“Independent Team Player” is not a misnomer: How to help your team thrive

Working in a team can be one of the most enriching experiences you could ever have. Yes, there is great freedom in being accountable to no one but yourself, but working a team is not antithetical to independence and freedom. In the past 10 years, I’ve had the privilege of being a team leader, manager, and member. And this is what I think makes a good team great.

Use values as the lodestone for attracting talent

I started thinking about this after running a couple of interviews last week. As a team manager, one of the most important things I look for when evaluating candidates is cultural fit. I see the interviews as a matching process where we’re establishing a dialogue to see if the individual’s core values are compatible with the team’s culture. It’s less of a mercenary selection process to determine if someone is ‘good enough’, and more about identifying compatibility. After all, it isn’t beneficial for the team or the individual if he cannot relate to how and why things are done the way they are because he wouldn’t thrive in such a situation.

Have a diversity of voices

But cultural fit alone would not guarantee that the team thrives. If everyone is an automaton that simply repeats values in a literal fashion, then the sum isn’t going to be very much larger than its parts. Having a diversity of voices — not a cacophony — can take the team to greater heights through a nuanced interpretation of those values. So many of my positive experiences working in teams came from seeing things from a new perspective thanks to a co-worker’s insight. I never would have gotten that if I hadn’t been in teams that encouraged discussion. Mosaics are beautiful precisely because of all that lovely color!

This would be far less interesting if it were made of one color.
This would be far less interesting if it were made of one color.

Have a dialogue, not a monologue.

Even my Masters thesis (easily one of the most solitary projects ever) benefitted from conversations with others about the topic. If that is true for an academic paper, imagine how far a dialogue can take you in your team.

(Plus, I believe Immanuel Kant would approve of you treating your team as ends in themselves and not merely as a means to an end. In case that matters to you.)

Empower your team to act independently

Micromanaging is tough work! Why use only one brain — even if it’s a really good one! — when you have 5 or 6 others to tap on? Don’t dictate how and what your team member does, as long as she is clear that those actions are consistent with your larger values. Have ongoing conversations about decision-making, and how the values translate in real life, and let her run with that autonomy. That synthesis of goals (mine, his, ours) is necessary for thriving in a team setting, and pushes people to stretch themselves further.

Thriving members = thriving team.

Have conversations about your values

Don’t flip flop on them, but don’t expect them to be static either. (Or they will someday fossilise and you’ll wonder what life was like way back when.) Every now and then, think about what the team stands for and whether the avowed values are consistent with that. I’ve found it best when the team doesn’t determine the values on a whim, and the values don’t imprison the team either. As with interpersonal stuff, dialogue with and about values can be really beneficial.


Sources: Thanks missvancamp for the quilt image in the header image.
Mosquée de Paris image by MarcCooperUK (Flickr: Paris central mosque) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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