Dear Kerry Ann

Are You a Team Player?

Kerry Ann Rockquemore offers advice on how to handle a criticism that many receive on the road to tenure -- and a perception that needs to be faced promptly.



April 22, 2015

Dear Kerry Ann,

I just received my third-year review and while it was satisfactory (I was reappointed), there were several negative comments about my collegiality. Specifically, the idea that I am perceived as “not being a team player.” I’m so pissed off about this. My publication record is on track, my teaching evaluations are above average, I’m doing a ton of service and I’m working 70-plus hours a week.

What team am I not playing on?

I hate sports, so I’m not even sure what this “not being a team player” means, but right now it feels like something white guys say when they don’t like you and are looking for a problem. Is this really a problem?


Never Played Sports

Dear Never Played Sports,

I recognize that you’ve worked hard to make sure you meet the key performance indicators for your job, so it hurts when the criticism is something that feels subjective. I’m frequently asked: What exactly is a team player? Who gets labeled as being one (or not being one)? And why does this matter if you are meeting (or exceeding) all of the existing metrics for research, teaching and service?

So allow me to offer some potential translations. Depending on the context, not being a team player can mean several things:  

  • You don’t appear to share the collective agenda of the department.
  • We don’t like how you put yourself ahead of others.
  • We want you to appear more group oriented than individually oriented.
  • We don’t see the totality of your service or your service isn’t the kind we think matters.
  • (If you’re underrepresented) you think too much of yourself.
  • You are selfish.
  • We want you to be more obedient (do what you’re told and stop asking so many questions).

Let’s be clear, if the story about you is that you’re not a team player, that is a potential problem you need to get in front of and manage quickly. And while I have some concrete suggestions for how you can address this particular issue, this type of response pattern can work whenever you need to manage negative subjective assessments, particularly those that are problematically skewed by race and gender.

Go Hit Something

You’re angry about the negative comments. That’s normal. Nobody likes to hear criticism, especially when it’s based on subjective criteria, so why not just hit something (pillows, a ball, a punching bag) to get that out of your system. Everything else will require you to be calm, professional and nonreactive in tone, and maintaining that energy will be difficult if you don’t get the anger out of your body.

Set Up Face-to-Face Clarifying Conversations

The best part about having this feedback formalized in your review is that you can now initiate clarifying conversations with your mentors, your department chair and/or the review committee chair (if appropriate) to elicit ideas about how you can interpret and constructively respond to the feedback you received.

In these clarifying conversations, you want to frame the discussion by asking for your mentor’s advice on areas of your performance where you are receiving mixed messages. On one hand, you've been working hard to make sure you are pulling your weight. As such, you have selected the following service activities to demonstrate your investment in the department, college and university's mission (have a concise list of your service activities prepared). On the other hand, you're being told that you're not a team player in your review, so stop talking and start listening.

Establish Concrete Actionable Items

The key takeaway from this meeting is the answer to the question: What does it look like to be a team player in concrete terms? What are specific examples? What exactly can you do to shift perceptions? The words “concrete,” “specific” and “exactly” encourage a precise articulation of the ambiguous “not a team player,” which is the desired outcome of this type of conversation. Once you know what a team player looks like, you can brainstorm how to meet that expectation.

Follow Up With a Friendly Email

After your meeting(s), send an upbeat follow-up message warmly thanking your chair/mentor for taking the time to meet with you and summarize the outcome of the meeting. 

Dear ________,

Thanks so much for taking the time to meet with me this afternoon. It is such a relief to learn that the perception expressed in my third-year review that I'm “not a team player” is really ________ [insert the bottom line of the conversation]. I appreciate your review of my service load and your suggestion that I focus my committee work on highly visible departmental committees while restricting my college and university service to ________ and ________. I've started the process of extracting myself from ________, ________ and ________ as a result of our conversation, and I will actively seek your counsel before taking on any additional service commitments this year. 


Never Played Sports

Putting things in writing not only clarifies the outcome of the meeting and your next steps, but creates a data point of documentation for the future in case the issue should arise again. The key is to keep the tone positive, as you don’t want others to feel you are building a case for future litigation.

I know it’s a busy time of the year, but I encourage you set up these clarifying conversations sooner rather than later. It’s important to recognize that when people tell you you're not a team player, 1) it’s a red flag, 2) any red flags call for proactive engagement and 3) it only takes a few meetings to get concrete clarity about how you can demonstrate that you are -- in fact -- a team player.

I hope this advice helps you to respond not only to this specific scenario but to any circumstance in which you sense a perception problem. I’m confident other readers will have additional ideas to share on this topic and I encourage them to do so in the comments section below.

Peace and productivity, 

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, PhD

President, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity


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