“Team player” is probably one of the most used descriptors on CVs and cover letters. It’s something every one seems to boast that they are good at – a skill set every person claims to possess.

Last week as part of a workshop on project management and leadership I led an exercise which involved a teams working together to complete several tasks in sequence in a way similar to a relay race, competing against other teams.

One of the tasks required every single team member to successfully throw a tennis ball into a bucket from quite a considerable distance away. The team could only move to the next task when each member of the team managed the feat.

Participants like me who have limited or no hand-eye coordination were obviously going to struggle with the task – and with feelings of inadequacy about keeping back their teams. But how would their team members (who all said they were definitely team players before the exercise began) react to their struggle?

I observed behaviour like:

  1. Eye-rolling (behind their team member’s back of course!)
  2. Audible sighs
  3. Visible frustration like walking away, burying their head in their hands or exclamations
  4. Snide comments, often couched as banter
    By this I mean statements like “I mean did you ever play sports when you were a child?” or “I bet you got picked last a lot for teams in school”, which while they could be meant in jest do not boost confidence or help get the desired result. I watched faces crumble after these comments.
  5. Unhelpful coaching
    This is made even worse when there are multiple coaches all trying to be heard at the same time – “Try an underarm throw”, “No, let it bounce in”, “Lean in”, “Step back”, “Aim for a spot”. More often than not it made the situation worse, frustrating and overwhelming for the team member throwing the ball.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom, I also saw some amazing teamwork as part of the session. There was a participant who had to attempt about 30 times before the ball made it into the bucket.

There was a cheerleading squad behind her the entire time “Don’t worry – you’ll get the next one!” – “So close!” – “Keep trying!” – “Come on – you can do it!”. They never ran out of steam! And when the ball finally made it in there was high-fiving, back-slapping and celebratory hugs. It was amazing!

On another team, in the midst of group coaches talking over each other, someone walked up to the team member taking the shot and said “Is this helping you or would you prefer quiet?” and then followed up with “Is there anything we can do that would actually be helpful?” Another great moment!

I also loved it when in response to a snide comment, a team member replied with some degree of snark “Is that supposed to be inspiring or motivational?” I  had to bite back my smile.

I thought I would share this as being a great team player is not just about the words. It’s about what you do when the chips are down and how you support your team and help them deliver. And I hope you remember some of the attitudes and behaviours outlined above,  both positive and negative when you’re on your next team project. Tone down or eliminate the bad behaviours if you can – and focus on being really earning the “team player” badge by displaying positive team behaviours and really thinking about what your team and its individual members needs and what you can do to help the overall team win.