Sometimes All You Need is a Non-Team Player

Does your organization need employees who can complete tasks or possess superior technical skills?

Hint: Tone down the importance of being a team player.

The conclusion of a new study puts it like this: “Given the evidence of a possible downside, it is recommended that firms should never look for team players just because 'everyone else is doing so.'” 

The study by Agnes Bäker at the University of Tuebingen fills a research gap; no one has ever examined the effects on the applicant pool by stressing the need for team work in job ads. And as we all know, most employers routinely require prospective employees to ensure they can work well in groups. Hiring someone who says he or she is not a team player does sound like a risky proposition. Few employers are, after all, searching for renegade employees or stubborn loners who refuse to interact with co-workers.

Interestingly, however, the catchphrase works as a deterrent – and from the employer's point of view, that's not necessarily a good thing. As Bäker analyzed survey data from 1,300 college students who had been asked to evaluate a number of job postings that outlined various requirements, including whether the applicant should be a team player or an independent task-oriented self-starter, she made an important discovery.

Although the ads did indeed attract applicants who considered their teamwork skills to be a primary asset, they also discouraged people whose qualifications matched the job description with the exception of one criterion: social skills. As a result, the employer missed out on technically skilled or task-oriented candidates who took themselves out of the running before the race even began.

For organizations that truly need employees with an aptitude for collegial collaboration, the study shows ads that stress the importance of possessing teamwork skills do what they were intended to accomplish. But in other cases, where teamwork takes a backseat to specific talents or technical skills, the employer is likely to end up with a smaller pool of applicants than if that routine phrase had been left out of the job requirements.

“Considering that organizations always need employees with high task-related skills, but that they may not always need team players, they should carefully consider when the requirement for teamwork skills is listed in their job advertisements—because there is a downside to looking for team players,” Bäker said.

People who don't cite social acumen among their list of skills may not thrive at “water-cooler conversations” or rush to plan the next company outing, but they know how to get the job done and they do it well. If teamwork is irrelevant to their job description, isn't that all we really need?

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