Team of leaders, not leader of teams

It typically takes more than individual excellence to achieve team goals. Our culture is quick to celebrate a named individual as a representative of a team; the Oscar goes to the director for Best Picture, the driver collects the trophy on behalf of the F1 team and fame tends to favour the front-person over the chorus. Yet if modern teams are to succeed in an ever more competitive environment, what makes the soloist willing to surrender to the anonymity of a team?

Doing good work?

Deep-down, I suspect everyone has a sense of whether they’re doing good work or not. When I am, when I have a chance to work hard and achieve something, when I’m doing something that’s valuable to the business, I feel lifted. It’s not easy, it often requires discipline and it’s not like the summit-reaching joy fills every minute of the ascent, but I like what I do. I always thought that meant I like the activities I undertake for work. So when people say “you’re an X? Do you enjoy it?” I thought the question was specific: do you like doing the sort of things that go with being an X?

Task != job satisfaction

What I’m realising now is that liking what I do has comparatively little to do with the activities. I’ve enjoyed washing up, or cleaning tables because the context of the task gave me what I needed to enjoy it. Sometimes I do tasks that I actively don’t like, yet the experience is one I would willing repeat if the context is there to keep me motivated.

Three Cs

Dan Pink talks about Mastery, Autonomy, Purpose. Of course he’s right. My list is different, possibly derivative, but handily alliterative.

Clarity: the task needs to be well-defined and I need to understand it. Ambiguity and confusion suck the life out of a job. I’ve written about VUCA before and it’s impact on DevOps cultures. Complexity is fine. You work through it, systematically, patiently, progressively. Volatility is fine so long as it’s not insane - if the environment isn’t stable enough to know that the task will add value, then pair down the task until it will.

Context: nothing exists in a vacuum, possibly except Water Bears. If I’m working on something, I need to get how it’s plugged into the whole. If I’m working for an organisation, I need to feel part of that. I should be behind its goals. My values need to intersect with my colleagues’, at least for the stuff we do together at work.

Comfort: hmm, contentious. This isn’t about sofas or corporate massages. Neither is it about the provision of middle-class anaesthetics (beer fridge, coffee machine, sugary or fatty food) in the workplace. This is about respite. If I’m doing something hard - often synonymous with something valuable I’m afraid - then to keep going at that hard thing beyond the first 100m sprint, I need respite. I need a tent and a thermos to return to after the slog up the mountain.

Understanding Comfort

Comfort is by nature personal. It might be reassurance that I’m doing a good job, it might be signals that I’m appreciated, it might be celebrations of team victories.

Some people take comfort from a regular grilling or a confrontational exchange. Others love or hate team building events. Some people find comfort from being out of the office, some don’t like to be away from their desks.

Comfort varies from person to person. A good manager takes the time to understand the people in her or his team, to know how to set them up for the climb ahead and how to comfort them when they come back down. Comfort is the surface-level affirmation, whatever it looks like, that allows me to assuage the parts of myself that didn’t want to go up the mountain in the first place.

Make up your mind

No matter how disciplined I am, no matter how well equipped, rested or prepared, some part of me won’t want to do the hard thing. Some small part is going to want to stay in bed on Monday morning, sit on the sofa or watch TV. However you personify that part, for most of us it’s real. Ignore it at your peril.

As a manager, the challenge is to keep the team going when everyone’s fed up on the journey up the mountain. Be clear where you’re going, help each and every one of us understand how our contribution matters, create moments of respite.

Celebrate [small] victories

The more you can celebrate the victories, the more likely you’ll get honest reviews of the defeats. Trying to enjoy one, while whitewash the other creates a dissonance in the team. Effective reviews surface creative solutions to try - for really it’s all about test-and-learn experiments - that increase efficacy.

With a bit of luck, we forget the hard bits. It’s the laughter and connection that great teams hang on to, but their walls are adorned with trophies and team selfies that remind them that there’s a summit to the next adventure as there was to the last.

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