“Everyone you will ever meet knows something that you don’t.” —Bill Nye the Science Guy, American scientist and educator.
Every major accomplishment in history—from figuring out how to make a rock into a spear point to the construction of the International Space Station—has resulted from people working together, often in great numbers over a long period of time. Even the “lone wolf geniuses” we idolize usually have a talented team around them or a devoted support group, if not both.
While I would argue that traditional teams have begun decentralizing due to technological and cultural evolution, this doesn’t mean teamwork will be any less valuable in the future. If anything, it will become more important than ever.
Dealing with Poseurs
In the biological world, there are symbionts, and there are parasites. Over thousands of years, wolves and humans developed a symbiotic relationship, to the point where one tribe of wolves became dogs, protecting our villages and serving as pack animals in return for food and a certain level of care. Both sides shared the benefit of companionship, and they still do. Then you have the parasitic mosquitos, tiny flying vampires that dip into our blood supply without our permission, and I can’t seem to find any benefit to humans at all to having them around.
Symbiotic and parasitic relationships also exist in the business world, though they may not be as obvious. Teamwork is symbiotic: we come together to pool our resources, knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs), ideally to create something synergistic. The relationship has positive outcomes for the project and its participants.
But we’ve all worked with people who only pretended to cooperate, without actually committing as a team player, and they often damage the team relationship. Many look out for #1 not just first, but only.
While we like to joke about the owner’s son or the boss’s friends taking advantage of their positions at the expense of the organization, parasitic relationships are rarely so obvious. Workplace parasites tend to pay lip service to teamwork but don’t contribute much, while taking advantage of any help offered. This becomes most obvious in the acts of consultation and cooperation, two of the chief ingredients of successful teamwork.
For example: Have you ever worked with someone who treated consultation as something to check off a list, just to say they did it? They “consult” with you, then ignore your expertise, help, and advice entirely. In a way, this is even more venal than consulting you and then passing off your contributions as their own.
Each of us has different experiences: a unique history of success, failure, and KSAs. We all have something to contribute to the job—if allowed to. The smart teammate knows that asking other people for help frequently causes a cross-fertilization of ideas that can result in startling productivity and/or achievements. Collaborations between biologists and law enforcement officers, for example, led to the use of fingerprints and genetic markers to solve crimes. The builders of the Space Shuttle had to consult with metallurgists, biologists, engineers, materials scientists, rocket scientists, and a thousand other specialists just to put their vessels in orbit.
Those who pretend to consult damage not just themselves but also their teams, and this eventually catches up with them.
Okay that’s a made-up word. But these people are even more frustrating, because they pretend to collaborate rather than actually doing so. “Collaboration” means to “co-labor,” something work vampires avoid. You’ve probably had someone say to you, “We need to get this done by next week,” by which they actually mean, “You need to get this done by next week.” Sometimes it’s just a figure of speech, especially between leader and subordinate; but when you hear it from a peer, you’d better make sure you understand the implication. Otherwise, you’ll end up putting in all the effort, only to share the glory.
You can’t allow these workplace parasites to shove all the work on you and then claim they collaborated. The idea behind the modern team is that you’re all like parts in a machine; and most parts are made to do one job, not several. When a person has been hired to do a job, they’d better do it. So hold the feet of potential “fauxllaborators” to the fire, rather than indulging their bad habits and doing it yourself. The longer you fail to act, the harder it becomes to get them to do their jobs again.
A World of Difference
There’s a difference between being a lone wolf and being a parasite. The lone wolf still contributes; the other skates by on other people’s work. That’s not to say that someone who only pretends to consult can’t contribute; they can, but the pretense only makes the pathway from problem to solution steeper and rockier. Ultimately, their relationships with other team members become strained, damaging the team’s ability to do anything. And those skilled at “fauxllaboration” endanger the team on a more immediate basis, because their laziness slows progress and drags down productivity.
If you lead the team, you can cut the anchor chain by either putting these people on notice or getting rid of them entirely. If you’re the peer, have a direct conversation about your concerns, and if not, try to contain your frustration (so as not to negatively affect your teammates). Avoid working with them, and if necessary, speak to your manager about their behavior. Either way, work to neutralize the parasite’s influence before it sickens the entire team.
© 2016 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored seven books, including Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time (January 18, 2016). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and in 2015 was inducted into its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401 or visit her website.