I’ve written a lot about competition and games on here. But something I haven’t touched on very much is the team element of competition.
One of the benefits of having children play games at a young age is that it (hopefully) teaches them cooperation. Where we integrate our efforts with other people to achieve things in the face of adversity, and et cetera. Life is, for the most part, a team sport. So that’s pretty valuable. Some people are team players, some “don’t play well with others.” We can achieve more with others than we can on our own, and sometimes when we synergize with others it’s multiplicative, and even more gets done. That’s the power of teamwork.
You also can form long-lasting friendships with teammates, and those relationships can reach out into the real world, and change you forever. Teammates can shape your attitudes and behaviors as much as family or co-workers. The fact that I haven’t written much about team stuff, until this point, is rather unfortunate.
This post is prompted by the fact that I played a League of Legends match. The game is normally played in a 5v5 format, and the most common method of play, Solo Queue, matches you with teammates who share a similar rating. You can queue up with a friend, so it will be you and four strangers, or you, a friend, and three strangers.
And sometimes your teammates let you down in the worst of ways. Sometimes they demand to play a certain role, and threaten to lose on purpose if you don’t do what they want. And then they fail miserably and rage-quit, leaving you to play 4v5. Or you might get somebody who plays extremely well, but harasses all of his teammates for making errors and not being as good. You might get people who pick weaker characters and use strange item-builds, and so they barely function as a member of the team. Sometimes they do well, but then get overconfident and make mistakes as the match goes on, causing you to throw away your lead and lose the game. Any number of things can go wrong. Then again, sometimes the person failing or letting everybody down is you. That happens occasionally, though surely it’s a rarity for the wonderfully intelligent and capable people reading this.
This particular match stood out to me because it was one of my best games ever, and I lost. I played extremely well, but it wasn’t enough. My teammates made big costly mistakes and spent most of the game blaming each other; it was so bad that they actually got attacked by enemies while typing to each other and didn’t even notice. They tried to forfeit halfway through, and they harassed each other verbally and threatened to quit constantly. Despite playing extremely well for my level, I lost a winnable game.
It made me think about teamwork, and ask myself questions like, “what was I supposed to do, how am I supposed to win this,” and so on. The main highlight of this post is to talk about functioning in a team environment, and how you should mentally approach team games. It’s also done from the perspective that you are trying to win and you don’t have very good teammates. Because obviously, if you have great teammates, you will tend to win a lot, and things will be nice. There’s not much point writing about that. So let’s look at the flip-side, where you are the best player on your team, and you are trying to drag them kicking and screaming across the finish line.
After all, Sturgeon's Revelation accurately notes that 90% of everything is crap, and that means your teammates won’t always be superstars (it also means you might be garbage too, but I’ll discuss that another time). So let’s talk about what to do.
First, To Win Team Games, Focus On Yourself
First off, because I have mostly played SSBM, and because I put most of my energy into singles play, I come at these games from a self-centered (for better and for worse) attitude. However, I’ve also worked in busy restaurants and have some attitudes about teamwork and cooperation that I developed there, which I try to apply in League of Legends. Funnily enough, that’s kind of the opposite of how it’s supposed to go, where you take lessons from games and translate them to real life. But whatever.
Number one lesson is that you can almost always do your job better. It’s just about impossible to play legitimately perfectly, and as long as you could have done your job better, then you should focus on making that a reality.
Let’s say (in a purely hypothetical example that totally never happened to me), you’re working with a spoiled high-school student, and the manager tells her to mop up a two year old’s puke and she looks at you and says, “well, I’m not doing that, that’s gross.” It’s the middle of the lunch rush, and you already have a job to do. But somebody needs to clean up the baby-puke, and apparently it’s not going to be her. You can stop what you’re doing, and you can lecture her about how it doesn’t matter if it’s gross, it’s her damn job and people are waiting on her. That’s what you want to do, very badly, because Nicole really needs to be put in her place. Again, this is purely hypothetical.
But you also know that the thing needs doing, and time spent yelling at Nicole is time spent not getting the job done. And maybe you think to yourself, “if I was better and more efficient at what I did, I could do this and get my other job done too.” Because, let’s pretend the situation is even busier and more frustrating, and Nicole actually isn’t around to do the job, and it becomes your responsibility. Can you be good enough at what you do to handle it?
So you ask yourself a question: are you going to focus on getting the job done, or admonishing Nicole out of principle? Because in this situation, she really should be getting the mop. That’s what a good co-worker would do, and she is not being one. Do you let her know? Or do you focus on how you can kick even more ass at what you do, so that even when you’re stuck with Nicole (or a NiClone of her), the job can still get done?
When it’s crunch time, I try to see what I can do to make it possible. Because, quite honestly, I don’t care about Nicole. I care about my performance, and I care about maximizing it. And when there is time to convince the manager to give Nicole an attitude adjustment and a pink-slip, it will happen, but for now, work needs doing. I can be a better [guy who does this job], and if I’m that good, her behavior doesn’t matter and won’t negatively impact my performance or the performance of my team.
One of my biggest talking-points on this blog is “process over results.” But the truth of reality is, you don’t get the luxury to emphasize the process every time. Sometimes you need results right this second. It might be a legitimate survival issue, or it might be something not so severe, but pretty serious (like keeping yourself in business and employed). Process tells me that I need to have a conversation with my co-worker about doing her job better to improve the function of the team. In the long run, it’s better. I don’t want her learning the lesson, “if I complain, somebody will do my job.” But results tells me, “get this **** done now, because a full restaurant of people is waiting.”
An actual game-related example: let’s say your goalie lets in a kick at the last second in a very amateurish way, and the game turns out to be a draw rather than a victory. Do you go and let him know he’s worse than useless? Or do you remember the time you had an opportunity to score, but your balance was off and you flubbed the kick, and you could have that extra point in your pocket. Or how you could have been a bit sharper in controlling the flow of the game because of a time you lost ball control.
Sometimes a teammate makes a mistake that costs you the game, but it’s also possible that mistake wouldn’t have cost you the game if you hadn’t made a different one earlier. Just because their error is in the spotlight doesn’t mean it’s actually the most costly. There is something about this, especially when you have played particularly well, that is difficult to do. Because you may be pissed. You played exceptionally and if you’d had a teammate that didn’t let you down, you could have won. You deserve to be winning for playing so well. Sure, you could have done more, but at what point does that become your fault? Why can it be your fault for not being perfect?
For starters, it’s not always about fault. Are you fine with dying in a car crash when it’s somebody else’s fault, if you might have been able to prevent it by being more watchful? If you want to be a responsible and successful player, it’s always partially your fault. If you could have done better to tip the scales, that should be all that matters to you. Because you are not your teammate. You can replace a teammate. You can’t replace yourself, except with the better, improved version of yourself in the future. You make mistakes, even if they’re tiny ones. Focus on eradicating them.
If that sounds crappy, it kind of is. But imagine what happens when you end up on a team full of people who think like that.
Second Point: Doing More Than Your Job
Let’s go back to the restaurant. Let us say that somebody is currently struggling; the dishwashing machine is broken, for instance, and the dishwasher is keeping up with a giant load of work despite having no machinated assistance. You are a bus-boy, and you have a few moments because all the tables are currently clean. Do you go back and give him a hand, or do you take a few minutes to breathe? The tables, after all, are only clean because you worked so hard. Do you say, “well, it’s not my job to do dishes, and I’m not responsible for that?” Or do you consider your “job” to be ensuring the successful performance of your team?
The thing is, if you really care about winning, you will try and ensure that your team wins. Sometimes that means doing another person’s job when they can’t. If your goal is for your restaurant to have great reviews and constant return business and a favorable reputation, then you will not say, “well this is your job, I sure as hell ain’t doin’ it.” You save on wasted apostrophes and you help out.
There is definitely something to be said for delegation and role assignment. It’s important that you know who is covering what; that way three people don’t run to clean the same table while there is a giant mess in the bathroom. A cook shouldn’t dash off to mop up the bathroom every time it looks like somebody is behind on their tasks.
But that’s the thing; when you can assist, what do you do? Do you put your hands on your hips and say, “does that look like it’s my job?” Or do you try and ensure that your team, as a unit, reaches the goal?
The ultimate job of every person on a team is doing whatever they can to enable the team’s victory. That is your job.
Third Point: Don’t Care About Winning When You’re On A Team
Contradiction! You’re supposed to be doing everything you can to make sure your team wins! How are you supposed to not care at the same time?
Well, here’s how it goes. You are trying to enable victory for your team by whatever means you can. Ideally, your teammates are as well. But there are people on the other team trying to do the same thing! And it’s possible that, despite your herculean efforts, there are a few other highly competent opponents stymying you.
The thing is, you cannot guarantee how good the opponent will be. You can’t guarantee your teammates’ performance. If you look at a game like League of Legends, in a 5v5 match, that means you are responsible for a mere ten percent of the performance in the game! You can’t care about winning team games any more than you can care about winning the lottery, because from the perspective of your ability to control the outcome, team games are close enough to chance-based that emotionally investing yourself in victory is ridiculous.
(Side note: if you want to be picky, you might ask about what happens when a superstar plays with total scrubs, and has a huge impact on the game’s outcome; surely that counts for more than 10%. Let’s say that each player can potentially contribute 10% of the game’s impact, in a 5v5. Playing poorly or making errors that help the enemy team are therefore less than 10%; that means that comparitively, players can contribute more or less than one another.)
You must emotionally invest yourself in one thing, and one thing only: how well did you serve your team. If you serve your team at absolute peak capacity, and you still don’t win, what do you do? How do you react when you have done absolutely everything, you have literally succeeded in every conceivable way, and you still can’t bring your team to victory on your own?
First things first, don’t despair. Be proud that you have taken all the steps to victory. Emotionally invest in yourself as a person who did everything you could, even trying to shoulder the burdens of various teammates who refused to carry their own weight. Be proud that you did everything you could to be that person, because that’s the only thing you can truly control.
Fourth Point: Guidance, Teaching, and Criticism
You can influence your teammates by being a good leader, or teacher, or cheerleader, or whatever. You can also influence them negatively. Which do you want to be?
When trying to get your teammates to play better, it depends a bit on the person you’re talking to. Some people are incapable of receiving criticism, and if you are truly stuck with them, then you have to trick them into improving. I’m not much of a manipulator so I can’t say for certain how that might happen. But I do know that most people don’t respond well to, “you’re an idiot, stop failing.”
This is the thing; no matter how much you want to embrace the self-righteous fury of the team-carrying martyr and yell at your teammates, it doesn’t actually help you in any way. It doesn’t actually make you feel better, because it usually just sparks an argument that enrages you further. It rarely makes your teammate play better (sometimes they play worse to spite you). Raging and venting are almost always done to emotionally secure yourself as somebody who should have been winning. You would have won, but the universe is unfairly saddling you with a garbage teammate. As long as you can convince yourself that you deserve better, that the loss is not your fault, then you can feel okay about losing. So you rant and rave, and actually make the odds of victory go down in the process, but that’s okay.
Let’s get a few things out of the way before I go on.
Some people are stubborn, unreasonable, and bad at what they do. They refuse to change. They will fail and blame you for it, no matter how wrong they are. They will make terrible decisions and try to shift all blame onto you. Sometimes they will just lie and convince others that you screwed up. Some people suck. It’s a sad and vexing fact of life. They will not listen to your reasonable, politely worded criticisms. They will fall down and throw temper tantrums in the mud, and try to drag you down with them, attacking everything you do in the name of spite and stupidity.
Here’s the thing though: it is, logically speaking, always worth more to communicate without abuse and rage. No matter how bad or unreasonable the other person. If they’re the type to listen to polite criticisms, then abuse will not get through and may backfire. If they’re the sort who won’t listen no matter what, then abuse is as pointless as sweet-talking and you should have said nothing. When possible, rather than stand and try to fight with these kinds of people, you should do what you can to ignore them and get away from them; you are almost never able to win that fight.
One of my teammates, in the game that sparked this post, was incredibly abusive of everybody that made an error. I told him to spend more time playing and less time typing, and said “no, they need to know how bad they are.” Well? What good is that doing you? They clearly aren’t listening, and even if they would have listened before, they won’t now, because they don’t like you. You’re not achieving your goal (victory).
Just as, in a game, you want to pick options that have solid odds of leading to victory, you want to communicate with others in a way that has high odds of making it through. Sugar-coating everything and talking to them like they are five years old is also a poor method, because it suggests to them that their mistakes don’t matter. “Oh it’s okay dear don’t you worry about that just try a little harder next time please :) :) :).” Blegh. I like to be encouraging but that sounds just awful.
You can state things in a kindly manner. You can be rude. You can be neutral, or authoritative, or whatever. If you are trying to increase the odds that others will listen to you, you want to pick a tone or attitude that has good odds of getting through. Sometimes that means “get somebody else to say it.” Sometimes it means, “hey buddy, I know it’s tough, but try and focus on this.” Sometimes it’s simple as “do X, not Y.” Judge the moment if you’re going to guide or criticize.
Final Point: It Bears Repeating…
In a team game, your “job” is this: enable victory for your team however you can. That means that everything you do must answer a question: does this thing I’m doing increase the odds of my teammates’ success? Their success is your success; there’s no point to hiding and doing something useless or unhelpful, but doing it perfectly just so you can say, “hey, I didn’t screw up, not my fault.” Do more. Reach for more. Obsess over your own performance, through the lens of being the greatest possible teammate. This kind of self-centeredness is how you help others win when they are on your team. Ignore everything you can’t control or influence, and focus purely on maximizing your own contributions at all times.
Thanks for reading. I will try and write a bit more about team stuff in the near future.