The best managers understand that effective leaders are also solid team players. The workplace is filled with capable teammates — even some who take initiative, overdeliver and inspire colleagues. Unfortunately, there’s also the occasional employee who has no idea how to collaborate or communicate effectively. Such poor performers aren’t entirely useless, though. They offer some of the most poignant lessons on teamwork and leadership.

Here are seven things failing team members do — and what you can learn from them.

  1. Complain about everyone and everything. The worst co-workers are often the most negative ones. Employees who complain regularly about others — or about circumstances in general — do little to help the team and much to hurt it. The most effective team members stay positive and find good ways to provide feedback.
  2. Gossip regularly (about work or personal issues). Nothing breeds distrust and paranoia like gossiping in the workplace. Team members who spread — or worse, start — rumors are literally sowing the seeds of discord. The best team members and leaders express an interest in colleagues’ personal life bust respect everyone’s privacy and dignity.
  3. Hoard knowledge. There’s nothing wrong with a lust for learning, but ineffective team members often accumulate as many secrets as possible and are loath to share helpful information with co-workers. Hoarders think their unique knowledge is valuable, but they don’t realize that unshared knowledge is useless. The best team members establish themselves as experts by becoming go-to resources in their field of specialization.
  4. Talk almost completely about themselves. There’s nothing wrong with self-promotion and increasing your visibility at work, but poor team members take this quality to a fault. They’re especially likely to use words such as “I” and “me” and take individual credit for their team’s success. On the other hand, the best teammates promote their team’s success, ask lots of questions, know when to listen and use words such as “we” and “us.”
  5. Play the blame game. Every team member — from executive to entry-level employee — should learn to take responsibility for his or her actions. By casting blame, workers actually diminish their sphere of influence, personal autonomy, others’ trust in them and colleagues’ respect. The most successful team members take responsibility for success and failure and right any mistake if possible.
  6. Look for reasons to exclude people. Some teammates try to create small, insular groups and find every reason to limit the size and definition of their team. Such focus on exclusivity only limits the team’s perspective and options. High-performing teams cast the widest net possible and examine every reasonable solution or resource.
  7. Lack empathy. It might be easy for some workers to lose sight of their teammates’ feelings, but there’s almost never a good excuse for doing so. The worst team members show an actively callous disregard for colleagues’ well-being. On the other hand, the most successful ones keep lines of communication open, pay attention to colleagues and make themselves as approachable.

If you want to become an effective, brilliant team member, take a look at your poorest-performing teammates — and do the opposite. Once you master the skills of clear and effective communication, building positive relationships at work, promoting yourself and teammates, and taking responsibility for your actions, you’ll be on your way to becoming a highly effective team leader.

Joel Garfinkle is the author of “Getting Ahead: Three Steps to Take Your Career to the Next Level.” As an executive coach, Garfinkle has worked with many top international companies, including Cisco Systems, Oracle, Deloitte, Amazon, Starbucks, Google, Citibank, Microsoft and The Ritz-Carlton. You can view more than 100 articles on leadership communication, and subscribe to his leadership-development newsletter to receive e-book “40 Proven Strategies to Get Promoted Now!” for free.

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20 Responses to “Lessons on teamwork from really bad team members”

  1. Hi Robin says:

    Hi Robin

  2. paul magee says:

    Seriously? Companies actually employ this guy to dole out this banal garbage?

  3. Erin Whitcomb says:

    Banal garbage? For someone who has had successful business experience, it might seem like common sense — but common sense is surprisingly lacking in many parts of corporate America (and I assume elsewhere). I've known plenty of managers (and coworkers) who would benefit from reading this article and taking it to heart. I would add an eighth thing to the list:

    8. Needlessly criticize others for sharing helpful information that they might find obvious. Some team members know more than others and may be surprised by their team members' lack of knowledge. The worst team members use sarcasm and make snide remarks to put down their coworkers. The best ones keep their sense of superiority to themselves and quietly thank their life circumstances for giving them the opportunity to have already learned something that someone else hasn't.

    • Erin,
      Thank you for the kind words and positive attitude. It sounds like you’re a great team member. I agree with you that needless criticism (especially snarky criticism) is unhelpful to everyone involved. There’s nothing wrong with providing constructive criticism and raising tough questions, but taking pot shots at others—especially when they’re trying to be helpful—doesn’t do anyone any favors.

    • Todd Chesbro says:

      I would agree completely Erin! I have a team of 16 people who have worked a long time at a company. I shared this with them in a staff meeting recently. I thought this article was written for them. It's spot on! I agree that you'd think this stuff was common sense, but behaviors run very deep when dealing with tenured employees. It's great to revist and shine a spotlight on what good behavior is in a team.

  4. A. Whitcher says:

    This is good! It’s always amusing to turn standard advice on its head and learn from others’ mistakes. Along with the blame game, don’t forget, “Take credit for other people’s successes.” Has happened to me way too many times, very demoralizing.

    • A. Whitcher,
      Thanks for adding your own lesson to the list above. As an anonymous poster below also noted, no one likes a credit thief. The inability for teammates to trust one another causes all manner of problems in the workplace: diminished productivity, toxic social environments, less communication and collaboration, and a lower likelihood of innovation. Who wants to introduce a new idea if someone is likely to steal it?

  5. Max says:

    This is great stuff. It is often overlooked and the end result is a company that doesn't serve their customers. P

    • Max,
      You raise an important point. A significant amount of our dialogue is about communication, feedback, management, and coworker relationships. That’s all important, of course, but how businesses serve their customers’ needs and interests is the ultimate determiner of a business’s success. If I were to expand on the list above, I’d certainly add: “Complains about, mocks, or otherwise degrades customers on a regular basis.”

  6. Nate says:

    Interesting article.
    Most of this is rehash from other over the years, One thing lacking here is the mention of management. Typically below average managers have a tendency to breed all 7 talking points. If you have team members that fall into this category you might want to have a conversation with their direct supervisor.

    • Nate,
      You’re right: Managers definitely set the tone for how well a team functions. Leaders who model and promote productive behaviors make it much more likely that their team members will follow suit. Unfortunately, the converse is true as well. Even if most of the talking points above are common sense, it’s unfortunate how often people—employees and managers alike—forget them.

  7. D. Wilson says:

    Erin Whitcomb said it very well–this is all common sense stuff. But….take a look at your co-workers/teammates: If any of them fit any of these profiles….chances are, there is room for improvement in you organization. Lots of room.

    • D. Wilson,
      I appreciate the point you make. Regardless of what we ourselves know, there’s always someone around us who can benefit from our knowledge or experience. Plus, I’m sure virtually all of us appreciate friendly reminders from our friends and colleagues about what we should probably be doing. People who recognize their imperfections and make a point of self-improvement are more likely to experience a happy and healthy career.

  8. stratecutionstories says:

    I love it – good, simple stuff to avoid that seems obvious but almost everyone does anyway. Here's a post I wrote last month in a similar vein: http://stratecutionstories.wordpress.com/2012/04/…. Enjoy.
    Michael Baer http://stratecutionstories.wordpress.com

  9. Anonymous says:

    Another team-destroying behavior: 'borrow' ideas from others and claim it's your own, ie taking credit for someone else's work.

    • Anonymous,
      I wonder how often the “credit thief” complaint arises in the broader workplace. It seems like a common (and legitimate) gripe on a number of online business forums.

  10. Anthony says:

    This is an awesome read, borrowed or original, doesnt really matter. The anonymus guy has nothing for us to read, borrowed or original. I wonder why Paul Magee is displaying his ignorance in public, doesnt he know that simplicity is the way to go? The media is full of people who do nothing but mock those who try to do something.

  11. RGCook says:

    Much of the feedback touches on how the points of this article are "common sense". But for engineers, the details are easy to spot, the obvious takes more time. So I find this article to be a very good roll-up of how to behave.

    Rational folks that seek to excel in meeting the company's mission and vision will not intentionally behave poorly as it compromises their own career, well-being, and livelihood. An investigation into the root cause of such behavior may turn up structural or other circumstances that lead to an opportunity to correct endemic structural or divisional roadblocks.

  12. Anthony 21/2 says:

    @joel Sounds not like a solution, more like "give up, you can only change yourself"

  13. DebbieC says:

    I work with people exactly like this! (not all of them, the minority) It's rewarded by disfunctional or immature management. usually these people end up looking good, and usually it's about making themselves the center of the universe and looking better at everyone else's expense. It does not work over time when a manager(s) is not rewarding the behavior directly or indirectly. Usually the people like will never recognize themselves in this article. We are only in charge of ourselves not other people and we can only control our own behavior.