The Ideal Team Player: How to Recognize and Cultivate The Three Essential Virtues
April 2016, Jossey-Bass
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An Interview with Patrick Lencioni
Q: In The Ideal Team Player you return to the subject of teams. Can you tell us why?
A: During the last twenty years of working with leaders and their teams, I’ve seen time and again that when a team member lacks one or more of these virtues, the process of building a cohesive team is much more difficult than it should be, and in some cases, impossible. We’ve been using this approach for hiring and management at The Table Group since our founding in 1997, and it’s proven to be a remarkable predictor of success, as well as a reliable explanation of failure. As a result, we’ve come to the conclusion that these three seemingly obvious qualities are to teamwork what speed, strength and coordination are to athletics – they make everything else easier.
Q: Tell us about the three virtues you have identified as being essential to teamwork – hungry, humble and smart. Why are they vital to successful teamwork?
A: A person who is not humble will not be able to be vulnerable and build trust, making them unable to engage in honest conflict and hold others accountable. And they’ll have a hard time committing to decisions that don’t serve their interests. A colleague who lacks hunger will not be willing to engage in uncomfortable conflict, hold peers accountable for their behaviors or do whatever it takes to achieve results, choosing instead to take an easier path. And a person who is not smart about people will most likely create unnecessary problems in the entire team-building process, especially when it comes to tactfully engaging in productive conflict and holding people accountable for their behaviors. In short, when someone is humble, hungry and smart they will be able to overcome the obstacles outlined in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.
Q: You call the three attributes “virtues” rather than characteristics. Is there a specific reason?
A: I refer to them as virtues because the word virtue is a synonym for the nouns “quality” and “asset”.
But it also connotes the idea of the integrity and morality. Humility, which is the most important of the three, is certainly a virtue in the truest sense of the word. Hunger and smart fall more into the “quality” or “asset” category. So the word virtue best captures them all.
Q: How can someone build a workforce of people who are hungry, humble and smart?
A: The most reliable way to ensure that teamwork takes hold in an organization is to hire only ideal team players. Of course, that is neither possible nor practical, especially considering that most leaders don’t have the luxury of creating their teams from scratch. But all leaders can certainly do their best to try to recruit, select and hire people who are humble, hungry and smart when an opportunity arises to bring on someone new. While currently there isn’t a diagnostic tool for selecting and identifying those with these virtues, by interviewing thoroughly and checking references with an eye toward an individual’s reputation and behavior in her previous position, a manager can hire people with a high degree of confidence that they’ll be good team players.
Q: What about existing employees? What if you have employees who don’t exhibit these qualities?
A: Thankfully, humility, hunger, and smarts are not inherent traits, but rather they can be adopted by people with the desire to embrace them. Leaders can evaluate their people against the three virtues in order to help them identify what they need to work on for their own good, and the good of the team. That’s always the preferred outcome.
Q: What happens is someone just doesn’t measure up?
A: My preference, and my recommendation, is to err on the side of caution and keep working with the employee. Why? Because I believe it is a tragedy to lose an employee for the wrong reasons. Not only does it create an unnecessarily painful situation for that person, it also robs the team of a potentially valuable contributor.
Q: So are you suggesting that leaders simply tolerate people who don’t fit the model?
A: No, my advice should not be misconstrued as permission to just ignore the situation or allow it to continue. Too often, leaders know that an employee belongs elsewhere, and fail to act because they lack courage. This is neither wise nor virtuous. My suggestion of continuing to work with employees who don’t measure up in all areas applies only to situations in which a leader is sincerely unsure about the employee’s ability to improve and change. If an employee appears to be trying, I would set performance targets and goals to clarify the behaviors you want from them.
Q: How does this new book fit together with The Five Dysfunctions of a Team?
A: Many of the readers of the my first book on teams have been involved in consulting and training activities around the Five Dysfunctions model which focuses on how a group of people must interact in order to become a cohesive team. Those readers can use the “humble, hungry, smart” model as a tune-up. We’ve found that some teams hit a wall in their progress overcoming the dysfunctions. In many cases, they can break through that wall by having team members go deeper into their individual development around the virtues that might be holding them back. Further, the model and tools in his new book provide yet another opportunity for a team to be vulnerable with one another. By sitting down and acknowledging their strength and weaknesses – and remember the leader should go first – a team can develop greater levels of trust, which make conflict, commitment, accountability that much more likely.
Q: If readers take away a single idea from The Ideal Team Player what would you hope that might be?
A: It’s clear to me that humility, hunger and people smarts have relevance outside of the workplace. A humble, hungry, and interpersonally smart spouse, parent, friend, or neighbor is going to be a more effective, inspiring and attractive person, one that draws others to him and serves others better. I hope that readers take that idea away with them and apply it in their lives so that they have an appreciation for the true gift that it is to be humble.