Humble, hungry, and smart

Dec 26, 2016 · 6 min read

We often talk about whether someone is a ‘team player’. In interviews, performance reviews, or while sharing feedback, everyone agrees that being a team player is extremely desirable in an employee (or a potential hire). Despite widespread usage of the phrase and agreement on its importance, great team players are rather rare.

Why is that so?

Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that although we all have our own notions of what team players are like, we lack a formal, practical framework using which we can define the qualities ideal team players should possess.

In this post, I want to share what I learned about the virtues that real team players must possess, and how leaders can identify, hire-for and cultivate those qualities in teams.

Patrick Lencioni’s central thesis in this book is that an ideal team player possesses a potent combination of three virtues — they are humble, hungry, and smart.

Further, Lencioni states, when a team member significantly lacks one or more of these virtues, the process of building a cohesive team becomes hard, and in some cases, impossible. So leaders should ensure that they hire people who demonstrate these attributes, and actively develop these qualities in the people already in their team.

The three virtues:

Humble: This is by far the most obvious and easiest to understand. Humility in a team member shows up as a lack of excessive ego, or concerns about status. They are quick to share credit, praise others freely, and sometimes even forego credit due to them in the interest of celebrating the team’s collective win. They demonstrate strong alignment towards the team’s goals, and prioritize collective wins over individual ones. Humble team players are self-confident, but not arrogant. A memorable quote that summarizes this indispensable attribute is:

“Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”

Note: People who are insecure sometimes discount their own talents and thereby appear humble. People whose sense of self-worth is extremely deflated often end up hurting the team by being very passive. They don’t advocate for their ideas, nor call out the team’s inadequacies.

Hungry: Hungry people are always looking for more. They are intrinsically motivated, diligent, and have a strong desire to do more by going above and beyond. Hungry people do not have to be pushed by their managers to perform; they are constantly looking for more responsibility, and thinking about the next step and the next opportunity (for the team).

Note: Some people can be ‘hungry’ in a selfish way, and that is extremely detrimental to team health. Hunger driven by selfishness results in mercenary behavior, where individual goals always trump collective team goals.

Smart: By ‘smart’, the author here refers to emotional intelligence and interpersonal awareness: The capability to conduct oneself in a group situation and deal with others in the most effective way. Emotionally intelligent people ask good questions, listen to what others are saying, and stay engaged in conversations intently. Smart people exercise great judgment and intuition around the subtleties of group dynamics and are fully aware of the effect their words will have on the team.

Note: ‘Smart’ness does not always imply good intentions. Leaders need to be discerning of ‘smart’ people who are in it for the wrong reasons.

To be a real team player, one must embody all these qualities. Being deficient in any one of them will lead to undesirable effects on the cohesion of the team.

Lack of one or more of these virtues leads to some interesting personas. See if you can relate to having dealt with any of these:

The accidental mess-maker: You know that team member who is wicked smart, motivated and always bubbling with great ideas, but very often (and very likely, inadvertently) ends up rubbing other team members the wrong way? This person is Humble and Hungry, but not Smart!

The skillful politician: That engineer who is everyone’s friend and confidant, and knows the perfect thing to say every time. He’s motivated, eager, and ambitious, but only where there’s an element of personal benefit (he’s not really thinking of the team, but is only thinking about himself). Meet the skillful politician, who is Hungry and Smart, but not Humble!

The lovable slacker: He cares about his colleagues. He’s charming, always ebullient and positive. He is technically capable, dependable, and is a solid member of the team. But — he does only as much as he is asked to do, and is rarely proactive with seeking newer areas of work. Say hello to the lovable slacker, who is Humble and Smart, but not Hungry!

The bulldozer: A powerhouse of execution, he is determined to get stuff done, but with a focus on his personal achievements with little concern for his team. He neither knows nor cares how his words impact the people around him. You’ve got a bulldozer who’s Hungry, but neither Humble nor Smart.

As I read through these categories, mental images of people needing improvement in each of these areas flashed through my mind. It’s important, as the author says, to not pigeonhole people into these categories just based on relative weaknesses in any of these areas. For instance, if someone’s slightly less ‘smart’ than she is humble or hungry, that doesn’t automatically make her an accidental mess-maker. Leaders should be very careful to not label employees with these personas. Instead, use them as a guide to coach and mentor employees to become better team players.

How do you use this framework as a leader?

In two main ways:

  1. In hiring the right people: Nothing beats bootstrapping a team with team players and keeping a culture of solid teamwork. In order to do this, change the way you hire. The traditional one-dimensional approach of over-indexing on technical skills and aptitude won’t give you insights into whether your potential hire is a good team player. Make your interviews more participatory and conversational rather than impersonal white-board exercises on specific problems. Adopt top-grading in your hiring practice to get a holistic picture of your candidate’s strengths and weaknesses against “Humble”, “Hungry” and “Smart”. Look for patterns in the candidate’s previous projects, jobs, and job-changes and ask probing questions to figure out the candidate’s motivations. It’s not easy to bucket people into personas based on a quick evaluation — for example, it’s sometimes hard to figure out if someone’s, say, a “skillful politician” — so use reference checks if required. Ultimately, ensure that you’re hiring people who will be good team players!
  2. In continually developing your team: Humble, hungry and smart are not innate traits. These attributes can be consciously developed and improved with practice. If you’re a leader, you should frequently evaluate your current team members against “the three virtues” and identify areas where each person could improve. Create an individual development plan for people who need improvements in any areas. If you notice serious deficiencies, flag it for rigorous performance management follow-up.

Why is all this ultimately important?

Having great team players is a pre-requisite for effective teamwork, and it’s solid teamwork that unlocks the true and full potential of teams. People who are humble, hungry and smart demonstrate behaviors such as vulnerability-based trust, healthy conflict, active commitment, peer-to-peer accountability, and a focus on results — and these, in turn, will lead to incredibly successful teams.

P.S: This was my second Patrick Lencioni book. He has a unique way of explaining management principles through these so-called fables. I really enjoyed his “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”, and the fable he used to talk about effective teamwork in that book was perfect. In “The Ideal Team Player”, the story wasn’t as interesting and some situations appeared a bit too contrived. Overall, though, it was still a great read with several ‘Aha’ moments. Definitely a ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐️ book that I’d heartily recommend to others.

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