Be Your Own “Team Player”

Cooperation is a wonderful thing when it goes well. Coordinated efforts towards a common good can make the hardest of tasks seem so much easier. Whether it’s in your personal life, while a disaster could be happening, or for something as simple as just managing a party, coordination is an essential part of our existence.

Which is exactly why work is one of the worst places to apply this concept.

When you go to work your managers always want you to be a “team player”. They’ll always emphasize things like “a team of associates” or they might show you “instructional videos” (propaganda) of how to best be a team player. This usually consists of sacrificing your own interests or needs (regardless of their importance) to the collective good.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no egoist and I don’t think this is always a bad thing, but it’s also a thing I’m generally pretty skeptical about. And especially when it’s carried out from the top down. There’s just something disquieting about the boss telling you what’s best for everyone based on the corporate values you may or may not agree with. And to make matters worse your boss then projects these values on to others who may or may not agree with the corporate culture either.

In any case, being a team player can look like: Taking on extra hours because someone suddenly called out, listening to your manager even when you think they’re woefully inadequate at their job, giving your hours to someone else who the managers decide need it more. Sometimes it can look like suddenly going from 15-20 hours to almost 30 hours a week.

That last bit has been happening to one of my co-workers in the wake of the store I’m working at losing so many employees. Partially that’s due to folks feeling underpaid but more than a few people have also left because of the management changes and who people liked and (now) don’t like for managers.

Of course, none of this has actually changed Business As Usual. The shitty managers are still shitty and they’re not going to put 2 and 2 together that maybe they’re the problem to some extent. Instead, the managers in question have largely remained the same (we’ve had one new great manager but they were already working here before as a regular worker) and so have their beliefs about how best to run the store and treat the employees (read: with an iron first).

In situations like this it remains important to remember that while there’s power in movement, coordination helps. All of these employees left and some have said privately (or perhaps even semi-publicly at work) that management and the way(s) in which they were being treated was a factor. But in retail this is all so utterly normalized that people leave and that there’s a quick turn around. People like me, people who have been there for almost a year (ugh) are the anomaly.

Cultures like this foster a sort of workaholic version of the “team player” since the team itself gets smaller and smaller that means more weight must be put on someone. It doesn’t, of course, mean that corporate (or the people in your store even) have to do much different. As I said, big turnover in retail is expected because it can be exhausting and frustrating to work with people in a sales environment. I happen to be blessed with a lot of patience and can sneak slacking off through the books I bring into work. But not everyone has those luxuries.

I also happen to be passing (in that people think I’m a cisgender guy almost all of the time), white and (presumed) straight. So I’ve got those advantages of not being harassed for almost anything…though I do have to hear creepy old white dudes make comments to my co-workers sometimes or hear how men talk about women because they think they can do that sort of thing with me.

In those cases being a “team player” means being complicit in things like rape culture and patriarchal norms. And due to the iron law of emotional labor it’s difficult to combat these toxic norms without losing my job in the process.

At any rate, the team player motif has been played out to death in retail (and beyond) by now. My ideal is that we’re all our own team players. We all try to look out for our own interests and put that first. If that means shortchanging the company you work for then consider what they’re willing to put up with. My co-worker has never asked for fewer hours even though I know they want to work less, not more. But at the same time they also know that asking for fewer hours (which they’ve mentioned but not pushed for as far as I understand the situation) could result in disciplinary action.

And that’s the other side of the coin for team building: Discipline.

Cutting my co-workers hours would be easier now since we have two new employees but my managers could also give this co-worker less hours than they want. In this way the employee is still getting fewer hours but they’re also being implicitly punished for having dared consider their own needs ahead of the company.

Even my manager who I think is (relatively) great basically had the refrain of, “Yeah, I get that they need to recharge and we’re working them a lot but look, we just don’t have a lot of people right now. We really need them.” And sure, I get that. But I also think it speaks volumes when we can’t let people prioritize their own time and mental health.

Furthering our own interests by using the individual tools we have (such as slacking off) are invaluable and sorely needed in the work-space but radical unions can also have a place for worker struggles from time to time. I’m not sure how to draw those lines (and I’m no labor organizer) but I think that they’re there and worth noting, for what it’s worth.

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