It's a buzzword in corporate America: the exalted team player. We all want them. We ask for them in "help wanted" ads. We describe ourselves as one of them during job interviews.

But what exactly is a team player? And is success achieved through teamwork? Most would agree that the answer is "yes," but there's an important distinction to be made.

Teamwork is not an activity, it's a result. Much like a professional sports team, it's the result of the focused efforts of individuals utilizing their skills expertly and playing their position well.

A team succeeds because the individuals that make up the team:

  • Understand the ultimate goal or objective
  • Understand their role in achieving that goal
  • Accept full responsibility for performing their function competently

Working well with others

A team player is not necessarily a "people person" who gets along great with his/her co-workers. A team player is certainly not just a person who "works well with others." After all, some people work well with others because others do all the work.

Is it OK to rely upon or even demand more of some members of your team to make up for the weaknesses of the others? If you think so, don't count on any team spirit.

If every member of your team, behind the scenes and on the front lines, performed his/her function skillfully and completely, would the ultimate goal of turning shoppers into buyers be achieved more frequently? Without a doubt.

Being a team player often has nothing to do with working with others to achieve a result. You may work among others, or even side by side on the same project, but people must perform their functions independently in order to make any contribution to a team. Their contribution is their individual effort.

That's not to imply that getting along with others is unimportant. As a matter of fact, in a productive environment, the most detrimental conflicts arise when someone is not doing their job, so accepting individual responsibility is crucial to getting along well.

The real source of teamwork

Don't attempt to inspire the team when you want to get things moving. Go straight to the source: the individual.

And in your pursuit of "team players," remember that a team player is simply someone who is devoted to knowing and doing his/her job well. The connection to the team lies in constant awareness of the roles of the other players, the effects of one's actions on the other players, and one's obligation to the other players to hold up his/her end of the bargain — to carry one's weight and carry it well.

Build your team with those kinds of players, and you'll win big.