Are You a Team Player or a Ninja?


NinjaYou might think you’re a team player, especially if you’re the kind of person who gets things done and is committed to helping your team meet its objectives. But if you don’t also pay attention to how your team works together, you may actually be a ninja – acting solo in service of your team.

The problem with being a ninja is you can inadvertently undermine your team’s effectiveness.

Meet James, a Ninja in Disguise.

When James was asked if he would like to join the new product team, he accepted enthusiastically. He had expertise in several product lines, had launched new products before and prided himself in being a team player.

The company was interested in extending their reach into new markets, and the team was charged with determining which market to enter and designing the product.

After weighing recommendations from several department leaders and a long deliberation, the team came to consensus on their recommended market. The next day they received an email from a department leader making a detailed case for a completely different approach.

Ninja Action:  James sent an email to his team that was enthusiastic about the new recommended approach… and he copied the department leader on his email.

The Effect:  Not only did the team need to meet again to reopen their decision, but also after careful deliberation where they clarified once again their original decision was the best one, they now had to deal with the expectations of the department leader James had copied. James actions caused a lot of extra time and effort for the team, and the disappointed department leader never entirely supported the team’s recommendation.

After getting approval for the concept of the product line, the team needed to plan the details – exactly what the offering would look like, how they would go to market, etc.

The question of branding came up. The team decided there were other priorities, and they should wait.

Ninja Action: On his own initiative, James went to the marketing department who spent considerable time developing three options that James then presented to the team.

The Effect: James thought he was furthering the team efforts. However, it was premature, as the team hadn’t outline specifications for what message they wanted to convey. Because of the efforts by the marketing department, the team was felt they needed to choose one of the designs.

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12 comments to Are You a Team Player or a Ninja?

  • Yes, ninja’s have superficial and self-serving ideas about what collaboration actually entails. Being an effective team player takes a lot more learning and practice than attending a team-dynamics session at a retreat. Similarly, leaders need to recognize the lack of quality thinking among the ninja’s and help them grow their collaborative capabilities. As ever, my pitch to these folks is that it’s a productivity issue, not just the need to respect others.

    • It’s definitely a productivity issue -a lot of wasted time redoing work, and also cleaning the “mess” left behind. James would not see his actions as self-serving because although the effect of his actions was did not serve the team, his intention was in service of the task, not his own personal gratification. Good food for thought. As always, thanks for sharing your insights Alan.

  • Great illustrations Jesse. When you look at this as an outsider, or from a high level overview, it’s easier to see. What’s a great way to left yourself out of the fray to be able to see this as it is – a ninja?

    • I suspect many of us have been guilty of being a ninja at one point or another. The question is whether you can recognize it and self-correct. What a mess we can create for others, with the very best of intentions…

  • I actually can see myself doing a “James”. He’s enthusiastic, invited on the team because of his expertise, and I think just wants to prove his worth to the team members. The way the scenario is written, it assumes self-serving intent on his part. I’m not sure that’s the case. Could it be that the team did not set up their expectations of HOW they would operate together and what ROlE each would play. Just something to think about

    • I agree with your assessment of his motives. I think he’s enthusiastic and wants to add value. However, I don’t think this is an issue of lack of clarity of roles and operating ground rules. Both times, the team made a decision and when James had a new idea, instead of coming back to the team, he went ahead and pushed his agenda forward. Most likely he is unconscious of the effect of his actions on the team and the repercussions of his actions. Until he gets feedback, he’ll continue to behave like this. Ideally the feedback would recognize his contribution and intention, as Carl suggested.

  • Great lessons today Jesse – I think it is time for one of those ‘tough’ conversations with James. You love the enthusiasm just not all the extra work to clean up the mess.

    Best regards,

    • It’s the right conversation and nicely framed, Carl. The question is who should have the conversation with him. It would be best if the team could have a discussion about what’s working and what’s not and take responsibility for their own functioning. The least desirable, but what happens most often, is that the leader pulls James aside and has a private talk with him. This keeps the team dependent on the leader to solve team problems. High performing teams learn to manage their issues by working through conflict. It’s the only way. And avoiding it, keeps the team in a stage of dependency on the team leader. But that’s the topic of a different post: What Team Members Can (and Should) Do to Help Their Team Become High Performing.

  • Thank you Jesse. I strikes me as a useful reminder when running teams to keep an eye out for the Ninjas and quickly move to harness their strengths within the team. A good point from Eileen above, the underlying motivation could be of wanting to prove oneself. Which is admirable. A good leader can shape that motivation to benefit the team whist educating the Ninja.

    • Excellent point about being alert for Ninjas as a team leader so you can respond quickly. Letting things go too long frustrates the entire team and they begin to resent the individual, who as you and Eileen point out, often has the very best of intentions.

  • Interesting take, however I have to ask a question. Did you or anyone else question James about his motivations and why he pursued certain actions. It would appear there are a lot of unknowns still to discover. There could be numerous motivations that could define James. But more importantly, the organization might want to answer this question. Should James ever be invited to be part of a team in the future?

    • You raise an important point about the need for a discussion with James. The issue is not his motivation. He genuinely believes he was being helpful, and he clearly wants the team to be successful and to move forward. The discussion needs to be around helping him see the effect of his actions on the team’s effectiveness and morale. When a team makes a decision, it is counter-productive to take a different action without first sharing your thinking with the team. Pulling in outsiders before the team has had a chance to have a discussion and come to agreement disregards the integrity of the team. This post could be useful for a team leader to understand the importance having that discussion and not just ignoring the situation, but I was also hoping this post might help some “team ninja’s” recognize themselves and self-correct.

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