The Problem With Teamwork

Geoff Smith Portrait

BY Geoff Smith


Am I the only person who has mixed emotions about the overpowering conventional wisdom that a person must be a ‘team player’ in order to be considered for hiring or promotion?

I hear it everywhere, certainly including at EllisDon. My son recently got a job in a very tough market at least in part because he was a lacrosse team captain at University. Why? (I’m now pushing my other son to keep playing, not because it will make him better at his job, but because it will help him get the damn thing). Michael Lewis recently wrote an article about how to be great at hiring. He relied entirely on a ‘hiring expert’ who left no room for doubt about the requirement for previous team sport participation. (It ruined my day, I used to love Michael Lewis but if this article was that superficial, what about everything else he’s written?)

I’m biased, no doubt: I always preferred tennis, snow and water skiing and running. I’m not some anti social loner, I’m pretty competitive, I think I’m pretty good at my job - I’m just not a team sports guy.

And I recognize that if you can put together a team of great performers with complementary strengths, where everyone respects the other and contributes according to their talents and role, that will be very formidable – and everyone and every company should strive for that.

But this ‘teamwork’ and ‘being a team player’ mantra, especially when it comes to decision making, can be very dangerous. And when it comes to individual career success, big accomplishments and trying to build a great company, I strongly prefer individualistic personalities, confidently independent thinking, raucous debate and the courage to stand alone.

‘Teamwork’, too often, means compromise, going along to get along, holding back your thoughts when everyone else is going in the same (wrong) direction. It is lowest common denominator, conventional thinking; too often it is cowardice. If twenty people agree that they won’t make a decision unless everyone agrees with it, the chance for meaningful change and bold new direction stops right there; what you will get is status quo. Steve Jobs, Winston Churchill and Henry Ford were many things; team players they were not.

Business consultants forever tell me that ‘change’ cannot be successful in a company unless it is widely supported throughout the ranks. That has not once been my experience. Every important change at EllisDon started out as a single strong voice against the united status quo. Sometimes mine, far more often someone else’s, but always alone, and always against fiercely defended conventional wisdom.

I’d rather hang out and debate with ten smart people who strongly and obnoxiously disagree with me (and with each other) than a group of consensus seeking teambuilders.

All in favour, say aye together. OK, never mind.

Thanks for reading.