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Doesn’t work well with others: study finds ‘team avoiders’ may have valid concerns

When a company advertises for an open position, it’s not uncommon to see the words “must be a team player.”

“Team player” is a hot HR term, even in jobs where employees actually spend most of their time working alone with only a smattering of group projects. Unfortunately, the need for team players has sometimes also become a lazy justification for choosing not to hire someone. Is the job candidate who prefers to work alone a pariah? Not if they have a good reason for disliking teamwork—and many may very well have legitimate concerns.

Employees who prefer individual work to teamwork may be unfairly labeled as “difficult”, “antisocial” or “introverted,” but research conducted by PsychTests using the firm’s Team Play Test suggest that “team avoiders” should be given a chance to explain themselves before being crossed off the candidate list.

Collecting data from 11,800 test-takers, researchers at PsychTests compared people who have declined the opportunity to work on a team to those who have not. Their statistics reveal some distinct differences:

  • 45 percent of “team avoiders” have worked on a team where at least one member was very difficult to work with (compared to 24 percent of “team players”).
  • 59 percent of “team avoiders” get irritated by the delays that often occur in team projects, like the constant need for status meetings, having to wait for other people to finish their part of a project, needing a consensus before a decision is made, etc. (compared to 35 percent of “team players”).
  • 44 percent of “team avoiders” worry that working with others will slow down their own progress (compared to 24 percent of “team players”).
  • 46 percent of “team avoiders” believe that they are better off counting on themselves than on others (compared to 28 percent of “team players”).
  • 62 percent of “team avoiders” worry about working with team members who don’t pull their own weight, leaving others to pick up the slack (compared to 44 percent of “team players”).
  • 31 percent of “team avoiders” are irritated by the fact that they only have control over certain aspects of a team project, rather than the entire process (compared to 14 percent of “team players”).
  • 62 percent of “team avoiders” believe that power struggles in teamwork are inevitable (compared to 45 percent of “team players”).
  • 37 percent of “team avoiders” believe that there’s a higher potential for error when working in a group than when working alone (compared to 21 percent of “team players”).
  • 50 percent of “team avoiders” worry about a lack of role clarity when working on a group project (compared to 35 percent of “team players”).
  • 68 percent of “team avoiders” worry about working with team members who can’t keep up with the group’s pace (compared to 57 percent of “team players”).
  • 38 percent of “team avoiders” are concerned that the potential to stand out as a result of their achievements is less probable in group work (compared to 28 percent of “team players”).

“When a group of employees doesn’t work well together, or one person seems to be causing difficulties for others in the group, it’s important to get to the root of the issue,” says Dr. Ilona Jerabek, president of PsychTests.

“There may be more to the problem than simply having a difficult personality. Perhaps the team member is tired of having to carry the weight of his or her less productive teammates. Or maybe role confusion and a lack of leadership are causing conflict between members.

“While there are certainly some people who don’t fit well into a team structure, it would be shortsighted to assume that someone who doesn’t want to work as part of a group is not a team player. During an interview, job candidates may be reluctant to admit that they don’t like teamwork, so it’s a good idea to ask the person if they have any concerns about working on a team—or if they’ve encountered any issues in the past that would make them unwilling to work with others.”

The bottom line is don’t dismiss non-team players too readily, Jerabek says.

She recommends that you ask these candidates to describe their last team project, and seek answers to certain questions. Did they get along with all team members? Did everyone pull their weight? Did some team members cause problems? Were everyone’s roles made clear? Was there a competent team leader assigning tasks and making all the final decisions?

“Dig for information. If the person has legitimate fears, it is up to you to allay them,” says Jerabek.

For dealing with common teamwork concerns, the researchers at PsychTests offer the following suggestions:

  • Use “I” statements when offering constructive criticism to teammates. Instead of saying, “You’re so disrespectful! Why can’t you ever show up on time,” phrase the message from your point of view: “I feel frustrated when you’re late because we miss out on productive time. What can we do about the situation?” Say how you feel before asking the other person a question that leaves the ball in their court. Don’t use an accusatory question, however. That will only put them on the defensive.
  • Delegate carefully. For those tasks that are important to you and the company and also require special skills, it’s fine to want to keep them to yourself. If, however, you find that you get bogged down by endless busy work, or your team falls behind waiting for you to accomplish your duties, you would be better off delegating some of your tasks.
  • If you are feeling impatient with the pace of others, take a deep breath. Remember that people have different working styles. While some people may take longer to get started than you do, they may end up getting the work done faster because they put more thought into the development.
  • Understand the nature of group work. Sure, working with others takes more organization and planning, and more time debating. However, because there are more hands to work on a project, work can often proceed quickly once the planning stages are complete. The wider perspective and variety of opinions can also benefit the overall quality of the project.
  • Communicate. This is the single-most important way of clarifying roles and assigning duties. Before beginning an assignment, speak up if you are unsure about what you should be doing. Better yet, propose the idea of appointing a leader. If you and your team decide early on who the team leader is, it will save a lot of frustrations. Allow this person to make the final decision and assign duties to others.

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