Get What You Pay For: Leading Individual Contributors to Team Success

By Bolton February 2nd, 2023

There ain't no “we” in “team.” One of our favorite commercials is one where a prima donna football player named Leon is interviewed in a locker room after a bad game. He blames his teammates for not recovering any of his four fumbles. The reporter mutters, "there is no 'I' in 'team'" and Leon quickly responds that “there ain't no 'WE' either." While not our most common approach, we sometimes use this theme – or the analogous "but there is a 'ME' in 'team'" – when helping clients understand and define accountability and contribution in their pay-for-performance systems and incentive plans.

Our point is that while a whole team, company, or organization "wins" or "loses," it is the individual performance of people on the team that produces the success or failure. Too often people on teams look at each other for why a project or initiative failed (or was late or was over budget or was “pick your failure”) but fail to look at themselves. Conversely, when a team succeeds in organizations, usually 20% of the team did 80% of the quality work.

Since it is the season, let’s use a football example. Regardless of the game score, the coaches review game film to assess game performance. When reviewing the film, they primarily assess two factors:

  • Individual players making individual plays and
  • Individual players making team plays.

They differentiate a player's one-on-one performance versus his performance in his team role. They do not review the team's performance per se but rather how well the players' collective individual performance worked as a team.

In an organizational setting, this simply means that, even on a team, everyone has a job to do. It's the team leader's or manager's job to help team members understand how their individual performance fits into the team achieving desired outcomes so that each member can stay focused on his or her job and not try to perform the jobs of others (like a nose tackle who wants to play free safety). Certainly, this is not an easy job, and the organization’s people management system can either provide a valuable supporting tool or simply get in the way.

There are many personal attributes people possess and core competencies where people are proficient that directly impact their ability to be a successful teammate. Among a seemingly endless list, a successful teammate must be:

  • Trusting so that he or she can remain focused,
  • Honest and accountable so others can trust,
  • Communicative to ensure needed details are understood throughout the team,
  • Results-oriented so that the process doesn't become more important than the outcome,
  • Flexible to changing tasks, timing, or direction because “stuff happens,” and
  • Aware of his or her team members and their progress and challenges.

A successful team has good individual performers that know how to work with each other and a leader who can keep them collectively focused on the right target. Good leaders get paid for their teams' success.