Great people make amazing teams, and vice versa

  • by Rudolf Höhn
  • 2 November 2021 · 9 minutes

The other day I was talking with a friend who works in IT, in one of those non-digital native industries. We were discussing our jobs, and at some point, my friend casually mentioned that he had to buy some office supplies because there were none left. He mentioned this is a recurring problem his coworkers are often complaining about. I asked if he could place an order for the whole floor to solve the problem for everyone. His answer “too complicated”. I asked if he could escalate the issue, his answer “too complicated”. I asked if he would at least expense the purchase, again “too complicated”. I asked why not take action to change what sounds like an awful setup. You can guess the answer.

People receive monetary compensation for the precious time they give their employers. But monetary compensation alone is not enough, companies must go beyond this and offer more. A non-exhaustive list:

  • a place to grow
  • a place to meet new & interesting persons
  • a place to learn and develop towards new challenges
  • a place where barriers are removed as possible to make a place where work is enjoyable & safe
  • a place where one can express themselves & their ideas
  • a place where new ways of working are encouraged
  • a place where one listens and shares.

But how does a company become such a place? I will share what I think are the key aspects a company needs to focus on to create such a great environment. Spoiler alert: it is not about yoga classes and free meals.

Disclaimer: This article is being written in the context of a tech company in the services industry, some ideas and comments are bound to this sector. That being said, hopefully, some parts will inspire you to try new things in your team or company. All attempts to make work a better place should be encouraged. If you are interested in reading more scientific work around this topic, search for “employee engagement”. You will find plenty of research on its impact on organizations.

A healthy culture is important

Why does it matter that your team feels good? You might have heard that great teams, i.e. made of people that are engaged, are more innovative and more performant. And they are also happier. This should already be more than enough to convince you to invest in your teams, in your people.

One important aspect of a healthy culture organization is that it should come from everyone. Management’s job is to bring in people that will build and maintain the culture, setting up policies and rules from where the culture can rise from. Behavior and actions from the management set the tone of the culture.

What should you be aiming for?

A workplace where people enjoy working is not easy to build, many factors need to be in place. Nonetheless, there are important characteristics such as trust, care and ownership that can be used as proxies to get a sense of how good or bad you are doing. In addition to these, behaving in an exemplary manner, managing hiring properly and choosing the right leaders are just as important. Let’s take a look together.

Trust


Do you trust your colleagues?

Trust is the core of everything. Trust helps remove barriers. You are much faster working with colleagues you trust than with those you don’t.
Regardless of the structure, trust is the glue in teams and it is at every level, between coworkers, between levels, roles, e.g. one trusts people with the decision power to do the right thing, even when they don’t have all of the answers. Trusting that if a situation requires it, bad people will be let go.

Trust is like a new currency, it is part of the compensation: one could say “we offer you a salary, a bonus if we do well, but also trust, a trusted environment, a culture based on trust, and a team where people nourish and maintain trust.

There are many ways to experience trust. One thing is to show your weaknesses, but also show your strengths so that others can rely on you as you rely on them. Another example is when receiving feedback, you know it has been thought through, and even if the message is not well delivered, you trust their intentions are good and meant to help.

 

Ownership and Engagement


Fix problems as soon as you see them, don’t let them sink.

The company is nothing more than the team. A company without the people is just a name in a register, a postbox. People are the company. Being able to participate in every aspect of the organization; vision, hiring, events planning, office setup, staffing, etc. will help people feel engaged in the company.

Taking initiative to improve something means you are engaged in the team’s success. Thus, the company must maintain ways for one to innovate, to try and fail, to drive improvements today that make the place better than it was yesterday.

Ahead of a task that needs to be done, you have two choices; either you do it or you don’t. You must know what you can and cannot do. And once you choose to do it, you own it. You are the one that needs to make sure it is done.

Care


If one cares, one will do their best.

Care can be observed in multiple places. You care that your team member has achieved a success. You care that your team member is sick today, thus you cover for them. You care about the team. You care about the projects, about the organization.

Everyone is different. Empathy and trust are keys to healthy organizations. Always take time to listen. Life is difficult and full of uncertainty, it is difficult to deal with bad news or bad moments so make sure before you judge a situation to think twice about the context. Put yourself in the other’s shoes.

Working is one-third of your day, why wouldn’t you care about it?

No handbook about being Human


Behaviour is contagious — the good, and the bad.

Trust your gut about doing the right thing. There will be situations where you will be able to take advantage of someone else. Remember it is always a bad choice. Despite this, you still experience it in too many places; people being mean to others.

One example of bad behavior: “this should have been my idea”. You might be jealous, or you don’t feel confident enough about yourself. Nevertheless, the team’s goal is to have the best solution. Every. Single. Time. Of course, it won’t always come from the same person. This is why we work in teams, i.e. different people, more brains on a problem.

Be nice, it is so easy.

Hiring


Culture is people.

Bringing new people into your organization is not an easy thing to do, every time you do, you take a risk. The goal is to minimize that risk. Hiring is an important part of the company. Look inside your company, if it works well, or if it doesn’t, you have real examples of different mindsets and skills. Identify what, actually who, is missing.

You need team members you can rely on, who are taking care of each other, not leaving anyone behind. Hire people that care, that own their job, that are motivated with a “can do” attitude. Mentalities like “I’m too lazy to figure it out myself” or “I don’t want to do it, let’s ping someone else” will deteriorate your culture and overall company.

Also, think about the way new-joiners perceive the organization compared to more established team members. It will help highlight potential issues as well as changes in priorities and perception. New joiners need training and time but their external view points and fresh set of eyes are key in continuing to develop both your hiring process as well as the company . Embrace feedback from all employees, it is not something that should be taken lightly.

Lastly, onboarding is a crucial moment. A simple onboarding is hard to plan, make sure to not overload new-joiners. A great onboarding will reduce mistakes from miscommunications or wrong assumptions.

Leading


From “hear & see”, to “listen & observe”

A leader is not a manager. Everyone should be a leader. Not necessarily managing others, measuring performance or managing a project. But one can lead to a better way of doing morning stand-ups, lead to a better way of hiring people. Lead and showcase new technologies, a new way of organizing work. Lead to build a healthy culture.

As a team leader, you give your team what it needs. You make sure your team has all of the cards in hand to work properly. They need to know you have their back, you are a shield. Additionally, you are also a facilitator: observing and storing as much information as possible, you become the information hub. It also means that you will be the recipient of feedback from stakeholders. Make sure to share successes and congratulations to the team on their work.

As a team leader, you give as much as you receive. It is rewarding to witness other people grow, achieve their goals and contribute to the team. You learn about yourself, how you react to different kinds of situations, what is your comfort zone. Embrace this role with humility and learn as much as you can from it.

Everyone is different. Leading needs to be tailor-made. Yes, being a “leader” is hard. It is not about getting a raise, or a “promotion”, or even a “title”. As a leader you are a part of the organization as anyone else. And your job is to make sure that trust is nurtured. You are the go-to person for your team members. You show empathy. You empower others.

Non-action is dangerous, be careful to avoid it, i.e. in front of a problem, when you can’t see any solution, you do nothing. Or, it could be that the only option you see goes against the team, don’t face this decision alone. Find someone or your whole team to discuss and share your thoughts with, maybe you missed something or didn’t consider an option. There is always a solution.

Identify what goes wrong

You yourself might have been part, or you have heard of places, where employees are not able to give critical feedback or suggestions to the management. Places where corporate emails invite everyone to contribute to a better place but nothing ever changes.

On many occasions, these frozen organizations are fuelled by incompetence, politics, mind-games and jealousy. Those things come from people. Identify those people and take action— if you can. In some situations, persons in charge are the source of problems and they should be the ones removed from the organization.

Generally people with such negative attitudes or bad behaviour do not want the actual company to fail. Often times they may not even realize the issues they are creating. In some cases you can correct these behaviours with time, energy and good intentions, but you need to be ready for those hard decisions — letting someone go — to protect the team.

Lastly, you need to pay attention to running jokes, the “corridor-talks”, any signal that could show frustrated people. Some might be organizational issues where its your responsibility to take action. Others could simply be Human-related. Someone not going in the same direction as everyone else (in a bad way, not in the “thinking out of the box to share constructive ideas” way), someone not showing respect. Little things, only a few people, or even just one person can kill a company’s culture.

Time to reflect

In an organization, there are multiple different relations, different levels of interactions. Can you identify where you excel and where you could and should invest more effort (you and team, you and company, you and external)?

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all method to build and maintain an awesome workplace. The good news is that you already have everything you need: your gut. Challenge what you observe and take initiative.

Like any relationship (friendship, partnership, marriage) it takes hard work, trust and compromises to make it work. At Unit8, we put a lot of effort into building and maintaining a healthy culture, we set the bar high. I am not pretending that Unit8 is perfect, but I know I am working in a place where literally everyone can make it better.