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Apple co-founder Steve Jobs never felt the need to suppress his creative individualism. (Tony Avelar/Bloomberg News/Tony Avelar/Bloomberg News)
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs never felt the need to suppress his creative individualism. (Tony Avelar/Bloomberg News/Tony Avelar/Bloomberg News)

Career Intelligence

Why we need contrarians in the workplace Add to ...

There’s no question that Steve Jobs, the late co-founder of Apple Inc., and Christopher Hitchens, the late author and pundit, each left indelible marks. But for all their accomplishments it is unlikely either would have ever received a report card that read, “Plays well with others” or “Is a great team player.”

More from Barbara Moses

Maybe there is something to be learned from these true contrarians. Although in most organizations, you can’t do better than be labelled a team player, and although most workers promote their group-work skills, I’m tired of people who robotically boast about what great team players they are.

In fact, being a good team player may not be such a good thing. And maybe you can be too agreeable.

Week after week, clients confide to me that they routinely shut up about work decisions they don’t agree with, or are doing things that run counter to what they believe is right. When asked why they don’t speak up, they say they don’t want to be branded with the dreaded label: “Not a good team player.”

But a company pays if all of its workers hang up their personal views and defer to group think.

The value of being contrarian, and maybe even a bit obnoxious about it, was driven home a few years ago when I was part of team that came up with a plan for a big project. When the strategy was presented to the CEO, one team member, out of the blue, said she had been rethinking our decision and decided it was the wrong way to go. Everyone was clearly irritated. She refused to be mollified; she continued lobbing her objections for about an hour. At the end, we realized she had raised some excellent points. The plan was changed, with all on board.

Most people would not have had the guts to persist. They either would not have said anything, or else they would have quickly folded in the face of the group’s disapproval. After all, it was a group decision made by a unit of people who considered themselves team players.

But failing to speak up because of a fear of ruffling feathers, or slavishly following the desires of the group, is not what constitutes good team playing. Unfortunately, it is often how it is expressed.

So, too, are knee-jerk responses and unthinking conformity. You hear this frequently when staffers invoke “being a team player” or “our team’s philosophy/policy” as fig leaves to cover up what they really mean – which often is that they can’t be bothered to put their necks out, think harder, or risk disapproval.

For example, during the depths of the recession, one client told me I could not mention the economic downturn in a speech about the career landscape. “The team,” she said, “had agreed that it was counter to our policy.” I wasn’t sure if the team had indeed made this decision, or she was simply invoking the team as the highest possible power to suppress dissent. Either way, it was a ridiculous notion. (In case you’re curious, we agreed to part ways.)

Employees also lose out when they become overly mired in group think. When people say, for example, “We at Acme believe … ” it begs the question, “What do you think?”

And they lose when their sense of self is overly tied to their identity as an employee and team member. For example, many long-term employees of organizations that foster intense team-work environments and attachments find it difficult to adjust to work realities that demand more autonomous decision making, and more movement from project to project, and team to team.

If they lose their job, many also lose their sense of identity and can become vulnerable to depression. And many find it a challenge to secure new employment. During job interviews, they find it difficult to separate their individual accomplishments and contributions from those of the team. A sign of such unhealthy attachments is when a person describes his or her accomplishments as a “we,” as in: “We did such and such …”

Another hallmark of too much group think is using insider company jargon. When I complained to a colleague about a mutual acquaintance’s heavy reliance on what, to me, were meaningless words, she said: “She’s been infected by the company culture, which is too bad, because she is smart but unemployable beyond this company.” That person had a style that I often see among those described by colleagues as being great team players. Quite simply, they come across as being too agreeable, too corporate – as if they have no thoughts or personalities of their own.

Like Mr. Jobs and Mr. Hitchens, some of the most interesting, accomplished and outstanding workers are viewed as “difficult.” These mavericks – the prickly introvert, the socially awkward, the disaffected, the abrasive – may have struggled to fit in, but they can’t. They should understand that they have something to contribute even if they aren’t crowd pleasers.

Of course, we need team players who can suppress their ego needs to those of the group. But we also need people who know when to defer to collective desires and when not to conform – people who are prepared to cause a little trouble, and to offend a few now and then.

The end result may be what’s really best for the team.

Barbara Moses, PhD, is a speaker, organizational career management consultant and the author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth about Work, Relationships and the Rest of Life. Website: www.bmoses.com

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