advice/perspective on jobs, work and management

I was punished for being a team player

I’m employed in a very technical field in research and development. A few years ago, I had a disheartening experience as a manager that I’d like your perspective on.

        The circumstance was that my employer had several small teams working in parallel on unrelated projects, each directed towards a different product idea. I had been put in charge of one of those teams. With time, it became clear to pretty much everyone, myself included, that one project in particular held the most promise. It was progressing the fastest, any technical issues that might come up seemed to resolve themselves, and the science behind it was proving to be extremely solid. Naturally, it made sense to devote more resources to this effort, and perhaps wind down some of the others. I and my team had been assigned one of the latter.

        So one day my boss called me into his office and asked if I’d be okay with moving one of my direct reports over to this more promising project. Of course, I immediately agreed. As a relatively young company, we didn’t have any commercialized products yet, and therefore didn’t have any actual revenue coming in (we’d been funded by venture capital up to that point). Getting a product to market was a top priority for all of us. My boss’ reaction, however, was not what I expected. The look on his face…well, it suggested surprise, confusion, and maybe even a little disappointment. Looking back now, I realize it was probably all of that. You see, I didn’t really know him very well yet (he’d only been my supervisor for a few months), and I later came to learn he was ambitious, and very territorial (he proved to be somewhat of an “empire builder”). So I imagine he was expecting me to react the way he would have in that situation – that is, to push back with all my political and organizational might; maybe even make the case for putting more people on my project (I suppose I could have argued it was struggling because I lacked the needed resources). But I’ve always been more of a team player. It seemed so obvious to me the best thing for the organization was to put our resources where they were needed most.

        After that my relationship with my boss was never quite the same. My opinions no longer seemed to be taken as seriously – if I was asked to weigh in at all. I also started getting assigned less interesting projects, and felt excluded from important meetings and other critical decision-making processes. Eventually, I moved on, and I was glad I did. I don’t think I had much of a future there – or at least not while I reported to him. But that experience always stuck with me. I’m still wary of “taking one for the team,” and I make sure to put my own career interests first – even above those of the organization on occasion. At times, I’ve even found this works to my advantage!

        What’s going on here? Is being a “team player” not all it’s cracked up to be? – Name withheld

In a word, you seem to have been “hierarchied.”

Your mistake, if it can be called that, was believing that you and your organization’s interests were aligned here. Indeed, you may have even thought you’d be rewarded for putting your organization’s interests first.

There’s a concept that’s perhaps helpful to understanding what happened to you – and it’s one that straddles both organizational theory and economics.

It’s often referred to as the “Principal-Agent” problem.

What it acknowledges is the inherent difficulty in getting people to put aside their own best self-interests, and instead behave in ways that benefit the organization as a whole.[1]

Here’s an example: When businesses choose to pay their employees by the hour, it becomes in their interests to work as slowly as possible, since doing so maximizes their own income. Working quickly and efficiently is obviously best for their employer (the “principal”) in that it reduces labor costs – but by dragging their feet, employees (the “agent”) receive a bigger paycheck. And economists, organizational theorists—and managers—have been grappling with this, and other principal/agent-based conundrums basically since the dawn of humankind.[2]

Your experience, however, speaks to an as-of-yet unacknowledged flip-side to this enduring dilemma. If acting in ways that are good for you can come at a cost to broader organizational interests, putting the interests of the collective ahead of your own may come at a personal cost to you.

And this seems to be precisely what happened in your circumstance.

Part of me wants to console you, and point out that you learned a valuable lesson – one that is apt to serve you well as your career evolves. You are right to remain wary.

But another part of me is saddened by this seemingly unavoidable workplace phenomena. What a shame it is that well-meaning individuals such as yourself, who actively wish to do what’s best for their employer, risk punishment owing to perverse organizational forces beyond your control.

I can only imagine the enormous toll all of this extracts – and not just in terms of lost productivity and diminished organizational performance. But to my mind, it’s to the detriment of the broader economy, and ultimately, society as a whole.

Surely there must be a better way.



[1] Barney, Jay and William Hesterly. “Organizational Economics: Understanding the Relationship between Organizations and Economic Analysis” (Chapter 1.3) in The Sage Handbook of Organizational Studies (2nd Ed.). Edited by Stewart Clegg, Cynthia Hardy, Thomas A Lawrence and Walter R. Nord. (Sage Publications), 2006.

[2] Putting workers on salary, or paying them “by the piece,” likewise fails to resolve this dilemma. Now their motivation is to work as quickly as possible, or perhaps even cut corners, which may adversely effect product quality.


  1. Another name withheld

    It seems like the manager in question wasn’t really asking for a team member to be shifted. Rather, he was passive-aggressively criticizing and punishing the leader of the non-performing team. As in:

    “Your lack of progress suggests you’re not utilizing your team effectively. Since you’ve failed to do this, and are also failing to make progress on your project, I’ll just take a human resource away from you – both as a punishment, and also to let you know I’m displeased with what I see as a failure of your leadership.”

  2. Tim Eiler

    I’ve been burned in the same way in a similar situation. Like the OP, and “the subordinate,” I find the outcome perverse.

    Thus, the OP does well to hesitate. Perhaps a better way to have approached the situation would have been to seek out knowledge from the boss before answering the “would you mind…” question so quickly. The boss might have telegraphed, if not outright told the OP, what the boss thought to be “the right” answer. In that case, OP learns something (about the boss’ ethics if nothing else) and avoids the ostracizing.

  3. Gaucho

    Another v interesting workplace quandary. It definitely teaches the lesson that our co-workers often have different agendas and perspectives from our own – and that some of them operate in a passive-aggressive way. To me the biggest lesson learned is to question management’s reasoning behind any attempt to take away resources, make sure you get a clear explanation and confirm your understanding of the logic. And only then tally up the pros and cons before giving your answer.

    Routine open communication and reasonable questioning of management as to why changes are being considered is: a) the best way to avoid being punished for doing the right thing and b) putting your boss on notice that if she or he has issues with your performance, they need to be an adult and discuss DIRECTLY.


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