Teams, Roles, and Being You

Polo by George Bellows from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Finding your tribe” was a phrase that seemed to peak a couple years ago. A tribe in this colloquial sense is a group of like-minded people. “Finding your tribe” is a phrase that implies comfort is being with people who are like you, where your specific variety of weird is norm rather than the outlier. Now, I have definitely been in groups that make good vibes bloom in my chest; where I feel right with being among those people. But, in reflection, we weren’t bonded by our similar roots or interests. Instead, my good vibes grew from being in spaces that encourage collective respective. Instead of finding my tribe, I was enjoying being “on the team.”

One for All & the Team

While sports metaphors are not my normal form of expression, in the case of teamwork, they are ideal. If tribes are traditionally a cultural group, a team is a set of people from any background choosing to work towards a collective purpose. Perhaps the best run teams are the ones seen regularly on pitches, fields, rinks, and courts around the world. Sport is structured to make teamwork run smoothly. The end-game, goals, and rules are clearly defined. Each person on the team has a known role, and everyone team member understands each other’s role. In the throes of a match, for example, only one person stands strong, tall, and fierce to keep balls out of the goal — the goalkeeper. The rest of the team helps, but push to comes to shove, that goalkeeper is there to keep the other team from scoring. Each player owns their role, and that role compliments the others. When it all works well, they will the match.

The game of life is much more complicated. Winning at life is sometimes hard to figure out. The rules shift. The other players are often inscrutable. Team rosters are invisible and allegiance can be imperceptible. In other words, we often play life like we are trying to lose the match.

The challenge with teamwork is often that we don’t honor the importance of every player and their difference. For example, while there might be goals at work, we don’t celebrate the power of the goal-keepers, often the under-appreciated, hardworking project managers. We have a lack of appreciation of the multiple and different strengths of the people on the team. We often see only certain markers of success as important. For example, often the loudest person or the biggest personality gets the most credit but deserves the least. Yet, that big personality wouldn’t be able to hold those groundbreaking events if some ordered, structured thinker wasn’t ensuring spaces and places were sorted out in advance.

Teams can be improved by honoring all the different people on their teams for their strengths. Really good teams often operate on the equal and opposite principle; for every big picture thinker, there is a detail-oriented one. To go back to the sports metaphor, for every all-action forward, there is a full-back thwarting the other team’s action.

Being You is Good for the Team

Youth soccer/football is a fascinating spectator sport. Little legs kick with wild abandon and then in another moment they scatter like the ball might explode. Within a few years, games go from protean play to ordered events, because the children have started to explore different roles. They take their chance at forward, only to realize that they are better at enforcing order with the defense. Or, they run like roadrunners and become high-scoring forwards.

Work is a bit like becoming a sports player. You start doing a job marginally well. As you do that job, you learn what really works for you. Then, you become that person who does those things. But, unlike sports that has a highly ordered way to think about what makes people good at which position, people are often ill-equipped to articulate their strengths and how that works on the team.

Knowing yourself is a learned skill. First, we are often fulfilling roles that aren’t our ideal milieu. Everyone person adapts if their salary depends on it. I can, if forced, schedule meetings. It is not my strong suit; and if time zones are involved, confusion might ensure. But, I do a pretty good job of it. Second, people are complicated. For example, a quick chat with me might make you believe that I am a loosey-goosey sort of gal. But, I am also a spreadsheet master. I think of projects in the beautiful order of rows and columns. In other words, people are many things. We often focus on one marker of aptitude and ignore the others.

So, how do you actually figure out who you are on the work team? Many friends in medicine poured over the Meyers-Briggs tests to figure out which specialty they should go into. Supposedly that E-Harmony will match you to the love of your life. There are many systems to diagnose yourself for all sorts of things, but none of them quite worked for me.

For work, there are a number of scales that can help you think about yourself — like exterior or interior. Each of these facets are scales. For example, think about a scale between process and product. Most people are somewhere in the middle. Meditating on each of these facets can help you understand yourself better.

Conclusion

First and foremost, knowing yourself makes you better at working with others. It helps you also see why you are in the role, and if perhaps your style and your role are not compatible. Secondly, bringing your role into focus also helps you think about what other roles are on the pitch.

A good team will have many different people. Of course they will have their job description. But imagine if you defined you team by their role within the collective (The Communicator, the Action-taker, the Note-taker, the Carer, the Igniter, the Maintainer, the Order-master). Then your team turns from a work group to a set of superheroes — each with a special power. Even if you don’t define everyone by their team role (and give everyone tights and capes), find ways to honor everyone’s special strengths. Extol the praises of the unsung heroes. Verbalize why each member matters. Remind everyone that this is a team that works well together because everyone is different.

A good player isn’t just playing their part, they are making sure that they aren’t playing someone else’s part. They are watching the whole field, supporting everyone, and winning for everyone.