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Team building

Team building

The three essential virtues of an ideal team player and how their power comes in their combination

In his classic book, Good To Great, Jim Collins talks about the importance of successful companies getting ‘the right people on the bus’, a euphemism for hiring and retaining employees who fit a company’s culture. It is a concept that is relatively simple and makes perfect sense, yet somehow it is often overlooked, as too many leaders hire mostly for competency and technical skills.

For organisations seriously committed to making teamwork a cultural reality, I’m convinced that ‘the right people’ are the ones who have these three virtues in common - humility, hunger and people smarts. I refer to those as virtues because the word virtue is a synonym for the nouns quality and asset, but it also connotes the idea of integrity and morality. Humility, which is the most important of the three, is certainly a virtue in the deepest sense of the word. Hunger and people smarts fall more into the quality or asset category. So, the word virtue best captures them all.

Of course, to recognise and cultivate humble, hungry and smart team members, or to become one yourself, you first need to understand exactly what these deceptively simple words mean and how all three together make up the essential virtues of an ideal team player.

Defining the three virtues

In the context of teamwork, humility is largely what it seems to be. Great team players lack excessive ego or concerns about status. They are quick to point out the contributions of others and slow to seek attention for their own. They share credit, emphasise the team over self, and define success collectively rather than individually. It is no great surprise, then, that humility is the single greatest and most indispensible attribute of being a team player.

What’s amazing is that so many leaders who value teamwork will tolerate people who aren’t humble. They reluctantly hire self-centred people and then justify it simply because those people have desired skills. Or, they see arrogant behaviour in an employee and fail to confront it, often citing that person’s individual contributions as an excuse. The problem, of course, is that leaders aren’t considering the effect that an arrogant, self-centred person has on the overall performance of the team. This happens in sports, business and every other kind of team venture.

There are two basic types of people who lack humility, and it’s important, even critical, to understand them, because they look quite different from one another and impact a team differently. The most obvious kind is the overtly arrogant people who make everything about them. They are easy to identify because they tend to boast and soak up attention. This is the classically ego-driven type and it diminishes teamwork by fostering resentment, division and politics. Most of us have seen plenty of this behaviour in our careers.

The next type is much less dangerous, but still worth understanding. These are the people who lack self-confidence but are generous and positive with others. They tend to discount their own talents and contributions, and so others mistakenly see them as humble. But this is not humility. While they are certainly not arrogant, their lack of understanding of their own worth is also a violation of humility. Truly humble people do not see themselves as greater than they are, but neither do they discount their talents and contributions. C.S. Lewis addressed this misunderstanding about humility when he said: “Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”

A person who has a disproportionately deflated sense of self-worth often hurts teams by not advocating their own ideas or by failing to call attention to problems that they see. Though this kind of lack of humility is less obtrusive and obvious than the other, more negative types, it detracts from optimal team performance nonetheless.

What both of these types have in common is insecurity. Insecurity makes some people project overconfidence, and others discount their own talents. And while these types are not equal when it comes to creating problems on a team, they each diminish performance.

Hungry people are always looking for more. More things to do. More to learn. More responsibility to take on. Hungry people almost never have to be pushed by a manager to work harder because they are self-motivated and diligent. They are constantly thinking about the next step and the next opportunity. And they loathe the idea that they might be perceived as slackers.

It’s not difficult to understand why hungry people are great to have on a team, but it’s important to realise that some types of hunger are not good for a team and are even unhealthy. In some people, hunger can be directed in a selfish way that is not for the good of the team but only for the individual. And in some people, hunger can be taken to an extreme where work becomes too important, consuming the identities of employees and dominating their lives. When I refer to hunger here, I’m thinking about the healthy kind - a manageable and sustainable commitment to doing a job well and going above and beyond when it is truly required.

Okay, few team leaders will knowingly ignore a lack of hunger in their people, most likely because unproductive, dispassionate people tend to stand out and create obvious problems on a team. Unfortunately, undiscerning leaders too often hire these people because most candidates know how to falsely project a sense of hunger during standard interviews. As a result, those leaders find themselves spending inordinate amounts of time trying to motivate, punish or dismiss non-hungry team members once they’re on board.

Of the three virtues, this one needs the most clarification because it is not what it might seem; it is not about intellectual capacity. In the context of a team, smart simply refers to a person’s common sense about people. It has everything to do with the ability to be interpersonally appropriate and aware. Smart people tend to know what is happening in a group situation and how to deal with others in the most effective way. They ask good questions, listen to what others are saying, and stay engaged in conversations intently.

Some might refer to this as emotional intelligence, which wouldn’t be a bad comparison, but smart is probably a little simpler than that. Smart people just have good judgment and intuition around the subtleties of group dynamics and the impact of their words and actions. As a result, they don’t say and do things - or fail to say and do things - without knowing the likely responses of their colleagues.

Keep in mind that being smart doesn’t necessarily imply good intentions. Smart people can use their talents for good or ill purposes. In fact, some of the most dangerous people in history have been noted for being interpersonally smart.

The three virtues combined

If you’re thinking that these three virtues seem somewhat obvious, I would be the first to agree with you. Looking at them one by one, I’m reluctant to present them in any way that would suggest that I believe they are novel or new. What makes humble, hungry and smart powerful and unique is not the individual attributes themselves, but rather the required combination of all three. If even one is missing in a team member, teamwork becomes significantly more difficult, and sometimes not possible.

This is an edited extract from The Ideal Team Player: How to Recognize and Cultivate the Three Essential Virtues - A Leadership Fable by Patrick Lencioni (published by Wiley, May 2016)