December 10, 2009

Smells like Team Spirit

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man." George Bernard Shaw

I will be the first to proclaim that a ship cannot function effectively- even safely- unless each crewmember is part of an effective team; anybody who claims otherwise is delusional or neurotic.  The requirement that the Master, officers and crew gel as a unit increases with every passing day. Ships and their gear get  more complex, MIS systems and regulations more elaborate and complements increasingly threadbare: if everybody doesn’t hang together they will probably hang separately.

There is, also, no satisfaction greater than the one a Master gets when the ship runs like a well oiled machine, with every crewmember anticipating the next operation and performing it almost before he is ordered to do so. This is especially gratifying when one is calling a port a day and when everybody is stretched to their mental and physical limits all the time.

I will also confess that the term “Team Spirit”, especially when uttered by a management type with an evangelical gleam in his eye, often grates in my ears like the sound of a broken piece of chalk on a cracked blackboard. This is because that term is used too often to straitjacket somebody into conformity or to imply that a person that rocks the boat is undesirable. At sea and in shipmanagement, the message sent out is that such a crewmember is not kosher.

I beg to differ. For one, the world of seafaring has traditionally-even typically- been one for iconoclasts; hell, even the choice of profession indicates a nonconformist mindset. Then, the nature of contractual employment furthers an attitude, in both the sailor as well as the shipowner, that there is no real long term team beyond the one on the present ship. Much as managers would like to ensure a sense of belonging with the company and essentially gain permanent employees on contractual wages, everybody knows that a sailor not being recalled for the next contract will usually not even merit a phone call to him.  What team, then, besides the shipboard one?

There are other, more practical, reasons for my objection to the misuse of the term that is perverted ashore as much as it is afloat and across industries too: suggesting that conformity is good kills initiative, out of the box thinking and promotes a desire not to stand out and instead continue to be part of the herd. This is actually detrimental to the quick and intuitive thinking required in the innumerable operations performed at sea today. At a time when an escalating number of significant tasks are being performed by individual crewmembers with little or no supervision, this can be counterproductive: how often do we see officers and crew scared to take the initiative simply because they are unduly concerned about what their seniors will think of them?

Unfortunately, many managers think of an individualistic personality as one that is not really desirable. He is not a team player, they say. What they actually mean is that they do not like such a person because he will probably be a no nonsense type, not too docile and therefore not easily exploitable. He has to be handled with more care than others are: he can be a ‘troublemaker’ (another one of those words that imply everything and mean nothing.)

Managers should realise, instead, that although what they fear may have some basis to it on a stray occasion, such a seaman is generally more likely to be efficient, professional and a leader. Critically, he is also more likely to have professional pride. I say critically because any seafarer, whether an officer or a rating, works best when he works for his professional pride.  A lower level of performance is enough for him to retain his job, but the chances are higher that this kind of personality- not a team player by any conventional account- will perform far beyond average because he is proud of his professionalism. The team player will usually conform to mediocrity instead, like most people.

I like nonconformists for another reason: they are more colourful and make for shipmates that are more interesting.  They have different points of view, both in work related stuff and otherwise, and are not hesitant to put their views forward. As a Master, I relished the idea of us finding better ways of doing the same things: a poor team player has usually helped me make better judgements; a good team player has usually just agreed with me.

That is because a bad team player, as the term is understood today, is not a yes man, thank God. Yes men give me ulcers.