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Taking One For the Team Could Get You Voted Off the Team

If you've seen the movie "Rudy" you know it's the true story of Dan Ruettiger, a working-class kid with zero athletic skill who works hard to become a walk-on tackling dummy for the Notre Dame football team.

Rudy proceeds to get the shit beat out of him every day at practice but he doesn't seem to mind. In fact, he tells his teammates that if he doesn't get the crap beaten of him at every opportunity he's not helping them get ready for next week's game. His selfless, eager attitude eventually inspires his NFL-bound teammates, who lobby the coach to put Rudy in at the end of the big game with Georgia Tech. Coach puts Rudy in reluctantly and Rudy's so hyped up on adrenaline and dreams that he sacks Georgia Tech's quarterback with only a few seconds left on the clock. It's like watching the Taco Bell dog chase down a Great Dane. He's so little! Who's the wild man now!?

The crowd goes wild and Rudy's teammates carry our everyman-in-a-helmet out of the stadium on their shoulders. End of film. Oh, and we learn at the end that Rudy earned a Notre Dame degree and opened the door for his five younger brothers to earn college degrees too...yada, yada, yada...but did you see that quarterback sack? He's so little! Anyway, it's a great gridiron movie that will leave you crying in your popcorn over things that have nothing to do with football.

But a new study entitled "The Desire to Expel Unselfish Members From the Group" in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reveals that in real life Rudy's co-workers wouldn't carry him out of the office on their shoulders unless it's to throw him head first into a trash can.

In the study, Washington State University researchers discovered that people dislike team members who contribute a lot but take very little from the group in the same way they dislike selfish team members who take a lot but contribute little to the group. In other words, people will hate the eager, selfless team member who's all give and no take as much as they'll hate the selfish lazy ass team member who's all take and no give. In fact, they may dislike the selfless, overly-contributing teammate even more than the most selfish person: the researchers found the "Rudy" on the team would get voted off the island first if his teammates were given the chance. Ouch.

So what gives here, and what does it mean for the average workplace? Well, the researchers have a few theories as to why overly-contributing Rudy types are so loathed by their teammates. First, this kind of employee tends to make the others on the team feel somehow inferior, even though they're doing just fine in the grand scheme of things. This employee also creates suspicion in co-workers' minds. One expects a selfish, non-contributing co-worker to be a selfish slack-ass, but someone who contributes more than is expected without taking his or her fair share in return throws them for a loop. What kind of a person does this? One who can't be trusted fully and probably has ulterior motives, that's who.

The "Office Rudy" is also breaking an an unwritten agreement between employees: we'll all work hard, but equally hard. So the other team members come to resent Office Rudy for messing up the status quo by forcing them to step it up and do things bigger, better, faster. It's like that scene from the movie where Rudy's teammate Jim begs him to dial it down a notch at practice. I can't find the video clip but here's the dialogue:
Rudy: Hey, Jim.

Jim: Your bullshit out there makes us look bad, so dial it down a notch.

Rudy: Dial it down?

Jim: Everybody's sick and tired of hearing, "Put out more like Ruettiger." What do you get out of getting your head kicked in? It's not worth it, you know?

Now put this "dialing down" in the context of today's workplace where everyone is afraid of losing his or her job. When some people are afraid of getting laid off, what do they do? They step it up. Do more than the minimum. Try to stand out from their team members by contributing way more time, effort and attention than is expected.

But if this research holds true, these employees could be taking a risk with their teammates. They'd better hope the employer isn't a fan of 360-degree performance reviews that include their co-workers' input or they could be in a bit of trouble come layoff time. Hmm, Jane contributes so much but her teammates hint at loathing her for some reason in their performance reviews, the boss will think. The boss might secretly start to wonder if Jane is all she's cracked up to be, and whether or not she's more of a liability than an asset to the team. Jane might not get fired this time around but she's probably on double-secret probation, if you get my drift.

As with everything else, maybe moderation is the key. Don't under-contribute on the job but don't overdo it, either. Always take your fair share in a team setting too, because no one likes an "oh, that's okay, you take my share because it helps the team" type of martyr. It's like Mom saying, "Oh, you go ahead and have the last piece of pie. My hips don't really need it." Ugh! Whether or not she meant to, Mom has just made it nearly impossible to enjoy that piece of pie without feeling like a selfish pig for eating it -- not to mention that every bite backs up (no pun intended) her argument of having a little bit too much junk in the trunk.

In the same way, the teammates of an overly-contributing employee don't want to feel guilty for keeping their just rewards. Office Rudy's "put me in coach!" attitude adds insult to injury. Not only is this person making them step it up, he's a total martyr! He reminds them of that annoying kid in fifth grade who always raised her hand yelling, "Pick me! Pick meeeeeeeee!" and then got picked. It's the worst of both worlds for these co-workers, who wish Office Rudy would just dial it down a few notches.

It's a good idea to find the right balance between giving, taking and doing as a team member, but it could be even more important in today's stressed-out workplaces. You could be glad you did. Besides, the view from the inside of a trash can leaves something to be desired and the smell is terrible.


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