I think this tops the list of misunderstood job qualification terms.
This is also another factor that depends both on the company and the individual.
There are many different ideas that make up a ‘good team player’. In essence, being a team player does not necessarily mean that that the team should “decide and work on things together”. To me, it really means how the person allows the team to work faster, and achieve results more quickly. Here are some specific aspects:
Does the person complemenet the entire team with what he brings to it
The ideal team is one where no skills of any person overlaps, with the team chair facilitating between all the specific perspectives. I.e. people in their specific places are all excellent in their own areas and are producing together. In case skills overlap, there is a chance that ideas or perspectives will conflict.
In the real world, skills often do overlap, but great ‘team players’ will not turn the overlaps into conflicts, but rather they will always focus on complementing the team with the skills that the team lacks.
Does the person waste time in winning small ego-centric battles
Some of the worst professionals I have met spend 80% of their workday challenging, reopening, running rhetorical arguments on, analysing or otherwise standing to conflict with other peoples’ ideas, decisions, work plans etc.
Being a team player does not mean that the team should constantly deliberate on options until one concensus is achieved for each small insignificant decision in the team.
So the right team players give everyone the freedom to decide how to do their own job, and do not stand at odds with anyone else even if they do wrong.
Instead, the team player would work with the other person in helping to fix the issue for the team in a non-intrusive manner.
Does the person know his specific place in the entire operational engine
Great team players know their company very well, and they know precisely why the company needs them, or for what responsibilities the company hired them.
They also understand how companies and teams will only be successful if they themselves work towards that success.
Non-team-players sit in a team and expect orders, and they do exactly what was asked — no more or less. They throw hissy arguments on decisions that can easily be left up to individuals and a good collaboration process.
Does the person try to fit in
Great teams become great friends — they go and make their own special group that gets together, reminisces on old times, wears shirts with each others faces on them, whatever your fancy.
The point is, great teams build their own sub-culture, and shared sense of experiences that they can have a laugh over later on. Great teams are great friends.
Good team players, again, do not look at work as a means of building a small empire of power and control. Instead, they try to learn about each other so that they can form a greater bond of trust between themselves.
I once met this person in a team who used to go around berating others like ‘Oh have you seen <person name>… can you honestly tell me if he can ever do anything worthwhile for this company?’ The funny thing was, quite often the people he pointed to had patents and research publications under their belts — he never tried to find out who he was talking about.
The company’s role.
Ofcourse, a lot of this depends on how much the company itself understands the value of teams.
Sometimes the company itself does not encourage getting to know their employees research interests, or project ideas.
Sometimes ‘fitting in’ to a company’s sub-culture means stooping low enough that you accept day-to-day operations full of randomness and lack of direction (to the point of expoitation) and politics.
Sometimes the company does not have well-understood guidelines for the structure of teams or functional units, and the company operations for teams are too nervous to allow for the formation of bonds.
I think ultimately both the employee and the company should work with each other with a genuine desire to create more efficient teams with lower overheads (that come from a deep sense of understanding of one another).
If they do, both will benefit.