Patrick Lencioni on How to Spot a Team Player


Ideal team players exhibit three virtues, humility, hunger and people smarts, said Patrick Lencioni, best-selling author and founder of The Table Group, at Leadercast Live 2019.

Humility is the most important of the three, said Patrick. He defined hunger as a desire to go above and beyond, a passion for the job and a pursuit for excellence. He also used the term “smart” to refer to emotional intelligence and strong interpersonal skills. 

When hiring, hone in on these attributes and ask candidates questions multiple ways to determine if they are humble, hungry and smart, advised Patrick.

“Scare people with sincerity,” he said. “Tell them they will love working here if they are humble, hungry and smart, but if they aren’t, this will be a tough place for them.”

Applying This Framework to Your Team:

— Since everyone struggles with one or more of these at times, ask your team which of these they struggle with the most.
— Share your response first.
— Ask your team to hold you accountable and call you out when you aren’t exhibiting the virtue that’s hardest for you.
— Tell your team members you will hold them accountable for their violations as well.


All right. I'm easily distracted. I've got 25 minutes to go through some stuff. I'm really excited. I'm like a kid in a candy store. I love being with this Leadercast audience. So we're going to dive right in and get started.

Trip mentioned that I wrote a book about 18 years ago called "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team" about . . . in the years after that book came out people would ask me the question, "Pat, are some people better at doing these . . . overcoming these five dysfunctions than others?" And I thought, "I don't know. I think anybody can do it with the right amount of patience and coaching and assistance from a manager."

So I didn't think there was a good answer to that question. I found out later that there was. In fact, I had answered that question whether some people are better at overcoming the five dysfunctions than others even before I wrote the book. You see, years ago before I started my company called The Table Group I ran a department in a software company. I had a small team with me. We did leadership development teamwork and communication within the company. And we read that book called "Built to Last" by Jerry Porras and Jim Collins. It was a great book. I loved it, yeah. Fabulous book. And one of the things they said in there is they said, "Great organizations, the ones that endure and the ones that last, they have something called core values." And like everybody else we said, "Let's go get some of them."

So we had an offsite meeting and we got a flipchart and a thesaurus and said, "Let's come up with some words. You know, maybe put them on a T-shirt or a poster." No, we didn't do that. We went out as a department and we came up with these three words and we said, "We're going to build our department around those three words, A, B and C." We didn't think a lot about it. And then a few years later we left. My department had started our own consulting firm, the Table Group and we had a meeting and we said, "What are we going to do around our culture?" And we said, "We're going to build our culture around those three words. Those will be our core values at our firm."

Well, one of the things we did with our clients in our firm at The Table Group is we helped them figure out their strategy and their values and work better as a team. And whenever we went through the values part of that with them they would say, "Hey, Pat. We're talking about our values. What are your values at your company?" And I'd say, "Well, we don't really share those. It's just how we build our company. It's really kind of . . . " And they said, "Yeah, but what are yours?" And I'd say, "Okay. They're A, B and C." And they'd say almost inevitably, "Yeah, we'll use those." And we'd say, "No. Those are our values. You have to come up with your own." And they said, "But we like yours." And we thought they were being lazy. Like well, just those are good enough. We'll just plug those in.

We really were like, "Why would they want to not come up with their own values?" And so then what we realized and it took about 10 years before it dawned on me that there was something actually universally appealing about these three words we were using that made other companies want to adopt those too. And as it turned out and it shouldn't have been a surprise because we were all about teamwork. Those words were what was necessary for a person to really be a team player but we didn't know that. That was an accident. So when we did figure it out we didn't do anything about it. We just told a few of our clients and our friends. We were like, "Hey, these values . . . these virtues or values tend to define what a team player would look like."

And then years ago a good friend of mine named Matthew Kelly who's an author, he asked me one day at lunch. He said, "Hey, Pat. Are you writing any books?" And at the time I was like, "No, I think I'm done. I don't have anything left to say." And he said, "Well, what about those three words, the team stuff?" And I said, "Oh, those are just too simple to write a book about." He goes, "I don't think so. I think you should write a book." Like I don't know. It's going to be kind of short. And he said, "You should do it."

So we sat down to write this book and we did and I was really afraid that would be that book that people said, "Well, that's the one that sucked." You know, like it's okay. You mailed that one in. but we believed in it but we just thought it was too simple. And as you're going to see in a few minutes it's really simple. But as it turns out it struck a cord and I think primarily because of its simplicity and like no other book I've ever written it's being adopted and utilized in organizations faster than anything I've ever written.

So what I'm going to do right now is take you through this model that we discovered accidentally and I will say one more time it's really simple because I'm a little bit embarrassed about this. And as it turns out, the power of it is not in the words themselves but in the combination of all three. So let's go ahead and dive in now that I've given you a qualifier. Look at that screen.

Okay. The ideal team player. To be an ideal team player, the kind that can learn to trust one another, engage in good conflict and commit to decisions and hold each other accountable and accomplish results of a team . . . those are those five dysfunctions. To do that, what you really need to do is find people and develop people for three virtues. Very simple terms. And the first and most important of those three virtues is humility. You have to find people and develop people to be humble. Humility is the core virtue in life. If the root of all sin is pride, and it is, the antidote to that is humility. And of all the qualities in a team player the one you have to have and the one you have to make sure your people demonstrate and the one you should always hire for, the first one is humility. Okay.

Now this just seems patently obvious. I realize that. And it is pretty obvious. And the definition of humility is pretty straightforward. I mean, the primary one is don't hire people who are arrogant. Hire people who are other centered, who are not ego driven, who are not terribly needy. Hire people that are about others more than themselves. That's the primary definition. But there's another flipside to humility we have to be aware of. Sometimes we misdefine humility and we attribute humility to people who lack confidence. We say, "She never demands that her answer is correct. He always defers to others. He never stands up for what he believes in or for his talents so therefore he is humble."

As it turns out, people that lack confidence in their skills and god given abilities lack humility too. C.S. Lewis once defined humility as not thinking less of yourself but rather thinking about yourself less. And sometimes we think humility is always deferring. The truth of the matter is if you have a skill or an idea or an opinion that's valid and important, there's nothing humble about denying that.

So let's remember that humility is about adherence to what is true, not to denying your skills or your abilities. But let's also recognize that the primary manifestation of humility is arrogance. Okay, so we want to hire people that are humble. Okay. Simple. Right?

In addition to humility we also want to make sure that we find people, hire people and develop in people hunger. Hungry people. Find hungry people. What is a hungry person? Pretty straightforward. Strong work ethic, desire to do more. They're not a minimalist. They want to go above and beyond. They don't have low standards for themselves. They're going to ask to do more. 

Now the one caveat I would say . . . because this one is pretty simple. It's a strong work ethic. The caveat is that we're not talking about workaholics. Workaholism is people who get their entire identity from their work. So to be hungry doesn't mean everything in your life is about your job and that you're working 24/7. It just means when you have something to do you have a high standard and you like to do it and you do enjoy your work and you're passionate about it and you don't need to be reminded to do more. Okay? Hunger.

This is the easiest one to understand. I think it may be the hardest one to develop in a person later in life. Okay. That's what I found. And I was surprised by that. I thought, "Oh, this one. I can get anybody to be hungry." We'll talk about why that sometimes is hard.

The third attribute. Humble, hungry. The final one is we need people who are smart. Now but this is not about intellectual smarts, not intelligence, not IQ. It's about . . . you can call it EQ, emotional intelligence. It's really just common sense around people, that when I go to a meeting I know if I say something that makes you upset or I can tell if you're frustrated. I understand how my words and actions impact the people around me. Okay. 

If we can hire and surround ourselves with people and develop in people humility, hunger and people smarts, we are going to have a competitive advantage in acting like a team like nobody else. I don't care if you're drafting people in the National Football League, if you're hiring people on your executive team, if you're a pastor trying to surround yourself with a team at your church or a principal at a school. If you can find people who are humble, hungry and smart, life gets so much easier, work gets so much fulfilling. And it is a competitive advantage that will show up on the bottom line whether that bottom line is money or people served or mission accomplished. Humble, hungry and smart.

Okay, this is very simple. So what do you do with this? Well, you use it for those two things. Acquiring talent and developing talent. And to do that you have to be able to identify people who are humble, hungry and smart and the good way to do that we decided is to put together some labels. Not . . . we ought to be careful here. We want to . . . we have some labels for identifying people who have one or more of these values. And I want to introduce you to these labels but I want to have a warning here. We have to be careful. We don't want to use these flippantly because that can be dangerous. What we're talking about here is if a person is egregiously lacking one or more of these values, we need to be able to identify what that looks like.

So having said that, let's go. Now first of all, we're not going to talk about somebody who is 0 for 3 on these values that lacks humble, hungry and smart. Those are the kind of people that are probably not applying for jobs. They need our prayers and our pity because they're probably not succeeding in life. And while that's slightly humorous if you think about that these are people that are really struggling and might be living under an overpass by a freeway. Because if you're not neither humble, hungry nor smart, it's really tough to be effective in life.

But let's take a look really quickly at people that are one for three which is pretty good in baseball but in becoming an ideal team player it's terrible. So this is a person who's really good at one and terrible at the other two. And the first one is somebody who has the best value, humility but neither of the other two. So the person who's just humble. We call this the pawn because they are maybe a sweet person. They're not ego centered but they're not . . . they don't have a high work ethic and they don't know how to work with other people. They might be an okay neighbor, a kind person, maybe a monk but . . . and that would be wonderful but on a team they're probably not going to bring a lot to that team.

So even though they have the chief virtue, they don't necessarily qualify. In fact, they may necessarily don't qualify as being an ideal or even adequate team member. Okay. We're not going to spend a lot of time on the one for threes because these aren't our biggest issue but it's interesting. 

The next one is somebody who's just hungry. Just hungry. They're not humble. They're not about others. They're not smart. They're not good at working with people but they work their tails off. We call this the bulldozer. And we do find people bulldozing in organizations either if they're the owner or maybe they're in sales or in a function where they make their numbers and even though nobody likes to work with them and they're not particularly easy to be around, people tolerate them. Now I don't think tolerating them is a good idea because they usually leave a trail of destruction behind them and the opportunity cost of keeping a bulldozer is really high but occasionally you see that person. It's like, "That guy's a jerk." "Yeah, but he makes his number every week so we're going to keep him."

The bulldozer. Okay? Probably the good news about a bulldozer is you see them coming from a mile away. So you can probably avoid them in an interview or you can probably spot them on your team and do something about it.

The next one is somebody who's just smart. They're really good with people. They're not particularly hard working. They're not really egoless. They're kind of about themselves but they're pretty entertaining. And this is what we call the charmer. I would call this the Ferris Bueller on your team. Now the thing about them is they really get very little done. They're primarily just a source of entertainment and most of these people aren't going to survive for very long. 

One for threes are pretty easy to spot and deal with. It's the two for threes that are the toughest. Let's look at the two for threes. A person who is humble, the most important virtue and hungry, the second most important one. They have those two things but they're just not good at dealing with people. They're not smart. We call this the accidental mess maker because . . . and I have a lot of tolerance for them. They work hard and they care about others. They just don't know how to deal with people and you have to clean up after them. They're like a dog, a puppy. You whack them on the newspaper like, "Oh, sorry, sorry, sorry. Okay." So you just have to kind of explain them to others, you have to clean up after them but the good news is the most important thing is their heart's in the right place and they work very hard. I'll take these over the other two for threes.

The next two for three is the person who is humble, most important virtue and smart, really good with people. They just aren't very hungry. Their work ethic is lacking. We call this . . . oops. We go back. The lovable slacker. The lovable slacker. Now the thing about the lovable slacker, actually the problem is they're lovable. So we tend to keep them around for a long time. I once had a lovable slacker that worked for me. A fantastic guy, still a good friend of mine. And he was passionate about his family which is so important, passionate about his softball team, the football pool he ran. He was passionate about everything in life but work.

Now and if you . . . I'm an ENFP and many ENFPs are . . . we're what's called as managers a wuss. Okay? And because I'm a wuss I sat down with this guy and said, "Listen. Your work ethic is lacking so you're going to leave this company when you're good and ready. You let me know when that is." And five years later he was out that door. He didn't know what hit him.

The truth . . . but he was such a lovable guy and such a humble guy and so good with people. The problem was he never quite went above and beyond. He would usually do just barely what we asked or a little less and he was so good at apologizing and so fun to be around that I tolerated him for five more years. I don't recommend that neither for your organization or for him or her. 

But the lovable slacker is not the hardest one. The most difficult person on a team, much worse than the pawn or the bulldozer or the charmer is this one and that is the skillful politician. They are hungry. They work very hard and they are smart. They know how to get along with people but they don't have humility. But the thing is they're so smart that they know how to project humility in a false way. See, this is worse than the bulldozer. If you have a bulldozer on your team, the last thing you should do is teach him or her how to be smart.

I once worked with a skillful politician in a client I was working with and this guy was really crafty. He was so good and he . . . you would've never suspected that he was a skillful politician because he was Canadian. Nobody suspects a Canadian of being a skillful politician because they're so nice. Oh, sorry about that, eh, you know. And this guy . . . and we would be like, "Okay." We'd be in a meeting and we'd think, "This is the greatest guy ever." And he knew how to pretend like he was doing . . . and he cared about everybody but then every time he did an acquisition of a company half of his team would be gone and he would be . . . he'd double his salary and that happened again and we finally realized this guy is playing us and there's a trail of dead bodies hidden all around the company because of him.

See, that's the thing about the skillful politician, why you should never hire one or tolerate them in your organization because by the time you figure them out the damage is often done. So that's why humility is so important because if they lack humility but they're hard working and smart about people and you guys all know you've worked with skillful politicians. Yes. Okay.

By the way, if somebody demanded that I answer one of your questions I would do it but only one. But let's keep going.

Okay. So what do you do with all this? You really need people that are three for three and then you need to develop your people. I want to talk first about the teams you have because I don't want you to go back to your organization and go lovable slacker out, skillful politician out, you're one of these. Because remember, all of us struggle with one or more of these at time. We have bad days, bad weeks, bad months. We're talking about people who are egregiously bad at this stuff. Okay?

But what I want you to do is go back to your team and I'm going to give you a little exercise you can do. Very simple. So go through humble, hungry, smart with them and help them understand what they mean and I've done this with many teams. I've done it with my son's lacrosse teams from college, high school and middle school. I've done it with churches and, you know, and senior executives at companies. And do this. Say, "Everybody, tell me what your third of the three are. Just rank them. Not rate them. You might be great at all of them but what's the third. You might be bad at all of them. What's your third? Of the three, which one do you struggle with the most?" It's crazy how honest people will be. And say, "Yeah." And especially in front of their team because they know people know.

And then once everybody's identified their three then brainstorm at the table. Okay, what could you do? What could this guy or gal do if they struggle with humility a little bit and want to get better and . . . or struggle with hunger or struggle with smart? And it's crazy how practical their advice will be and then you have to do what comes next and this is key. First of all, you as the leader have to be honest about yours. You have to go first and say, "This is mine." And listen to all that. Then if you're the leader of the team, then you have to constantly remind people, help them identify those areas of improvement and then constantly remind them when they violate one. So somebody says, "You know, I know I'm not . . . I could be hungrier. Occasionally I lack hunger. I know I kind of . . . my personal life is pretty important to me and I kind of check out early sometimes because I don't always check in with people to see if I can help them. So maybe hunger is my third."

And then we advise them, we talk about it and the most important thing everybody on the team does is say, "So now you guys, my teammates are going to coach me and if you ever see me violate this please, as a favor to me, let me know."

So if you're the leader, you have to commit to reminding them constantly. You don't want to be a wuss like me because here's what I do as a wuss. You're my employee and you say, "Pat. Yeah. I'm not as humble as I need to be. I talk about myself too much. I need to be more interested in my teammates and ask questions so let me know if you see me doing that." So I go to a meeting and I see him do that and I go right to him and I say, "Listen, you did it. You got to get better at that." Okay. Then I see him a week later do it again because, you know . . . and I go right to my wife and I tell her. He does it again and I go right to my colleagues and I tell them. 

The truth of the matter is if I will commit to caring enough and loving that person enough to remind them even though it's not pleasant . . . "You said hunger is your area? You left early again yesterday. You didn't check in with us because there's other stuff you could've done." If I will do it again and again and again and again after a number of times that employee is going to do one of two things. More often than not they will get better because they're going to go, "Wow. He is really saying it. There's nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. I'm going to get better." Or second best, "I'm going to leave because there's nowhere to run and nowhere to hide and I don't want to get better." The third is by far the worst which is, "He's not going to stay on top of me so I'm not going to leave and I'm not going to change." 

And when we as leaders and teammates fail to confront one another about . . . and fail to remind people about the thing they said they want to get better at, we are actually creating the likelihood of lawsuits and HR and all kinds of bad politics.

So the number one thing you can do is as a leader, "Here's mine. What are yours? Now I promise I will constantly remind you about yours and I'm not only inviting you. I'm exhorting you to remind me about mine." When you do that you create a coaching circle on your team. The ideal team player emerges in everybody on that team. It's a powerful thing.

Now let's talk now though about hiring because it is really critical that we bring in the right people on our teams. Okay? So here's the short tips I want to give you in my three minutes that's left about how to hire people. First of all, we have to stop believing that technical skills are more important than behavioral ones. We've been saying this for 30 years since I've been in the workplace. We all know it. We all know it but still when we see that resume and they come in and we're like, "But I just want somebody who can do this job and you've programed in that or you've run this kind of a system or you once had a job like this. Let's hire him."

The opportunity cost of doing that is terrible because if they don't fit behaviorally the pain lasts for a long time and it's costly. So we have to realize . . . and now that doesn't mean you hire a brain surgeon. You've never done brain surgery but you look like an ideal team player. Come on in. Or you can't fly a plane but I bet we can, you know . . . there are certain jobs that technical skills are very critical but the behavioral thing . . . and remember, Southwest Airlines doesn't hire pilots if they're a great pilot but they don't have a sense of humor. Doesn't mean they hire people who have a sense of humor that can't be a pilot. But that behavioral quality is really critical. So we have to do that. 

Then what we have to do is we have to change the way we interview. And again, I've been working for about 30 years and I'm surprised at how interviews haven't changed that much. We still largely sit behind our desk with our feet crossed and with a resume and, "Oh, yeah."

That's what it is. Oh, yeah. Good interview.

I was giving my son advice about a job interview last night on the phone. I left out the oh, yeah part.

Here's the first one I would say. Don't have traditional interviews. Get them out of the office, out from behind the desk, see what they're like when they're not sitting there in a practiced interview. Take them to the grocery store, have them help you run your kid's soccer practice. You know, somebody once said you can . . . if you fly across country and back with somebody, you'll get to know them well enough to know whether you want to hire them and people go, "Well, that would be too expensive." Actually it'd be better than hiring the wrong person but I think what you can do is just say, "Hey, we're going to go to JC Penny because we got to get some underwear for my eight year old." And see how they deal with that. Right?

A woman I know had an organization. She hired somebody. They needed somebody with this woman's skillset. They hired her. A year later they had to pay her a huge severance. She didn't fit the team at all. She wasn't a team player. Two of her leaders quit the organization because of this woman. She said to me, "Pat, I had only taken her shopping, I'd have seen all of it." No more traditional interviews.

The next thing is ask questions more than once. I call this the Law and Order school of interviewing. Have you ever seen "Law and Order"? You know, like, "Hey, did you kill her?" "No." "Did you kill her?" "No." "Did you kill her?" "Okay, I killed her." You ask three times. They always admit it. 

When you have a doubt in your gut about whether this person is humble, hungry or smart don't ignore it. Keep probing, keep trying. I once interviewed a guy. I didn't think he was humble. I didn't think he could forgive people. And I said to him in an interview. I had this gut feel. Everybody wanted me to hire him. I said, "Listen. How do you deal with conflict? How do you respond to conflict?" And it was a soft ball but he said, "Oh, I'm fine with conflict." Oh, okay, great. Didn't . . . I believe it. "How do you deal with your friends if they disagree, if they upset you?" "Oh, I'm fine." I still didn't believe it. At the end of the interview I said, "What would your wife say if I asked her if you hold grudges?" And he said, "Oh, I'm a huge grudge holder." So I pulled that lever in my office. He fell right through the floor. Keep probing. Don't ignore. 

Finally scare people with sincerity. Say this, "Hey, if you're humble and hungry and smart, you're going to love working here. Really. Because we're serious about this. It will show up. You will love it. If you're not, you're going to hate it and we're not going to enjoy you. So this would be a great time to opt out." You know, you're doing them a huge favor. A huge favor.

I am one minute over my time. The last thing I want to say is this. If you have a child who's graduating from college or high school or heck, just a kid or a young person you're mentoring, if they can be humble, hungry and smart, that's more important than GPA, IQ, SAT, everything else. God bless you.

Patrick Lencioni

Patrick Lencioni is founder and president of The Table Group, a firm dedicated to providing organizations with ideas, products and services that improve teamwork, clarity and employee engagement.

Patrick’s passion for organiz...

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