Gestalt psychology implies that a team is worth more than the sum of its parts. Is this true? Well, as with everything else, it depends. Here’s why.

Everyone likes to think they’re a team player, but few actually are. Being a team player involves much more than simply stating you are one.

When it comes to team play, the problem is that, oftentimes, people display “team player” qualities to gain individual benefits but fail to reinforce the team’s goals. An example of this is an athlete that excels in the final year of his contract to secure a big payoff come renewal time, but fails to lead his team in the playoffs. That is not what being a team player is about — that’s just selfish.

There’s no “i” in team

The trick in life is to understand what the team’s goals are and doing everything in your power to meet those goals. An example of this would be the athlete who excels in the playoffs, leads his team to win a championship and is then rewarded with a lucrative contract in the off-season. While it may not be PC to admit it, it is realistic, for if you do not reap any individual gain (be it pay, respect or a promotion), you will never be appreciated and thus may pose a problem for the team. Hey, we are human after all, and there is no need to deny that.

In business, sports and life, seldom can we attain our goals individually. Even in individual sports like track and field or boxing, one needs a strong support cast to make it to the top. In business, even the greatest entrepreneurs have had to rely on an army of soldiers to build their empires. Is it therefore any surprise that organizations emphasize team play? Of course not.

Determine goals

All organizations have official and unofficial goals: A bank’s goal may be to generate maximum profits for its shareholders; a clothing company may want to produce the highest quality line for a given target market; a hospital may want to provide superior healthcare to the community.

As you can see, all of these organizations have a set objective. This objective involves a given output: Profit, products or service (to keep this simple, we will use the bank example). The problem is that there are usually constraints on the inputs: Time, money and people. And given that this is an article on team play, I will only examine the latter.

Reaching those team goals…

What is required

If a bank wants to earn superior profits, it needs clients. It is thus imperative for the bank to gain as many new clients as it is to serve existing ones in a satisfactory fashion. Therefore, management needs to find the right people to seek new clients, others to satisfy existing ones, and sadly, some to eliminate unprofitable accounts.

Each individual’s role

If a manager wanted to maximize the output generated by people, he would have to be able to identify each person’s strength, coordinate the different skills and then pull them in the direction that the firm wishes to take. The greatest mistake would be to assume that people are homogenous, and distribute tasks on a first come, first serve basis. Sadly, this is how many conservative firms operate as seniority dictates quite a bit. But Jack Welch managed to generate so much wealth for GE shareholders by never allowing seniority to affect his decisions: he believed in a meritocracy and so too should all managers.

Nevertheless, let me get back to the bank that wants to maximize profits. Some employees may excel in customer service while others outperform in credit and collections. It is thus up to the manager to engage his troops in dialogue to determine which ones have a preference for one or the other. After all, managers are hired to manage and lead but they are definitely not mind readers, so next time you say to yourself, “I am not doing what I enjoy,” drop the cynicism and realize that the onus is on you to make your job more enjoyable.

Establish a leader

Eventually, each group will have some people rise to the surface and take on additional responsibilities. Dr. Warren Bennis, distinguished professor at USC, argues that leaders are made and not born.

At the expense of arguing with him, I would respectfully say that he is half right: Yes, some leaders are made but most are born with a desire to lead, a passion to win and a fire in their belly. This has been demonstrated throughout history in sports and in business.

The nuance is that the one who is born with the desire to be a leader needs to follow through and become one. However, just because you want to make a leader out of someone, does not mean that he will become one: He has to have that desire.

This is why it is key for senior management to be able to identify these “leader-prone” individuals and let them run with their ideas — so long as they reinforce the company goals. If these individuals are suffocated, they will strike out on their own and come back to haunt the firm. And then the firm will be left with nothing but soldiers and no one to lead them.

Alexander the Great may have conquered most of the known world by his 20s, but because he never appointed a successor, his empire fell apart. The lesson? You need one guy to lead, otherwise, it’s a free for all.

Not everyone on the team is equal…

Reality check

team players have a common goalBeing a team player does not mean that all the players on a team are equal and share equal responsibilities and duties; on the contrary. Being a team player means that you understand that some of your teammates may have greater or lesser roles than you. The key is that you still respect the ones with lesser responsibilities and learn from those that have more than you do so that one day, you may become the main man.

Dr. Bennis is right in saying that leaders are made and not born because even someone with leadership attributes needs to develop those skills; it is not enough to sit on them and expect to become one. But management cannot fall prey to the trap of thinking that everyone and anyone can lead — history has proven that that is just not realistic.

Measure performance

The reason it is okay for senior management to treat different players differently is because they have statistics and numbers to back up their claims. If one bank employee serves 150 clients in a satisfactory fashion while everyone else serves 100 in the same time frame, well, that employee should be recognized.

It is not fair to expect the star employee to downplay his stats. He should downplay them but that is not human nature. The solution would be to have senior management reward him (through higher pay or higher responsibilities) so that the employee himself will not find the need to show off. This way, the other employees will admire his modesty while he gets the recognition he deserves.

All of this may go against the idealistic teachings in textbooks and business books, but this is more realistic and takes into consideration psychological factors such as people seeking approval, recognition and appreciation.

Managing trouble spots

The reason it is key to reward employees or athletes (making them captains or signing them to big deals) is that you avoid making them feel under-appreciated. After all, athletes are the stars of a team; not coaches. Analogously, it is the employees that should be the stars, not senior management. So the next time your CEO tells you to take one for the team, remember that and ask yourself if he’s being a team player. Remember, it is much easier to say you are a team player than it is to actually be one.

Being a team player means that yes, you should do what helps the firm. But it does not mean that the firm should blindly assume that everyone plays equal parts. So to answer the question: Gestalt psychology is right in asserting that a team is worth more than the sum of its parts, but it does not imply that the parts are equal…

Ash Karbasfrooshan is also the author of Course To Success, available at