The Toxicity of “Team Player” Syndrome

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Have you ever noticed that if you stand up for yourself in a business situation, the person you confront accuses you of not being a “team player”?

How often, in job listings, is the phrase “must be a team player” used? Which is basically a red flag for “shut up, keep your head down, and don’t make waves, even if it’s a hostile or unethical situation.”

When someone in the business world says that to me, I have to laugh in their face. Because I know the subtext is to allow mistreatment or look the other way from unethical behavior.

I KNOW what being a genuine team player is, and it’s not just going along to get along.

How do I know this? Because I spent decades playing on the ultimate teams.

Not hockey. Although I learned a lot about what makes for solid teamwork when I spent eight months embedded with a minor league hockey team quite a few years ago.


Before Broadway, off-Broadway and off-off Broadway and regional theatre and community theatre and university theatre.


Film production (although there’s far more hierarchy in film production).

A Broadway show can take close to 100 people to keep it running on any given day. A film production uses far more. While there may be ego flares, unless one is actually willing to work as a team for the production to happen, it won’t.

That’s why the creative unions connected to theatre and film production are vital. Because corporate factions always try to use passion and love for the work as a way to demean, demoralize, underpay, and overwork everyone involved.

But in order for either a theatre or a film production to happen through to completion, there has to be genuine teamwork. Each individual on the production needs to be good at their tasks. They have to know when to tamp down personal ego in order to benefit the entire production, and to do it in a way that isn’t demeaning to themselves or anyone else. It’s not about self-sacrifice. It’s about keeping an eye on the goal – a completed production – and treating everyone else on the team with respect. It’s about knowing when to put aside personal dislikes to achieve something beyond what the individuals could achieve alone.

Genuine leaders (be they supervisors, managers, executives) know how to bring out the best in each individual, matching the right individual to the right task, and a way that makes them all shine.

One of my more toxic bosses once said to me, “Your job is to make me look good.”

To which I replied, “No. My job is to make the company look good, and when I do that, it reflects well on you.”

Strong, skilled leaders don’t need to give lectures about being a “team player” because they’ve put together teams that integrate well, support each other, and make each other better than they could be on their own. The leaders know when to step in to guide, nudge in a different direction, and, most important of all, they know when to step back and get out of the way.

Weak leaders, who are leaders in name only, have to talk about “team players” because they are unable to inspire, lead, guide, and lead by example. Their own insecurities, their knowledge that they don’t have enough skill, and their own egos get in the way.

Real teams don’t have to talk about how well they flow together, because they are busy DOING it.

Don’t settle for less.

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