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Winning Team Players: A Q&A with Patrick Lencioni

The best team players are humble, hungry and smart.

A man in a suit and tie smiling in front of a whiteboard.
Patrick Lencioni

​What exactly makes a good team player? That’s the question best-selling author Patrick Lencioni explores in his newest book, The Ideal Team Player (Jossey-Bass, 2016). Lencioni, founder of The Table Group, a Lafayette, Calif.-based consulting company, believes that good group members possess three essential virtues, and the best ones recognize and cultivate those traits in themselves and others.

Lencioni is the author of 11 books on teamwork, meetings and employee engagement that have sold more than 5 million copies and have been translated into 30 languages. He will be a keynote speaker at the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2017 Annual Conference & Exposition taking place June 18-21 in New Orleans, where he’ll share his passion for organizations and teams.

What are the three essential virtues of a good team player?

They’re humble, hungry and smart.

If you’re humble, have a relatively small ego and are interested in others more than yourself, it will be much easier for you to become part of a team. When you’re hungry, you will never have to be asked to do more. Instead, you will constantly be asking, “What else can I do to contribute?” And if you’re smart, you’ll have both common sense and emotional intelligence.

That combination is powerful. People with those attributes, regardless of their skill levels, will perform well. But problems can arise if any one of them is missing.

How can a manager cultivate those qualities in team members?

Ask the members of your group to rank themselves on the three virtues on a scale of 1 to 3. They’ll acknowledge their shortcomings once they know those traits are expected of them. Then you can talk about how to help them. For instance, if I’m a minimalist and do only what is required, I can check with my co-workers before I leave work to see if I can help them with anything. Everyone can improve in these areas with the right coaching.

What is the biggest threat to an effective team?

A lack of trust. If people can’t trust each other, they’ll be unwilling to admit when they make a mistake or need help. This goes back to the importance of having humility. Teams that lack trust are incapable of debating key issues openly, and the consequence will be inferior results.

What causes workers to be disengaged? 

Anonymity, irrelevance and a lack of meaningful performance measures. Those are job killers.

What can managers do to guard against anonymity?

Show a genuine interest in your employees and what they bring to the table. Everyone wants to feel understood and appreciated. You can’t love your job if your supervisor is disinterested in you as a human being. Managers should care about the people who work for them.

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Why is it so important for employees to feel that their work is relevant?

Everyone wants to make a difference in another person’s life, and every job matters to someone. Managers need to help employees make that connection. Whose world do workers impact? If employees can’t tie their work to someone else, they won’t be satisfied.

What’s the significance of a person’s sense of their own performance?

Employees need a way to assess for themselves that they are doing a good job and making an impact, separate from the feedback they get from management. The measurement they use doesn’t need to be tied to pay. It’s about feeling an intrinsic sense of accomplishment. That’s why salespeople love quotas. If they’re hitting them, they’re succeeding. It’s why servers like tips.

Why do people hate meetings so much?

Because most of them are bad. They’re like corporate penance that we all have to do without questioning why. Often we come together for a kind of “meeting stew.” We throw every possible topic into the mix. We can’t simultaneously plan today’s schedule, discuss Fred’s trip to Saginaw, review market reports and make budget decisions. You need to have separate meetings for different purposes.

You suggest that four types of meetings are worth holding. What are they?

  • Daily check-ins are like the family getting together to see what’s on everybody’s schedule for the day. This is a five-minute standing huddle.
  • Weekly tactical meetings review how we’re doing against our goals—green, yellow, red. If it can’t be solved in a 15-minute conversation, it doesn’t belong here. These are for resolving immediate issues.
  • Monthly strategic meetings are where you roll up your sleeves, order pizza and tackle big problems. These are fun because they are full of passion. You challenge one another and debate until you get your hands around a topic and decide what to do. It’s a way of exploring the future.
  • Offsite quarterly reviews give the team a chance to step back to assess its work. How are we doing? How’s morale? Is anyone feeling burned out? Is there conflict among members?

Some people think this model will lead to more time spent in meetings, but it really just means less time in bad ones. 

How can HR best support the workplace?

HR is the most important function in an organization, if the company takes advantage of it. A business’s best competitive advantages are culture and teamwork. No other leader is better positioned to build those than the HR executive.  

Kathryn Tyler is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich.

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