I’ve worked in a few teams over the years and generally enjoyed those different working relationships.
However, working in a team isn’t always plain-sailing. When working relationships in teams turn sour and there is a pervading sense of mistrust, dissent and ill-feeling, there are usually patterns and clues to the problems which I now recognise.
Sometimes these patterns reveal a team breakdown due to situations beyond any individuals ability to change. For example, a financially insecure company, a boss with dire people skills or a generally oppressive working culture.
However, I’ve found that it’s equally likely to be down to individuals.
For example, I’ve found it common that the warped point of view of one can be subsequently expounded to become the point of view of many. Previously happy team members can become unhappy team members when nothing materially has changed. It’s the workplace equivalent of poison being poured in others ears.
With some reflection and discussion, team relationships in this situation can occasionally be fixed and become fruitful once more. Sometimes, sadly, individual personalities and egos can be so toxic and ‘out of whack’ with others that wasting time trying to ‘fix’ an individual can be futile. Subsequently not dealing with the rot of an individual in a team can destroy the fabric of the whole.
What follows are some meandering thoughts about how you and I can behave and what I feel is healthy in a team. In many ways, this is also a set of notes to my former self, as I’ve certainly been guilty of some of these shortcomings over the years. I’m as much a ‘work in progress’ as the next person; as my team mates will testify!
You’re not the smartest person
This might shock you but you are not the smartest person in the team. Nor are you indispensable.
As such, be mindful of others’ skill sets, even if they are not immediately obvious to you.
Do not be disparaging of anyone else’s input; it likely comes from a place of unique insight.
Note: if you really are the smartest person in the team, in every way, consider moving to a more challenging team/company or leading the team you are in.
Learn from those around you
As you are likely not the smartest person in the team, try to talk less and listen more. I’m reminded at this point of the following:
A wise old Owl sat in an Oak,
The more he saw, the less he spoke,
The less he spoke, the more he heard,
Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?
Put another way; consider that you have two ears but only one mouth.
If in every meeting you are the only one doing the talking, perhaps the problem isn’t everyone else not saying anything, more likely you not letting others express themselves.
I’ve never found a good way of articulating how to be honest with co-workers without being hurtful. You can do it with people when they trust you but everyone trusts different people at different rates. However, Ed Catmull, president of Pixar Animation Studios, nails it in the book, ‘Creativity Inc’. It’s about being candid. Be straightforward and honest but in a generous way.
Never try and score points or put others down. That is immature behaviour.
Give your honest, candid opinion with the sole aim of improving things/situations.
People should in turn learn to reciprocate by taking candid feedback in the manner it is intended.
To this end, don’t get moody because someone didn’t like your work. Listen to what they felt the problem with it was. If they are giving good candid advice, shut up, get over yourself and listen to what they are telling you.
Loose your ego
If you want to be right more often, consider changing your mind.
Be ready to change opinion when new ideas and possibilities surface. If you are working with others on a problem, have a selfless attitude and recognise when a better possibility has presented itself.
So you felt your super-sliding menu was the best thing ever? Big deal, your colleague just came up with a better idea. You know it and so does everyone else so just let go and work towards the best solution your team can come up with, not you individually. The outcome from the team should trump the satisfaction of any individuals ego.
Respect the time of others
In an office environment, respect your colleagues time. You may be bored and in need of light relief, but they may be stressed in the midst of the mother of all problems.
The unwritten rule at most creative workplaces is that if someone has their headphones on, think twice about disturbing them about anything other than immediately important work related matters.
To hit this point on the nose: that hilarious video/gif/meme can wait and the spat you just had with your other half isn’t that important to anyone other than you.
In relation, if you are in a large open office, keep ‘banter’ to a minimum. If possible, take it to the coffee area. We are all louder than we think and whatever it is that is hilarious to you right now, is an unwelcome disturbance for someone else.
Solve your own problems when you can
Don’t get answers from others if you can figure out a problem by yourself. If you get the same person to fix the same kind of issues every single time, you likely aren’t learning all you should.
That’s not to say that having spent a reasonable amount of time on an issue you don’t seek help, just ensure you are doing due diligence to address the issue yourself first.
Don’t leave problems for others
If you are in the business of solving problems, whether that be in code, design or some other engineering context, don’t leave problems for others to rediscover.
If you have to jump ship on a project, be sure to communicate in the clearest possible way that you knew of the problem, what you have considered in relation to it and the probable scope of the issue. People will appreciate that far more than you pretending that the problem didn’t exist or that you were unaware of it.
Note: if a known problem exists in code; don’t push to a ‘working’ code area, regardless of any related implications.
“Those guys are idiots!”
“Which dick thought it would be a good idea to use a drop-down here?!”
“I can’t believe they have used inline styles to do this!”
I’ve heard proclamations like this more times than I care to remember. If you find yourself guilty of outbursts like this, consider the fact you don’t fully understand the context in which those choices were made. Instead of assuming the worst of people, try assuming the best.
Maybe that was the best solution available and you just don’t understand the problem fully?
The ‘perpetrators’ may have been constrained by factors you are not privy to. My overwhelming experience in any functioning work environment is that the choices that were made are seldom as bad as they seem when you fully understand the problem that gave birth to them.
Bottom line: don’t rubbish people, generally or specifically, unless you absolutely know they were wilfully negligent or naive.
Communicate with those that need to know, not those you’d like to know
Use group communication tools for group discussions. Use group emails only when absolutely necessary. Email is seldom the right medium for office ‘banter’. Therefore, respect the inbox and time of others and consider whether other mediums are more appropriate.
If there is no appropriate medium for general online chat (e.g. Slack et al.) available for your team environment, consider implementing one.
Give what you know away
If you are the ‘go to’ person on your team/department for an approach, technology or subject, give your knowledge of that subject to others freely and without caveats.
Guarding your knowledge will get you no-where. Giving it away always brings back more to you than you gave away.
In addition, don’t seek to ‘own’ everything. Just because you came up with this or that idea, design or document, don’t seek to own it.
Language like “The design I came up with for…”, or, “Use the function I created that solves summing arrays” is passive aggressive. Or heading documents, “Ben Frain’s rules for how to…” reeks of ego and ownership desperation.
Instead, try using more neutral and inclusive language:
“Our design for…”
“Use the summing arrays function…”
“Rules for how to…”
It’s my belief that immature people moan a lot. Everyone moans from time to time, it’s human nature. But beware serial moaning.
A serial moaner is someone who always complains, usually vocally to anyone else who will listen.
They have to change something? They moan.
They need to swap desks? They moan.
Have to work with different people? They moan.
Serial moaners are toxic. Deal with them fast and deal with them firmly. They poison a teams morale.
If you can confront them about it you should. Sometimes, that way is all they have ever known and once they understand what they are doing it can set them on a more positive path.
Related: check out Number 3, in Milton Glaser’s ‘Ten Things’ essay.
…there is a test to determine whether someone is toxic or nourishing in your relationship with them. Here is the test: You have spent some time with this person, either you have a drink or go for dinner or you go to a ball game. It doesn’t matter very much but at the end of that time you observe whether you are more energized or less energized. Whether you are tired or whether you are exhilarated. If you are more tired then you have been poisoned. If you have more energy you have been nourished. The test is almost infallible and I suggest that you use it for the rest of your life
Do you think you always get passed up? That everyone else always gets the good jobs and you get the rubbish? Why did they give her that assignment, when you are way better? If you think anything like that, stop!
Try and be mature in your approach. If there is a particular thing you want to work on, ask. If there is a particular role you would like to fill, ask.
Take problems away from people, don’t give them new ones. A boss will be happier to give you something you want than have a disgruntled employee. But they have to know. Give them that chance.
You’re colleagues are not your friends
Due to the intimacy of working with the same people day in and day out, in the work place, people can confuse a professional relationship with a social friendship. Whilst good working relationships are important and to be encouraged, I think it’s very important to be clear on the differences.
Friendship that has arisen through a single event or shared experience is cheap, transient and largely meaningless. That’s the kind of ‘friendship’ that has arisen in the workplace. Few friendships of this nature last more than decade. Their success, or not, is inextricably tied to the fate of the workplace. When a company is doing well and its employees are well looked after, ‘friendship’ with work colleagues is easier to come by. When things aren’t going so well, and lay-offs and pay freezes loom, things tend to feel less rosy.
People tend to get more upset about dysfunctional workplace relationships when they use words like ‘friends’ to discuss how relationships with colleagues used to be. Colleagues are just that, colleagues. A colleague is something different than a friend.
To be clear:
Colleague: a person with whom one works in a profession or business.
Whilst a friend:
a person with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically one exclusive of sexual or family relations.
Can a colleague be a friend? Probably. But I think that’s the exception to the rule.
Think of your professional relationships with colleagues in terms of respect instead of friendship.
A working relationship based on respect is more enduring and doesn’t carry the same burden of responsibility that a relationship based around friendship does.
To this end, I don’t feel team members should feel in any way obliged to engage in out-of-work social gatherings with work colleagues. Work is work and your own time is yours to do with as you please.
Not attending out-of-work hours activities with work colleagues is no reflection on your respect for your work colleagues. On the contrary, it is embracing the difference between your personal and social life and your professional working life. That’s not to say you shouldn’t do that if you wish; just tread carefully and consider moving some of your eggs to another basket.
To surmise, I’ve respected hugely many of the people I have worked with. But they are not my friends. When I leave that place of work my respect for them will remain but it’s unrealistic to think I’ll be catching up with them each week for a coffee.
Think kind thoughts, work on your own shortcomings, be candid and generous with your colleagues. Confront toxic personalities but be realistic. Some people you just can’t save.
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