Technology, Culture, & Emotional Intelligence

The Paradox of Great Team Cultures

These two traits seem like a paradox, but they are actually two sides of the same desired outcome.

The Paradox of Great Team Cultures
Photo by Tyler Nix / Unsplash

One of the surprising discoveries I’ve made about myself in the last few years is how much I love managing a team of people. While the early stages of my career were more about my productivity, these later years have been a greater test of my skills as a people leader. Case in point, in the last two years alone, the number of people I lead each day has more than doubled. While many content creators in my position might find this shift a burden, I’ve considered it to be just the opposite. Uncovering the strengths and personalities of the people I am leading, and then utilizing those discoveries to bring out the best in them while challenging them to rise to new heights is a joy for me each day.

Of course, because I am a writer and a teacher at heart, I can’t help but pull a few management truths from my time so far as a people leader. Perhaps the most helpful of these truths is a paradox I've discovered at the heart of creating and sustaining a great team culture. This paradox creates challenges for managers lacking emotional intelligence because the application of these two truths are basically a constantly moving target. Here it is:

All great team cultures strike a balance between self-care and self-sacrifice.

Why Self-Care?
The first need of every employee is to feel care and safety at their place of work. When you think about it, a large part of the interview process is an argument on the part of the potential employer that care and safety will be a provided: “If you come here,” they might say, “this is what we are going to make this a great place to work for you.” Salary, benefits, PTO, leave, potential growth opportunities, and even office culture are all a part of making this case. Once this person agrees to come onto your team, leaders have a short window of time to prove that everything they said in the interview process is true in practice.

On my team, this means that I am constantly taking the temperature of my team member’s needs and challenges. At least half of the time in my one-on-ones is spent talking about the stuff of life instead of the stuff of work. I’ve found that work needs tend to take care of themselves, but if you don’t intentionally make time to talk about life, it will never happen. The goal for me is to create an environment of honesty and appreciation where each team member believes that I care for them because I meet their two biggest workplace needs: clarity and support. Clarity means the goals in front of them are clear and simple to understand (not necessarily simple to accomplish). Support means I help them overcome roadblocks that are bigger than what they could address themselves (this typically applies when there are either policies or people in their way). Without these two needs met, our teams can never feel safe and ready to do their work.

Ideas for Creating Secure Teams:
1. Spend more time on personal connections with team members in one-on-ones.
2. Take extra time to uncover the strengths, personalities, passions, and triggers of each team member.
3. Spend time celebrating the personal accomplishments of team members in front of one another and encourage them to do the same when you are not around.
4. Allow tons of grace and even time away from work when team members face personal challenges.
5. Invite team members to set personal goals that have nothing to do with their day-to-day job and ask them if you can hold them accountable to these goals.

Why Self-Sacrifice?
But of course self-care is not all a team needs. They also need to practice self-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice means I see the mission as more important than any one person on the team — including myself. There are times in any job and on any project where self-sacrifice is required in order to push to accomplish a goal.

On my team, self-sacrifice requires that I am constantly reminding my team of the mission. We regularly review both the mission of the organization, as well as the short-term goals (or in our case OKRs) we are chasing. On weeks where extra-effort is required, I spend time mentally preparing the team and reminding them to get extra rest and come ready to get the job done. If self-care is the perk of great team cultures, than self-sacrifice is the price tag.

Ideas for Creating Self-Sacrificial Teams:

1. Revisit your mission statement constantly, and have team members share with one another why they are personally invested in the mission.
2. Ensure that clear goals are set for each individual team member and talk about these goals constantly in one-on-ones and team meetings.
3. In one-on-ones, challenge team members to set their own challenging goals and celebrate these stretch goals in front of other team members.
4. Celebrate goals accomplished in front of the whole team with rewards and accolades when possible.

The most important reason both self-care and self-sacrifice are necessary is that they facilitate the personal growth of our team members. In order for growth to occur (especially at work) each of us needs to feel both secure and challenged. Self-care without the balancing trait of self-sacrifice is little more than an adult day care. People don’t just want to be cared for, they also want their lives to have meaning. In the same way, requiring self-sacrifice of team members without also providing opportunities for self-care can create a toxic work environment full of departmental silos, workaholics, and peer-to-peer gossip.

People don’t just want to be cared for, they also want their lives to have meaning.

These two traits, self-care and self-sacrifice, seem like a paradox, but they are actually two sides of the same desired outcome: creating a workplace that people love. Missions can only be accomplished by people who feel safe and secure enough to spend their precious time, energy, and creativity on accomplishing the mission.

The challenge of creating a great team culture has been one of the most gratifying growth opportunities of my career so far. But it’s only gratifying because I care about the people and I care about the stakes. If you really want to succeed as a people leader, you must have both.

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Jamie Larson