Valuing team members who push to win

Oct 01 2009 by Myra White Print This Article

The tennis world was recently rocked by Serena Williams' outburst at the US Open. At the end of the second set Serena was serving to stay in the match when she was called for a foot fault. Outraged by the call Serena walked over to the linesperson. Shaking her racquet at the woman and spouting profanity she threatened to shove a tennis ball down her throat.

Serena's behavior was certainly abusive and unacceptable. More sanctions and anger management coaching are certainly in order. Her comment during a subsequent press interview that she lost control because she cared so much about winning, however, caught my attention.

On self-managed teams, conflict often occurs because one team member cares deeply about delivering a top performance, whereas other team members simply want to do the minimum to complete the project.

Rather than listening to or considering an outspoken member's efforts to raise the bar, these team members quietly stonewall them by finding all sorts of ways to be uncooperative and to ignore them. Suddenly the team member is excluded from group email or subgroups meet without inviting them.

In the face of this rejection, the team member can become so angry and frustrated that they lose control and resort to criticizing other team members and questioning their commitment and effort. In the flurry of accusations and counter accusations that follow, the team member who urged the team to reach higher is viewed as the bad actor and the push to improve team performance is lost.

This raises the question whether in our attempts to avoid workplace conflict, we unintentionally break the spirit of outspoken high performers who point out problems and instead encourage a culture that rewards mediocre performance.

People who care deeply bring an intensity, engagement and commitment to the workplace that everyone seeks. When a project is behind deadline and a team is drowning in apathy, most companies would welcome a team member who could bring some fire to the project even if they create a bit of conflict.

Despite the current stress on emotional intelligence in the workplace, highly successful people often have fire in their souls. People like Bill Gates and Jack Welch always wanted to win and were never known for their patience with colleagues and reports who didn't deliver top performances.

At Microsoft Bill Gates was extremely critical of employees and could be rude and sarcastic. In meetings he would get angry and throw pencils at people. Jack Welch was initially kept off the CEO succession list at GE because, according to HR, he intimidated subordinates. He was later put on the list by CEO Reg Jones because he was impressed by Welch's track record for achieving great results.

Highly successful people recognize the value of employees who dare to speak out and question their ideas and actions. Larry Ellison of Oracle has commented, "I love it when people point out I'm wrong and explain to me why I'm wrong."

In his book, Great Business Teams, Guttman notes that on great teams, players have the courage to speak up and point out problems, not only within their own team, but throughout the organization when those problems affect the team's ability to succeed.

So how do you create a great team that walks the tightrope between healthy self-criticism and outright warfare? How do you harness the energy, intensity and commitment of team members who speak up about the elephant in the room?

First, outspoken team members often get in trouble because they lack the leadership skills needed to influence other team members and convince them that the team needs to raise its performance levels. Teaching them constructive and effective influence tactics can help reduce their frustration levels and make them more effective at reaching fellow team members.

Coaching can show them how to positively channel their intensity and also make them aware that other team members may be intimidated or feel threatened by their outspoken criticism of the team.

On the other hand, their fellow team members need to see the value of outspoken high intensity team members. Such team members can be real engines for team success. Often they are willing to do more work than others. Team members also should realize that on great teams everyone is a coach which means that they must learn how to manage their fellow team members' behavior and be willing to listen to members who challenge the status quo.

This is not to discount the fact that sometimes outspoken high intensity people don't make good team players or that people bring personal psychological pathologies to the workplace that must be dealt with by a professional. However, it is important to recognize that high intensity team members who care enough to point out a team's failings can play a valuable role in making mediocre teams great.

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About The Author

Myra White
Myra White

Myra White teaches managing workplace performance and organizational behavior at Harvard University and is a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School. She is the author of "Follow the Yellow Brick Road: A Harvard Psychologist's Guide to Becoming a Superstar", a book based on her research into how over 60 well-known people became superstars.