Individual Contributor Syndrome

If you have too many awesome people, it could ruin your team.

First, a quick self-diagnosis. I’m going to describe a scenario to you that involves a hypothetical person, and then I’ll ask you a question about that person. Ready? Here we go:

You are the Chief Revenue Officer of a mid-stage startup. Ten salespeople and four marketers report up to you, and your team is entirely evaluated on hard performance: the marketers are evaluated on leads generated per dollar and conversion rate while the salespeople are evaluated on total sales closed and total dollars won. Everyone works directly on those tasks. One day, you get a new enablement support specialist on your team, Sam. Sam does quality analysis, liaises with the product teams, trains & coaches, and performs a variety of other activities. Six months after Sam joins the team, leads per dollar have improved by 40%, conversion has improved by 30%, closed deals have increased by 15% and the average dollar amount per sale has improved by 50%. However, Sam does not directly generate a single lead or close a single client.

Here’s the question: Is Sam valuable?

You’re probably rolling your eyes and saying “Duh, the answer to that question is really obvious.” But I promise you, someone else is saying the same thing while believing that the “obvious” answer is the opposite one. I’ve met both people, and both are adamant about being correct.

Let me quickly dispel any illusion that I am neutral on this topic: I am not. Sam is valuable. Sam is incredibly valuable – in fact, Sam is the most valuable person on the team and if you don’t agree, then that’s an early warning sign of Individual Contributor Syndrome.

What is “ICS?” It’s a culture that can pervade certain teams, destroying them from within even as each individual member is amazing. In fact, every team member being amazing is often another symptom. Here are some signs that your culture has developed a case of ICS:

  • If everyone on the team works 20% more hours, you’re actually – at least in the short term – 20% more productive.
  • Any improvements in process are extremely difficult to implement.
  • Everyone is great at what they do, but no one could do what anyone else does. In fact, no one is even sure what anyone else does, only that they’re good at it.
  • People who train, coach, manage, or lead are viewed with suspicion or even derision, while people who “grind” to get things done are viewed with respect.
  • Everyone’s solution to every problem is to knuckle down and grind harder, not address root causes or improve things. If there’s a hole in the boat, the solution is to bail water faster, not to pull into port and fix the hole.
  • Everyone is extremely guarded and secretive about “how the sausage gets made.” Everyone knows their process is horrible and held together by grit and duct tape, so no one wants to let anyone else look under the hood. As a result, it’s extremely difficult to learn anything or train anyone new.
  • People are evaluated based on what they contribute directly, and everyone is extremely myopic in this evaluation. There’s no love for “the assist” in any capacity.

A culture like that is pure poison, even if – in the short term – it’s filled with people who are absolutely delivering. In fact, from the outside it can appear to be highly functional because everyone is delivering at a high level. The problems aren’t immediately apparent. When they boil over, however, it’s a disaster.

One of the biggest problems with ICS is that it can’t be solved by high performance. It can only be solved by the very thing it resists – effective team management. The high performers don’t even want to admit there’s a problem, but I can demonstrate with some pretty easy math why it is. Let’s look at our next hypothetical, but first: some axioms:

  1. We can assume it as a given that it’s possible for someone with really great team management skills, coaching ability, or even just a generally great attitude can improve a team’s performance by 5%. That’s an extremely conservative estimate; realistically people like this can often improve a team by 10, 20, or 30% especially in a leadership role or with the right support. But we don’t have to debate that – 5% should be uncontroversial.
  2. The reverse axiom: a toxic person can reduce a team’s total effectiveness by 5% easily. In reality, truly toxic people, especially in influential roles, can completely cripple a team and everyone knows it. So again, a 5% downgrade is uncontroversial.

Now, on to the next hypothetical:


Imagine two different sales teams, led by two different managers. Each manager is in charge of the hiring for their respective teams.

Manager A wants rock stars for her team, so she hires exclusively based on their past sales numbers. She doesn’t consider any other factors at all, just whether or not they were in the top tier of their prior organization. As a result, all ten people she hires are people who by default can produce $100,000 in revenue per month. However, they’re also all sharks and snakes – people who snipe deals, don’t share info, are unpleasant to work with and don’t manage process well. They’re Toxic High Performers.

Manager B wants team players, so she hires exclusively based on performance metrics linked to those things. She looks for coachability, attitude, and fastidiousness. She maximizes those values even over prior performance. As a result, all ten people she hires are people who by default can produce $50,000 in revenue per month. However, they also come together into an incredible team with a lot of cohesion and camaraderie, immediately sharing best practices, supporting each other, and improving the overall process. They’re a Team.

Team A has ten people that, nominally, could produce $100,000 each per month, for a total of $1,000,000/mo. But remember, they’re all reducing the team’s effectiveness by 5% each as they get in each other’s way, sabotage each other, lose progress to inefficient or sloppy processes, etc So that number is reduced by 50%, leading to a total revenue per month of only $500,000!

Team B has ten people that, nominally, could produce $50,000 each month, for a total of $500,000/mo. – which is already as much as Team A is actually delivering! But because of the healthy environment, cohesion, and effectiveness of the Team, they improve by 50% (5% per person) and end up over-delivering to the tune of $750,000/mo.!

Of course, it doesn’t stop there. The players on Team A are going to be furious, each of them earning a lower commission than they’re used to and all of them blaming everyone else. Absolutely nothing can be done to improve it; hiring more rock-star salespeople will only make the problem worse, no matter how good they might be at selling. And trying to hire the kind of people from Team B will also fail because those people won’t work in that environment for very long, if at all. Turnover will be rampant and soon the team will implode.


You’ve seen this happen, haven’t you? You’ve experienced this firsthand at least once, and you had some inkling of why, but you never did the math like this. Now you know.

I want to be quick to clarify something else: this applies even if everyone on Team A is very, very nice. I described them as “sharks and snakes,” but that’s only one way this can manifest. They can also just be individual-minded. Maybe they work super hard because they’re nice, but they still view problems as things to be solved with the sweat of their own brow instead of through better management and process.

Need an example? Imagine Mary, who gets handed off the first half of a project from her teammate. Mary is preparing to do her half, but as she looks over the work already there, she realizes it’s sloppy and full of errors. Mary doesn’t want to rock the boat and also realizes that it will be quicker to just fix the mistakes and redo the bad work herself than to go back to the teammate and ask for revisions, so she does so. Mary seems overly nice, right? But she’s still absolutely a contributor to ICS.

Okay, so what do you do about it?

Well, it depends on who “you” are. If you’re not necessarily the leader of an organization, your biggest duty here is to carefully evaluate whether any team you might be joining has terminal ICS and run the other way if it does.

But if you’re a leader and it’s your team that has this problem, you’ve got your work cut out for you. Let’s be clear here: if you want to eliminate ICS, you’re also going to have to get rid of some Toxic High Performers. You might end up having to dehire your top performer. Surprisingly enough, I usually see this happen most efficiently in sales teams – every seasoned sales leader can tell you about the time they had to axe their top seller because he or she was a monster that made everyone miserable. But those seasoned pros know that if you let your ICS metastasize it’s all over.

But besides personnel decisions, what else can you do? The key is to focus on the incentives, as it always is:

  1. Make sure people are recognized and rewarded as a team, and for contributions towards that team, not just for being awesome themselves. However you recognize and reward, make “the assist” worth more than “the goal.”
  2. Do not, under any circumstances, reward people for “grinding out” a problem unless they’re doing so with a process improvement plan already in place. Sometimes you need to bail water; you should never be doing it without a plan to get into port and fix the ship.
  3. Encourage people to manage their energy well, and give them the tools to do so. People often take the ICS way of doing things because it’s quicker/easier in the short term, at the expense of the long term. Try your best to give people plenty of ways to avoid that choice.

And most importantly: if you’re the leader, lead. Avoid any and all temptation to just “do it yourself.” Vince Lombardi never threw up his hands after a bad play and said “You know what’? Just give me the ball next time, I’ll run it in myself.”

Good luck out there, team. You’re all amazing, together.

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