How To Tell Someone They Are Not A Team Player (Without Offending Them)

Strong team players are a critical component of any organization, and nothing can dampen morale like an uncooperative colleague. It’s a sticky situation for even the most seasoned manager, but with a little foresight and skilled leadership, getting an underperforming employee on board isn’t as challenging as it may at first seem. That being said, here’s how to tell someone they are not a team player.

First Things First: Establish Trust

Delivering hard news is difficult for any manager, but it can be nearly impossible for a manager who has not established trust.

Everyone has a basic understanding that leaders need to prove their trustworthiness for people to follow them, but the extent to which trust influences team roles is often understated.

In consulting psychology, organizational silence is a term that describes what happens when employees withhold their opinions and insights out of fear of retribution from management or colleagues. This fear and lack of trust creates a climate of silence that hinders any attempt at positive communication and constructive criticism.

how to tell someone they are not a team player

Effectively changing the psychological contract between a manager and an unproductive team member depends largely on how good the relationship is between them. Without this, trust barriers can lead to increased resistance, which can ultimately lead to a broken project.

As Harvard professor Deepak Malhotra tells his students, the most important part of negotiation is this: they have to like you.

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Next, Establish Purpose

In the same vein, conversations can go awry simply because an employee may take issue with how the message is delivered – not necessarily because they dislike the content.

In their book Crucial Conversations, authors Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler, and Kerry Patterson write that the first condition of safety in communication is what they call mutual purpose. This means that difficult conversations can only be successful if both parties perceive that they are working toward a unified outcome, and that their goals, values, and interests are mutually respected.

That being said, what should a manager do if they feel as if mutual respect will be difficult to maintain in certain situations?

how to tell someone they are not a team player

The first thing to do is look for common ground. Having a sense of kinship with others who have similar interests or experiences is helpful when trying to stay in dialogue with them. Recognizing that we all have weaknesses allows us to see each other from the same perspective.

After dialogue begins, how can a manager tell if mutual purpose becomes threatened?

Typically, the first way to tell is when the conversation moves toward debate. When two people begin forcing opinions on each other, it becomes clear that someone is trying to win the conversation.

However, this only leads to defensiveness and accusations, which is contrary to the goal of sorting out how to tell someone they need to be a team player.

Read More: How to Improve Your Bottom Performers: 7 Tips to Boost Workplace Productivity

Use Don’t/Do Statements

Don’t/do statements are great ways to open difficult conversations. The idea is to begin with a “don’t” statement such as, “I don’t want you to think I’m not grateful for your contributions as an employee – I think your research is stellar.”

Starting a conversation like this clarifies to your team member what it is you appreciate about them.

Next, continue with a “do” statement, such as “I do, however, place a great deal of importance on punctuality, and I’d just like you to be more attentive to this issue.” This technique can reassure your employee that the conversation is simply about improving behavior, and not an attack on their character.

Read More: Addressing the High Performing Toxic Employee: An Ultimate Guide for Managers

Finally, Focus on Growth

how to tell someone they are not a team player

When considering how to tell someone they are not a team player, the first thing to remember is that a manager’s responsibility is to help employees grow into their fullest potential.

That being said, it’s important to let them know that you take such good care in holding them accountable because you are deeply committed to your role as their mentor. As they move along their career trajectory, the lessons they learn from you will only help them achieve greater success.

In addition, it might help to go out of your way to include an underperforming team member in group discussions.

By asking what they think, it shows you value their feedback and reinforces their role in the team.

Similarly, maintaining positive regard for your team member’s basic humanity helps you both avoid feelings of disrespect and instead empathize with each other.

At the very first signs an employee is not a team player, a manager should take note to lead by example. Team members learn from each other, and they follow in their leaders’ footsteps.

Team player managers get deeply involved in their team’s activities and aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty with colleagues. They reflect the attitudes and beliefs of a supportive culture and hold themselves accountable to the same standards as everyone else.

How To Tell Someone They Are Not a Team Player

how to tell someone they are not a team player

Putting it all together, the keys to successfully having this difficult conversation include starting with trust, establishing mutual purpose, using do/don’t statements, and leading by example.

Further, managers can gain momentum with their teams by fostering a collaborative culture and making requests that are achievable and empowering, rather than dishing out a wishlist of oppressive behavior changes.

Similarly, managers should continually be seeking new ways to motivate their teams. An unproductive team member may actually just be confused about their responsibilities or are struggling with their tasks. The more confident an employee is, the more likely they will take ownership and pride in their role in the team.

By following these guidelines, managers can help an underperforming team member by honing their specific skills and empowering them to step more fully into their role.

By learning about their motivations and priorities, a leader can get a better sense of the causes of their behavior. While the conversation isn’t always easy to initiate, it is crucial to achieving the team’s purpose and goals, while simultaneously developing an underperforming team member into a productive team player.

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About Author

Founder of With over 20 years of experience in HR and various roles in corporate world, Jenny shares tips and advice to help professionals advance in their careers. Her blog is a go-to resource for anyone looking to improve their skills, land their dream job, or make a career change.

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