Being a Team Player can be Bad. Very Bad.

bad-appleI’m unusual, I think, in that I have never supported a team. I’m talking about football teams, of course. I can’t say I feel any particular loyalty to my home town either (it’s a dump). Neither am I strongly allied to a political party. I don’t feel much of a kinship with a country (I’m British but I don’t claim that Britain is superior to any other country). The awful truth is; I’m just not a team player. At job interviews you’ll always get asked ‘are you a team player?’ as though team playing is always a good thing. But it’s not. Not convinced? How about I name some powerful and effective teams? Al Qaeda. British National Party. Boko Haram. Irish Republican Army. Ku Klux Klan.

At work I’m a member of a team and it works really well (mostly). Teams can be good. People work in teams every day of the year in hospitals, hotels, governments, hairdressers, shops and factories and achieve wonderful things. Competition between teams can drive people to achieve excellence such as when the Russians and Americans were locked in a bitter battle to be the first to land on the moon in the 1960s. But our need to belong to a team or ‘tribe’ can become toxic.

Seemingly, there exists a need for humans to feel a sense of belonging. These days that can be hard to find (just like a ‘good heart’). When we feel a strong allegiance to a family, a football team, a political cause, a nationality, a religion… we feel empowered, energised, protected and strengthened. The problem arises when we feel we need to defend that allegiance, no matter what. Allegiance can lead us make skewed decisions.

For example, I know rational people who refuse to dress their children in colours worn by football teams which rival their own. My own grandparents refused to attend the wedding of their only son if if it took place in the church of any other religion apart from their own. Maybe it’s part of our ancient, tribal drive to survive. When humans lived in tribes it must have been essential to prevent competing tribes from taking the food. Back in primitive times it must have been a matter of life and death. Maybe we’re still more primitive than we like to think.

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It’s a weird impulse in us. Think about this; I say my favourite colour is orange, you say your favourite colour is purple. I say why I think orange is so good and immediately the person who likes purple is on the defensive. Purple person feels the need to tell me why his decision to love purple is a better decision than my decision to love orange. ‘Join us’ the purple people call to the orange supporters and if the orange people are feeling disaffected or abandoned or failed by the orange cause then they may consider switching to the purple gang. And if they do switch, they will defend their new cause with the same vigour used to defend the previous one. When you’re a member of a team, you defend that team, no matter what. For me, being a team player means accepting the team’s actions without question. And the most important thing of all is to always always always always always ask questions.

In a way, even a family is a team. We all feel loyalty to our family (even me), In fact, personally, that is the only team I can honestly say I feel a part of. I know that I would defend my family to the death, no matter what. If me and my wife and kids were on the Titanic and there were spaces for my family but no other on the lifeboat, I know that I would do anything in my power to make sure that it was my family getting saved, even at the expense of others. I would even kill to save them.

So maybe I’m more of a team player than I thought.

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