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Boss Says: “You Are Not a Team Player!”

Do you have the right job on the wrong team?

The following story can be found on Gillian Lynne’s Wiki biography:

As a child, Gillian was underperforming at school and was constantly fidgeting. Her mother took her to a doctor to see what could be done.

After reviewing the problem and seeing little Gillian squirm in her chair, the doctor asked the little girl to step into the waiting room while he spoke with her mother. When the door was closed, the doctor turned on the radio and played music so loud, Gillian could hear it through the walls. The doctor asked the mother to observe the girl: She was dancing to the music while alone in the waiting room.

The doctor turned to Gillian’s mother and pronounced the diagnosis: “She’s a dancer. Put her into a dance school. She doesn’t belong in a regular school.”

As soon as Gillian entered the dance school, she relaxed: “It was full of people like me: People who had to move to think.”

Gillian went on to become a ballerina, choreographer, actress, and television director. She is associated with the musical Cats and the current longest-running show in Broadway history, The Phantom of the Opera. For her contribution to dance, Queen Elizabeth II made Gillian a DBE (Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire).

She was born in 1926. The doctor suggested a way for her to find an appropriate role on the right team of people just like her.

Suppose Jillian had been born in 2006?

The family doctor would probably have referred her to a specialist. That specialist would diagnose her as suffering from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The doctor would tell Gillian’s mother that Gillian was fortunate: Medication was available for this disorder. As long as she took her medication, Gillian would be able to attend regular school.

Right Job, Wrong Team:

Modern thought is to see a deviation from the norm as a “problem” that needs “fixing” rather than an opportunity to find a place where that deviation becomes the norm.

In our practice, we often get calls from corporate clients to help them “fix” leaders who are not “team players.” The complaints are often phrased in terms of behavioral problems that sap corporate productivity and waste time. Can’t we “fix” the person?

Sometimes we can.

And sometimes there is really nothing to “fix.” The person we are working with has the right job on the wrong team.

Having the right job on the right team is a gift. If that describes you, be grateful.

The wrong job on the right team is also a gift. Patience is required to receive the benefit of that gift. Jobs change, but corporate culture tends to remain. That can be useful to you. For example, the CEO of one of the world’s leading advertising agencies started out at the agency as a secretary.

The right job on the wrong team is a problem. You have little chance to be happy. If it were easy to reproduce effective corporate cultures, every technology company would be like Google, and every airline would be like Southwest Airlines.

He’s Not a Team Player:

Our client was a Fortune 500 company in the pharmaceutical space. The CEO complained that Francois was “not a team player.” Could we “rehabilitate” Francois?

Francois was Chief Information Officer and a French citizen who was educated in France’s best schools and then went on to receive an MBA from Stanford. Being the CIO of this global company was a high point in his career. Francois wanted to be successful. He wanted to be a “team player” and welcomed our intervention to help him.

The CEO’s complaints about Francois’ behavior seemed to be symptoms and not causes. Francois easily explained the issue: He had been educated to think broadly and deeply about many topics. Although a specialist in Information Systems, Francois was comfortable with discussions about philosophy and art. He enjoyed poetry. The top management of this company consisted of Americans whose interactions were limited to three broad topics: business, American football, and golf.

Francois would be quiet during the golf and football discussions. He thought he was being quiet. But I could observe that Francois had powerful nonverbal ways of communicating contempt: His mouth would turn down, his nose would take a shape as though it had smelled a foul odor, and his eyebrows went up. I suspected that this nonverbal signal was the thing that was actually bothering the CEO. And the CEO was looking for verbal justification.

This CEO was typical of most American leaders: Americans deal well with open disagreement. But nonverbal expressions of contempt are difficult. As a society, we think of ourselves as egalitarian. Expressions of contempt create a negative backlash.

I was hired by the company to “rehabilitate” Francois. We worked on the nonverbal signals he was sending. Like Gillian’s physician, however, I wanted him to understand that he might be happier and more effective on a different team. And the team might be more effective with someone who is more compatible with the team culture.

Francois is now CEO of a Software as a Service (SaaS), focusing on life sciences. He lives in Paris, is successful, and has the right job on the right team.

What’s the Right Team for You?

You suspect you are in the right job, wrong team category. Are there ways to confirm this? One approach would be to get a Career Interest Test with a psychologist who understands organizations and careers.

Career Interest Tests are not personality tests. They are a set of questions about your values. And once your constellations of values are obtained, the test statistically compares your unique constellation of values with the values of people who enjoy what they are doing at work.

Popular tests include the Strong Interest Inventory, the Campbell Interest Inventory, and the Career Ladder. You can then superimpose the values of the team you are working in. These tests allow for objectivity and provide you with a language to discuss the fit or lack of fit. Many of our clients lack a language to discuss these issues with precision. You can’t make too many focused interventions if the language used to describe team culture is filled with words like, “They suck!”

Some Psychologists Can Be Naïve About Organization Life:

Where can you find a psychologist qualified to administer and to interpret such career interest tests?

A good first step is to review the global database of Board Certified professionals available at the Institute for Career Certification. This is the global nonprofit that certifies competency in the fields of leadership development and career management. Look for a certified professional who is licensed as a psychologist and can administer career interest tests. It might help if the professional lives near your home, but it is not really necessary.

Another option is to contact your local state psychological association and ask for references. You might also find inexpensive resources at the college/university career center where you graduated. Be sure that the professional you are working with truly “gets” the way business is run.

Individuals have needs, and organizations have requirements. Life would be ideal if there was a perfect balance between these two forces. And life seldom is perfect.

Some psychologists can have a naïve perspective about organization life. In their view, individual needs trump organization requirements. The psychologist you want to work for “gets” that life is about balance and making tradeoffs between these competing forces.

Right Job, Wrong Team:

As a child, Max loved music. In college, he was part of a rock band that tried to go professional but never made it. Once he got “serious,” he majored in accounting and became a CPA. Max progressed through the ranks to become the partner of a Big-Four CPA firm.

And yet, Max doesn’t feel he “fits” in with his partners. He worries that his partners only tolerate him. He finds his partners boring.

Max feels like he has let himself down. We did testing of Max and had him rediscover that there was an artistic side he once fed during college. But that artistic side was now starving.

A change in jobs from one CPA firm to another CPA firm would not fix this problem. All teams in most CPA firms are quite similar. And the financial responsibilities of being a father made it impossible for him to quit the business world.

We helped Max form a rock group called Our Midlife Crisis. It consists of five middle-aged men who are all successful business professionals and frustrated rock musicians. This group has become Max’s new tribe. They practice one night a week. Two Saturdays a month, they play at a local bar.

When Max was asked what he had learned from our work together, he said, “The secret to a happy life is someone who loves you and a tribe you feel you belong with.”

No One Activity of Life Can Meet All of Life’s Needs:

If you are searching for employment, remember that the wrong job on the right team is better for you than the right job on the wrong team. Jobs change, but culture is relatively permanent.

In trying to find the right team for yourself, try to have a precise language you can use to articulate what is important for you. We recommend some of the language used in Career Interest Tests.

Are you in the right job but on the wrong team? Remember the story of Max. No one single activity of life can or should meet all of life’s needs. But sometimes you may have to leave. And that is the lesson of Francois.

You may think the demands of a busy work life preclude finding a new tribe. A second opinion about this is always worthwhile. You may be too close to the situation to see a way out. Consult the global database of Board Certified professionals, contact your local state psychological association, or visit the college career center where you graduated.

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