't want to have to fight with an employee over certain issues. In fact, I've fired employees that were fighting our systems too hard. But you remove those people pretty fast. If they stay on, then they've signed up for basically what we have going on. After that, I want people who are creative, communicative, cooperative, have initiative, and are not afraid to make mistakes.

From contributor Y:
Contributor B got it. In a small shop, sometimes your talents will be underutilized. Here everyone is told before being hired that everyone has the same job, to satisfy the customer, efficiently. I personally wouldn't hire a yes man. I like contributor J's last paragraph. If an employee wants to debate something, I'm more than willing. I'll buy him lunch while we have a discussion; I might even learn something.

From contributor P:
There is no I in team. I don't care how good you are, "I" does not fit in. The questioner will be placed where he is most efficient and if you are as good as my top man, you will get paid very well. There is no "I" in any of our associates' vocabulary. Period.

Eat your humble pie, and be glad for the work. There is a lot of money to be made, but you must command it. If you feel you are at a dead end, then go start a shop.

From the original questioner:
Does this condescending tone really add to the discussion?

From contributor W:
I've been around a long time, had a lot of employees. I've hired and fired dozens, never had more than six at any one time. One has been with me for 20 years, another for ten. When I was young I would have hired a guy like you. I wouldn't have been able to recognize the kind of person you are. I wouldn't hire you now, though, and I'm not going to waste the energy explaining why because you won't hear me anyway.

From contributor E:
Some interesting attitudes here. I never had more than 3 employees, and I guess my definition of a team player would be the guy willing to do any job that needed doing. It was always amazing who played the game and how. I had usually two skilled employees in the $20-$25 range, and a gofer of college age who was officially the delivery guy. He was a 20 hours a week guy. I explained when I hired him that the delivery schedule varied, and that the more he learned to do around the shop, the more he would earn and the more hours would be available to him.

When work slowed down, the team player who was willing to do any task always had work. It may be a $22/hr guy sweeping up behind machinery or doing maintenance, but it was work and they were paid at their regular rate. Good workers got to stay home a day now and then when there was no work, at full pay.

Non team players (that's a polite term for them) who wouldn't do other routine work because they thought it beneath them were simply told there was no work for them and they got to have the day off without pay.

It was usually former union workers who ended up staying home without pay. They seemed to have an "I'm special" mentality. Amazingly, the close to minimum wage gofer in the long run made a better employee and mastered many skills that were not a part of his job.

From contributor L:
This may sound harsh, but any of you highly skilled guys that think your talents are being underutilized... I can find a handful of you guys on every corner. You do realize you're talking about woodworking/cabinetmaking, right? Not rocket science or brain surgery. The guys that are hard to find are the team players. The people who are worth having around because they are dedicated and have good attitudes.

Any of you employees who feel otherwise should just start your own shops. Problem solved. I've had more than one guy who thought he was the cat's meow go and start his own shop. Every one later said, "Holy sh**, I had no idea!"

From contributor U:
I've been in the woodworking business for about twenty some odd years. I've been an employee, and now have been in business on my own for thirteen. I started in a custom stair shop as the low man on the totem pole, worked my way up, set up and ran a custom cabinet shop for another owner, and opened my own place. I've done some work in other shops since going on my own, and with the exception of one guy, I've always gotten along with everybody I worked with and for.

When I see somebody use the words "highly skilled" and "talents" in a mocking tone, it kind of irks me. This is the attitude that makes for a lousy workplace. "Team player" is just a cliche that some guys use for mindless obedience. What a good employer really wants is loyalty and respect, which is what a good employee wants. Loyalty and respect are things that are earned, not acquired on demand. I've never had any problem doing dirty work or extra stuff for guys that were good to me. I've also dealt with guys who treated their employees like a burden, and made people feel guilty about wanting to get paid.

Cabinetmaking and woodworking may not be brain surgery, but doing it at a high level does require a fair amount of skill, experience, and intelligence. The attitude that "I can find a handful of you on every corner" indicates a complete lack of regard and respect for the people that you take on as employees. I agree that any employee who thinks his skills are such that he can't be replaced is delusional. I also feel it is arrogant and condescending for an employer to believe that his craftsmen are too inept and naive to ever run a business as he does, thus they should feel grateful that he provides a place for them to ply their skills. A good functioning shop is a place where an employer respects his employees, who are his bread and butter, and the guys that do the work do it not only to make a living, but because they take some pride in what they do.

From contributor T:
I applaud contributor U for having phrased this very well. My shop experiences more or less mirror his, except that I have a few more years in the trade.

"Team player" has become the politically correct version of "When I say jump, you ask how high." Showing a little respect never hurt anybody, and would probably pay dividends towards getting employees to become more than guys looking for a paycheck. Employers with more ego than brains ignore this, and manage their human resources as though it was their own little serfdom. A little give and take will make for a less hostile working environment with lower turnover.

Given the current economic environment, if you "can find a handful of you guys on every corner," I wonder if your current staff will stay if economic conditions improve. Perhaps then, if you need experienced workers, there will not be skilled cabinetmakers hanging out on street corners.

As a side note, I am curious how many of the shop owners posting were team players when they were employees? Were you the kind of employee you prefer to have now? Seems as though a team player would have stayed where he was, if indeed he was a team player. Remember from whence you came.

From contributor Y:
I see the me-versus-them attitude is still doing well.

From contributor N:
Contributor L said it best very early in the thread: "A team player is someone who understands that the company or business is what is most important. If they can understand that with the success of the company comes their success, then they are a team player."

A concept to which every employer wishes every employee would subscribe. Unfortunately, I've usually found that while most employees will pay nominal lip service to this concept, when the chips are down, next to none really mean it, and are usually looking for any opportunity to profit themselves.

Later, contributor L gets to the meat of the matter: "Any of you employees who feel otherwise should just start your own shops. Problem solved."

He's right again. I've watched no end of team player types decide that they knew everything and would therefore strike out on their own, only to implode because they really had no clue.

Good help is not just hard to find, it's very hard to determine when you actually have it. Bottom line? Trust, but verify frequently as your trust will, unfortunately due to the nature of mankind, usually be misplaced.

From contributor L:
Contributor U, I'm sorry that you take offense to my words or the attitude you think I have towards the people who work for me. It is actually quite the contrary. I have great respect for the people who work for my company. They are the backbone of the work we do and I choose them very carefully. But I have no patience or interest in the type of employee that I was describing in my post, one that I'm sure as employers we have all had. I will 100% train a greenhorn with a great attitude before hiring an experienced guy who thinks he hung the moon.

Contributor T, my guys have all worked for me long before this economy, through this economy and hopefully after this economy. You actually hit on a good point. Like I said, if someone wants to do things their own way, they should start their own business. You think business owners go into business to do things how their employees tell them to? I think not. Now, a good owner will listen to their employees and utilize suggestions and implement ideas. Others will not. It's their will to do as they wish.

From contributor H:
In my experience in shops, part of being a team player is being able to get along with the other people on a personal level. It's hard to produce good millwork with psychopaths. If you hate everyone you ever worked with/for, then you probably aren't a team player.

When interviewing employees, I get them to tell stories about former co-workers and bosses. If everyone was an %$#@##$, I figure I will be too, in that person's eyes. A team player might have actually liked other people he worked with.

Asking the team player question is a good idea. I also like to ask the "Do you like to party?" question.

From contributor T:
Contributor L, I am glad your clarification was posted, and I apologize if I came away with the wrong idea about how you treat your employees.

Employees get a weekly paycheck reminder that they are not self-employed. Self-employment is not for everybody, and suggesting it to someone who maybe just wants an opportunity to engage in a dialogue is like telling clients that complain about a misaligned door that maybe next time they should build it themselves. Being self-employed, I recognize what is involved in keeping a business viable. And while it is difficult, especially now, it is not rocket surgery, either. Nonetheless, having been self-employed will make me a better employee, should the need arise.

My point is it is about mutual respect. I’m not sure where “team player” fits into this. I think everybody is their own dictionary on this one.

As an employee, there were times when I was handed a complex project and told to “take care of it.” And there were times when I was told to clean the bathroom. I did both, even though I could not understand the economic rationale behind having a high-wage employee do this while the shop helpers were sanding. I can understand where, as an employee, it can be hard to wrap your head around that disparity and wonder about your place in the scheme of things. Cabinetmakers are people, too. The more thin-skinned amongst us will take something like that personally.

I can also understand the employer perspective - this is your business, you built it up, you are taking the risk, you made the sacrifices, and you deserve the autonomy to make the decisions as you see fit. You don’t want employees to second guess your decision making. You would not want to hire someone who is argumentative for no reason, or who is continually argumentative, or who is a prima donna. Some soon-to-be-ex employees will just be problematic, no matter what.

I brought up the point about the type of employee the shop owners may have been only to remind us all of The Golden Rule. Treating others as you would want to be treated, not as you were treated. If people adhered more to the Golden Rule, there would be less need for other rules.

From contributor I:
I think contributor T is channeling Chordal's Letters. From 1883...

Click here for higher quality, full size image

From contributor L:
Great post, contributor I! Contributor T, I completely agree.

From contributor K:
Attitude is everything, as an employee or employer.

From contributor O:
A lot of us-versus-them going on in the above, with employers topping out on the "they owe me" concept... Folks, it is a two-way street and veiled contempt will not work in the future as skilled workers and viable employers get harder to find, no matter the economic situation.

Contributor U said it best when he said the relationship (it is every bit a relationship) is based on loyalty and respect. Going both ways on an open street. "Team player" is meaningless and disrespectful since it is undefined and implies cooperation with management at any cost, in a top down sort of way.

Anyone that says "my guys" just lost my respect, and would have to really work hard to get it back. No one owns anyone else. Sure, it is just a phrase, but it is indicative of an attitude that will pollute the relationship. Every time I have seen beyond the scenes where someone uses "my guys," I see a pyramid hierarchy, with information flowing only one way, and employees with a Stepin Fetchit attitude, aka team players.

All of my business's employees are co-workers. We all work together or separately, with mutual respect for each other. We work towards the stated goals, and we know if those goals change from day to day, week to week. Some of us do different jobs from others. Some are more skilled, some less skilled. Some are paid more than others, some less. No one takes a risk but me, the owner. We are all important, but no one is so important that he can dictate what the attitude towards him will be. Respect is earned, not granted. Anyone can be replaced, and anyone can leave. Except me.

Not everyone wants to or can start a business - is it wrong to just want to be a good employee? I know the original questioner to be a skilled woodworker, intent on improving his skills in a receptive environment. He does not want to start a business. That is not a fault or weakness - perhaps he knows his limitations or his strengths well enough to make his own choices.

As Dr. Seuss said: "Our workers say 'Work us!' at the Circus McGurkus!"

From contributor F:
I don't think being a team player means you are required to do anything that is asked of you. In football, they don't ask a defensive back to play quarterback or a wide receiver to play center. They do ask them to play their positions to the best of their abilities. In our business you need everyone involved to have the same objectives in mind, which may be customer satisfaction. If your shop crew builds a wonderful set of cabinets and the installation crew does a lousy install, they are not team players. If you are the CNC operator and you are falling behind on cutting parts for the shop, a team player would increase his pace a little to keep things moving. Maybe the company you work for has one of those once-in-a-lifetime jobs that will do wonders for the company. They need the staff to put in some extra hours in order to meet a tight schedule. A team player sees that it would benefit all involved, and does the extra hours without complaining. It is not necessarily asking you to do something you don't want to do, it is maybe just doing more of what you were hired for.

From contributor I:
I think the direction this economy is headed is going to sort out the concept of "team player" for everybody, business owner and employee alike. Those who figure it out sooner will have a better chance of sticking around. Those who need to have it explained to them, not so good.

From contributor A:
Did the company hire you to make cabinets, or did they hire you to do whatever it takes to make the company successful? Reworded: did you go to work for $20/hr, or did you go to work for the company? Sometimes we don't like to do parts of the job we were hired to do.

If the 1st and 2nd string quarterbacks get injured, and my defensive back (who has an excellent throwing arm) refuses to quarterback because it is not his job, then... You know the rest.

The company has to come first. Without it, all these people would be out of a job, vendors don't get paid, customers don't get their product, the owner loses a lifetime of investment. With a bad employee, just one individual is out of a job. The team concept puts the emphasis on the greater good of the organization.