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A good team player needs to be selfish

It always surprises me to see "team-player" listed as a key skill on a resume. As it happens, many people are not team players -- which is OK. All this emphasis on teamwork can make those who must act in their own best interest from time to time look really bad. And while teamwork is great, there are indeed circumstances in one's career where selfishness is the way to go.

One of the most important things to know about teamwork versus selfishness is they are not mutually exclusive. In other words, sometimes looking out for yourself benefits the team. One example is the need to take personal accountability for your own career development. That sometimes means ignoring your knowledge of department fiscal issues and pushing for a raise, or ensuring you get credit for the big win rather than sharing it with a teammate who slacked off. How do these self-interested actions benefit the team? For some people, getting a raise or getting credit for something is fundamental to their job satisfaction. If a team member is unsatisfied with fundamental aspects of his or her job, that person cannot contribute to the department, team or organization at their fullest capacity.

Another example of the benefits of selfishness that is also related to job satisfaction is ensuring your job does not take over your life. Giving up something is certainly required to get exceptional outcomes from work -- long hours, unexpected travel and late nights often accompany superior achievements. But for some employees, there comes a time when giving up personal needs for the benefit of the team must stop. Otherwise, constant giving (and giving-up) can create resentment and bitterness, which clearly will not benefit the team.

Often, one has to act in a seemingly selfish way so everyone can benefit. For example, in one small service organization I work with, a senior officer brought on a senior partner to stave off failure. The partner, who appeared to have complementary skills, was brought in to re-engage the company's talented workforce. After a short time, several key players quit, citing the new guy as the problem. Clients also began indicating this new officer was causing problems. After taking many steps to confront the issues, the chief executive was left with a dilemma -- take this to the company owners and run the risk of being seen as a traitor to his co-chief executive, or say nothing and let the ship sink. Taking the seemingly selfish route is, of course, the best bet. It was the right thing for both the business and for himself--even if it backfired.

At the heart of this issue is this: Selfishness has become an insult, a dirty word, in organizational life. But it is only really bad when the goals are solely power, control, greed or harming others. When we make righteous choices, odds are they are the right ones, even if they may look selfish to others. Teamwork is a great idea, but it should not be the be all and end all of organizational life and productivity. Just like using the oxygen mask in an airplane, sometimes you have to take care of yourself to be able to take care of others.

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