Addition by Subtraction

I have never been the most athletic of people. Nonetheless, I’m someone who is generally very useful on a good team (and less useful on a bad team because of my very modest athletic gifts). When people project teams, often they examine the pure talent level of a team and assume that the most talented team, or to put it more accurately, the most talented collection of individuals, is expected to be the most successful team. And this very seldom happens. “Dream Teams” regularly turn out to be nightmares, and a team that stocks its cupboard full of talented players almost invariably disappoints.

Why is this? The same lesson could be drawn in other fields as well. A sales team that went out and got the most competitive and selfish sellers would probably succeed individually at the cost of any greater team effort that was working on. As prognosticators it is very difficult for us to recognize the “glue guys” that provide cohesion to a team (whether in sports or in business), or to recognize their absence. As a result we are too prone to see success purely on talent and without the very important contributions that those who are less interested in self-promotion provide.

Let us discuss this phenomenon by looking at sports. As I have mentioned, I am not a particularly skilled athlete. Nonetheless, as a basketball player I’m a fairly unselfish point guard, who can shoot the ball but who prefers to pass to the open teammate, play tough defense, and make sure that everyone is involved in the game. In short, a team that has very good offensive players who need the ball should appreciate someone who doesn’t hoist up endless bad shots but who would rather make sure their stats can look good and that the team can win. A good team values those who are more interested in team success than individual statistics. Few teams are good, though.

In all walks of life teams and organizations are judged by their balance. By nature I am someone who tries to fill what niche is lacking to create a better balance as a whole. Often that means being a ferocious gatekeeper guarding an organization against internal threats, a relentlessly blunt internal reformer looking to get rid of organizational corruption, or a consistent encourager of the efforts of others. Despite the fact that there are some niches (like, say, sales or marketing) I try to avoid like the plague and some things I simply do not do well, I would immodestly say that in a well-functioning group I am a net positive, in that I prefer to do things without a lot of personal attention and I don’t mind doing what other people avoid, as long as it is something I some degree of talent in.

Not everyone is that way. Some people are a net negative in a group. When I was a teenager I played in a dysfunctional basketball team (for some reason I often find myself in dysfunctional situations, and I cherish those times when I am not) which had two “ball hogs” named Jason and J.P. They were far more athletically talented than I was, though not as talented as they were in their own minds. They seldom shared the ball with others, and would hoist up shots in basketball with two or three people in their face, and generally behaved without any sort of consideration for teammates or any sort of self-control or discipline. They fouled out often, monopolized the ball, and as a result the team as a whole suffered.

If an organization is plagued by people who want all the power and offices and glory for themselves but don’t really offer anything for other people, don’t really serve the interests of others, don’t encourage others or develop them, then such a person is a drag on the group as a whole. Getting rid of them, even if it might make your team less talented, is often addition by subtraction. People who sabotage the efforts of others through lies and power plays and endless political wrangling are better off ruining someone else’s organization and not your own. A good team has no place for people who think that their interests are more important than the interests of the whole team.

This is a problem in business often. I remember back, grimly, to my days in sales where there were people who continually sold pretty well. Most of them cut corners, making side deals that made their own stats look good while hurting the interests of the group as a whole. Sometimes these people would disregard rules about territory (this happened to me by accident once as well) and sell products in other people’s ground to help their own stats out, frustrating teammates who had to deal with the rejection of, “Someone already came in today telling me about this,” which makes everyone frustrated. (One of the main reasons I particularly loathe sales is the fact that it is so dependent on mood, which is so fickle, as well as on tricks to manipulate the mood of others.)

A solid team requires a lot of elements. Some people need to be good at ensuring resources for the team (logistical people are often greatly underrated). Other people need to handle production (sales and marketing). Others need to work out internal and external politics, smoothing over unnecessary conflicts and helping groups function better, while others need to deal with identifying and responding to threats and opportunities based on the strengths and weaknesses of the group as a whole. All of these things need to be done right for a team to work, whether it is a church, a business, or a basketball team. And when someone is not concerned about the over all balance at all but strictly for themselves, they are a problem that the group is better off without.

No part is greater than the whole, and if some parts have an over-inflated sense of self-importance, it is better for them to be severed from the body than that the whole body should suffer because of them. And then they should be replaced with those who have a better understanding of their role and part to play within the whole, so that the function of the group does not suffer in a lasting way. If we fail to recognize that, we will be victims of subtraction by addition, and face the painful task in the future of addition by subtraction.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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