I’ve Got Your Back

Calvin is a technical lead, the team’s “go-to” guy. Now in his late thirties, he’s been developing since he graduated and has been a tech lead for the past five years. When anyone has a technical question, Calvin finds the answer. In the past, he’s been available to help others with their design, and he’s been the voice of reason for estimates.

But, Calvin is having trouble on the current project.

A month ago, Calvin’s mother fell down the stairs. He has spent every spare second helping her while still putting in normal office hours. He has been absentminded, has made several mistakes on his tests, and has misestimated several chunks of work.

Two weeks later, just as the team began developing important features and their associated infrastructure, Calvin’s six-year-old had appendicitis and was rushed to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. No one in his house has had a full night’s sleep in weeks. Calvin didn’t tell anyone about his mother and his sick child, and he has not realized how much his lack of sleep has affected his judgment.

Calvin was not his usual self in the team’s design meetings for the new infrastructure. Normally, he would have discussed, poked, prodded, and asked many questions about their conclusion. This time, he just said, “Sure, that seems reasonable to me.”

The team applied the architecture without questioning their choice and its long-term effects. Now that problems have emerged after several weeks, they’ve realized they are late for the project—not a disaster, but a setback. They need a few days to work their way out of this mess.

Cissy, their fear-driven project manager, asks, “What happened? Why are you late? Calvin, I relied on you as the technical lead to live up to your commitments. Now what are you going to do?”

And the team says, “Even though Calvin approved it, he’s part of the team, and we share the responsibility. We’ll fix it together.” The team doesn’t presume to know why Calvin is having trouble. Everyone on the team has Calvin’s back.

Yes, Calvin has the responsibility to deliver on his commitments. And, because he has invested so much in other people over time and banked their trust, the entire team is willing to help him. That spirit of shared responsibility—really esprit de corps—is what we mean by having each other’s back.

Why This Matters

You can have great individuals who deliver value, communicate well, and leverage their process effectively, but if they can’t pull together as a team when they need to, they won’t succeed under adverse circumstances. These include individual circumstances or circumstances of which they are unaware. For teams to be great, the team members must have each other’s back.

If you have each other’s back, your team is that much stronger. It may not perform better, but it’s more resilient and adaptable. Think of this shared responsibility as insurance: You might not be happy about Calvin’s dropping the ball for several weeks, but you can deal with it well.

The more your personal fate is tied with another person’s, the more it makes sense to have that person’s back. When the other person needs help, you’ll be there for her, and when you need help, she’ll be there for you. In both cases, the whole team—not just individual members—benefits.

When your personal fates are less tied—for instance, you both work for the same organization and, even if the project fails, you’ll keep working there—there’s less of a need (or personal motivation) to have that person’s back. Your cost to build shared responsibility might outweigh the benefit.

How to Tell When Your Team Members Have Your Back

We can expect to have each other’s back when we have shared deliverables. If a team has committed to a deliverable, we jointly and individually own the deliverable, and so the outcome matters to us individually and as a team. Each team member “does his or her own math” and is likely to be motivated to have others’ backs in order to reduce the chance of failing and its personal implications.

Shared responsibility is more than being civil or professional. Shared responsibility is about the team, the team’s work, and the actions of the team—the “teamwork” itself. You might offer help without someone asking for it. Sometimes, helping a colleague finish a chunk of work takes precedence over finishing your own work. If you’re in a meeting and someone insults a member of your team, you might defend your colleague.

Having someone’s back means when one of us gets in trouble, we handle it. It’s moral support for when the situation turns emotional, it’s helping someone finish some task when you are available, and it’s helping others notice when they are speaking or writing without thinking and providing feedback.

Shared responsibility doesn’t always require you to do anything. Sometimes, it means you avoid certain things. When you have another’s back, you won’t use a team member’s known weaknesses to your own advantage. It means not blaming team members for mishaps. It also means not placating people when their actions are truly not helpful.

Building Shared Responsibility at the Team Level

How does a team—even a newly formed team—have each other’s back?

First, you need to be part of a team: Everyone needs a common goal and interdependent commitments, so that everyone has the same long-term view and the feeling of being together in the same boat. You are all looking through the same viewfinder.

Second, you need to have a strong affiliation to the team. When you affiliate with a team and your primary allegiance is to your team, you are more likely to have the trust necessary to have each other’s back. You know you’ll stay together, working together, without the organization pulling you apart.

The next step is to build rapport. Rapport is about how approachable you are, how you enter the other person’s situation, and your respect for the other person’s model of the world. Building rapport means you make the effort to build human connections to the other team members individually, which often involves finding common ground with each person. Beyond mere civility and professionalism, you may ask about their families, hobbies, or interesting problems they found or solved recently. Building rapport without in-person experience is possible but difficult, and having continuous face time is certainly helpful.

Team members who can give and receive congruent feedback can share responsibility and have each other’s back. Congruent feedback means we don’t blame each other for problems. We don’t placate, allowing bad behavior from others. We don’t ignore members of the team or work around them. We actively build healthy relationships with others, even if we don’t always like them.

Having Each Other’s Back Helps Teams

It’s not enough to have process, “best practices,” agreements, and motivation. Having each other’s back occurs in the white space, when the team—or, more likely, one person on the team—is under the gun to deliver.

A team that has each other’s back has insurance against human failings. They experience less fear. If they fall, they don’t fall so hard, and the personal implications are less severe.

Even if they don’t need to make a claim on their insurance, a team that shares responsibility experiences more collective accomplishment, works better, and has more satisfaction from their work.

© 2011 Johanna Rothman and Gil Broza. This column was originally published on Stickyminds.com

Like this article? See the other articles. Or, look at my workshops, so you can see how to use advice like this where you work.

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