9 Be a team player

“Can’t you just let me write code and leave me alone?” It’s a question I’ve asked more than once (along with “let me run the servers,” “let me build the DevOps pipeline,” and related variants), and it’s a question whose answer is invariably no. Teamwork is an integral part of getting things done in tech, and your ability to be an effective, positive teammate is probably one of the top skills any employer looks for.

9.1 The ups and downs of teams

I will freely admit, now that I’m a bit older and it’s in my past, that I haven’t always been a great team player. If you’ve seen The Big Bang Theory on TV, I’m Sheldon Cooper in far too many ways. You might be a more natural team player, and some of the advice in this chapter may seem somewhat obvious to you. But if you’re like me, the tips I’ll present are things that you have to actively focus on every day and put real effort and energy into.

One of my weaknesses stems from a strength: I’m a “Get things done” worker. Point me at a problem, get out of my way, and be prepared to bury the bodies I leave in my wake. In meetings, I’ll state my views clearly, and I’m often the first one to speak up. That’s the strength. But then I’ll then defend those views to the death, convinced that my way is the best way forward. I want everyone on my team to be on my side and to rally for my idea.

I’m really not like that anymore, but when I was younger, I was probably a bit of a jerk. It took me several years of working as an independent contractor—I literally was the team—to realize how much more a functional, effective team can accomplish than any individual can do on their own. I’ve always been a little sensitive, and it’s pretty easy to hurt my feelings, but it took me a long time to realize that other people can be just as sensitive and have their feelings hurt just as easily. That realization was the beginning of my being a better teammate, and I’d like to think that at this point in my life, I’m a lot better at it.

Great teams can accomplish amazing things in technology. I’ve worked with teams that created world-class certification exams, designed and delivered amazing software products, and produced groundbreaking community events and charitable outcomes. But being on a team means you sometimes have to moderate parts of yourself. You can’t be afraid to speak up when you have something valuable to offer, but you can’t do so in a way that suppresses other people’s opportunity to contribute. You have to bring your ideas and experience, but you have to offer them, not impose them. You have to acknowledge that even if you are absolutely sure your way is best, it might not be the best way for the team to proceed.

Teams are made up of people, of course, and people can be both a joy and a trial. We all bring baggage, both good and bad, to our teams: our biases, our experiences, our failures, our preferences, our successes, our prejudices, and more. What we bring often conflicts with what our colleagues bring, and conflict is where teamwork can become really challenging. But properly understood and managed, conflict can also be where inspiration and innovation come from. The best teams don’t try to suppress or avoid conflict; they embrace it and use it in healthy ways.

So this chapter is all about being a better team player. As I’ve said, this activity doesn’t always come naturally to me, although I’ve definitely grown and gotten better over time. I still have to work on teamwork, putting energy into it every day, and the best way for me to do that is to have a sort of behavioral checklist. It’s something I can review every day (I do, to help keep myself in the best groove possible for the teams I work on).

9.2 A checklist for being a better team player

Here’s my daily checklist for being a better teammate:

  • Know why I’m here. I make sure that every day, I am reminding myself what the team’s mission is and what my role is on the team. Role is hugely important: I need to respect the fact that my role owns certain tasks and responsibilities, just as other teammates’ roles own specific responsibilities. I can make suggestions to team members in other roles and accept suggestions for my role, but ultimately, we all need to respect what we each were hired to do. In my role as a DevOps engineer, for example, I often have some firm opinions about programming languages. Some languages are easier to deploy through a DevOps pipeline—they have better unit-testing frameworks, perhaps, or they create more self-contained packages—and I tend to like those. But although my role can offer those opinions and considerations, it’s usually the software developers who get to choose their language. They need to consider the suitability of the language to the task at hand, their own ability to code and maintain, and other concerns. So long as we’re all keeping the team’s overall mission firmly in sight, we each need to respect the boundaries of our roles.

  • Support failure. Humans learn best by trying things, and we often fail a lot before we figure out the best way to do something. On a team, part of my personal mission is to make sure my teammates feel safe in those failures. Rather than assign blame, I want to help my team move right into the postmortem, where we can discuss what we did wrong and what we can learn from that.

  • Communicate respectfully. Express, don’t suppress. It's important that I bring my experience and perspectives to the team; that’s part of what I’m paid to do. But it’s also important for me to make room for others on the team to do the same. I need to nurture a safe environment. If someone on the team isn’t communicating well—phrases like “That’s a stupid idea” are a pretty clear indication that the environment isn’t safe anymore—I need to step up and bring the conversation back to a healthier pattern.

  • Be committed as a group. Many of the teams I’ve been on have had weekly or biweekly meetings, where we can update each other on our status and review our overall progress. I try to start those meetings by asking if we can quickly review our current goals and mission. It’s a way to get everyone on the same page and make sure that all subsequent conversation is focused on achieving that shared mission.

  • Resolve conflicts within 48 hours. I’m a big fan of taking some cool-off time if I’m angry about something one of my teammates did or said, but I won’t give myself more than a couple of days before I address the conflict. Chapter 13 shares the context-seeking methodology I use to try to defuse situations, understand my teammates better, and get conflict out in the open and resolved.

  • Ask for help. Showing vulnerability is important because it communicates to the rest of the team that I don’t expect them to know All the Things, All the Time. I want my teammates to feel they can ask for my help whenever they need it, so I make sure I’m asking for their help as well. Even if I’m asking someone to double-check some code or make sure I’m thinking of everything during a server migration, I want them to know that I need them.

  • Get a little personal. This isn’t something that comes easily to me, because I’m a private individual. But I try hard to share a little bit about my personal life—who my family is, what we enjoy doing in our free time, and what we might be struggling with. I want to know the same about my teammates. All that sharing humanizes us. The less anonymous we are, the more easily we can accept our faults and personality blemishes, and the more effectively we can work together.

  • Help my teammates succeed. I spent a lot of years focused on my own success, but what I’ve realized is that I’d rather be measured by the people I’ve helped succeed. I ask my teammates to share their definition of success and ask how I can help them realize that success. They almost always reciprocate, meaning that we’re all helping each other succeed. In addition to accomplishing the missions of our organization, we’re able to help one another accomplish our own personal missions.

  • Stop and listen. I was raised with an engineering mindset: when I see a problem, I leap to solve it. What I’ve learned is that my team and I can usually create better solutions together when I stop and listen before leaping. I’ll ask my team to help me confirm my understanding of the problem, and we’ll brainstorm solutions together. Everyone on a team occasionally needs a win—a time when they came up with the idea that solved everything. If I want people to give me those wins now and again, I need to work really hard to give them to other people as well.

  • Follow. I’m a bit of an alpha personality, which you’ve probably figured out by reading this far. But on a team, I sometimes need to actively be a follower. Even on teams where I’m the nominal leader, I sometimes need to step aside and let others take the lead. My followership skills aren’t always strong, and this is an area I constantly work on, but it lets other members of my team have a chance to shine, and I find that they never disappoint.

  • Understand your tools. I’ve found a lot of value in sitting down with my team once a year or whenever our team’s membership changes and discussing what each of us does well, what each of us doesn’t do so well, and what each of us hopes to get from working on a team. After these discussions, my teams have sometimes approached our leaders and asked for our roles to be shifted slightly, because we’ve realized we weren’t taking best advantage of our individual strengths. Understanding my team—what each person loves about their job, where they’d like to grow, how they prefer to communicate, and other individual eccentricities—has almost always made us more effective and happier.

  • Be positive. Acknowledge people and their accomplishments rather than gossiping. Smile. Randomly tell people that you appreciate what they’re doing and you hope they have a great day. See problems as opportunities, and express excitement about engaging those opportunities. Embrace differences rather than seeing them as “right” or “wrong.” Show up to work every day, and be the kind of person who lights up your team rather than someone who turns them off.

  • Do the dirty work. I’ve always been clear with my teams that I’m not too good to do anything. I know we sometimes worry that if we take on all the dirty jobs, everyone else will let us, and we’ll be stuck with it. If your team is doing that, it’s not a healthy team. Work to fix it or move, because on healthy teams, when I volunteer to do the jobs nobody likes, it often gets everyone in on the game, and we can share the workload.

  • Ask how I can help. I try to ask this of everyone on my team at least once a day. Whatever they’re working on, I’d like to know if I can make it easier, faster, or whatever. We have a shared mission, and I want to pull as much of that weight as I can with them.

  • Follow the Platinum Rule. The Golden Rule, of course, is “Treat others as you’d like them to treat you.” But I’ve discovered that I don’t love that rule. I don’t really know what to do when other people tell me, “Hey, I really appreciate you, and I hope you have a great day.” But I’ve come to realize that they’re following the Golden Rule and treating me like they want to be treated. So for me, the Platinum Rule is “Treat others as they’d like to be treated.” Following that rule requires some careful observation and often requires me to flat-out ask people how they’d like to be treated. But it’s worth the effort, because in the end, we learn a lot more about how to be effective teammates.

  • Reflect. Finally, at the end of each day, I spend some time reflecting on how I worked with my team that day. Did I do or say anything that was less than positive or that didn’t help move the team toward its goals? In other words, did I show up in the way that I wanted to?

9.3 Dealing with less-effective teams and teammates

I have a kind of escalation procedure when I find myself dealing with a team or a teammate that isn’t working for me:

  • I try to get really introspective and decide how much of the problem is on my end and how much is on theirs. It’s never 100% them; there’s always at least a little bit of a difficult situation that comes from me. If someone is using language that upsets me, I might ask myself, “Am I being oversensitive?” To check, I can look at how other teammates are reacting; if they are reacting negatively, this suggests that the problem isn’t entirely my own sensitivity. Finally, I try to understand the intent. Is the teammate’s language malicious or simply creating unintended consequences?

  • I try to talk through the problem by asking for context and by sharing my own context (a process covered more fully in chapter 13). “Hey, I was just wondering what’s going on with you today. Do you feel in a good mood? Anything bothering you? I wanted to share a little bit about the language you were using; I’m just wondering what that language means for you, and how you intend for other people to take it.” Creating a shared context is often the fastest path to a resolution or at least to removing misunderstanding.

  • If my context-sharing efforts don’t create the outcome I’d like, I’ll ask for help. I’ll start with other teammates. “So-and-so is using this language that really puts me on my guard. Is this just me, or is that something you’re feeling as well? Do you think the two of us could discuss it with them?”

  • I escalate to my team leader, presuming that my efforts up to this point weren’t successful. I’ll rarely ask them to solve the problem: instead, I ask for help and advice on solving the problem myself. After following that advice, I return to my leader and share the results. If I’ve been unsuccessful on my own, I might ask them to step in and help facilitate a conversation, with an eye toward creating a positive outcome.

  • I’ve come to this point only a couple of times in my career (thank goodness): I may need to consider leaving the team. That might involve an internal transfer, or it might involve a new job. If I’ve truly determined that a team or teammate problem isn’t entirely in my own head, if I’ve been unsuccessful in solving it myself, and if my leader hasn’t been successful or willing, it may be time to go. Life’s too short to spend a third of it in a workplace where you can’t be who you want to be and achieve what you want to achieve.

I do try to be as nonconfrontational as possible when seeking to resolve problems. I’ll try to be verbally clear that the problem might simply be a misunderstanding on my part and that I’d like to resolve it. I may or may not believe that, but it lets me start the conversation without a direct attack (“You said something I don’t like”). Repeating my understanding of the problem and offering the opportunity for someone to correct me is often the easiest way to move a conversation to a healthy place right out of the gate.

I’ll also consider the health of my team. Do we have a clear, shared mission? Are we deploying our individual strengths and covering our weaknesses effectively? Have we all talked about how we each prefer to work and come to any necessary compromises to best accommodate all of us? If not, those are often starting points for moving the team to at least the beginning of a healthier place.

9.4 Contributing to an inclusive workplace

Another thing that you can do as a great team player is help make your workplace more inclusive.

Now, I want to pause for a moment and acknowledge that the topic of workplace diversity, in the tech industry in particular, is far too complex for a single section in a single chapter of a book; it’s worthy of numerous books, all written by people of different perspectives. I’m in no way trying to suborn that effort. If anything, all I want to do here is highlight the need for those many, many books. I’m also completely aware that as a white American male, my own perspectives reflect only a portion of the vast spectrum of perspectives and experiences. Indeed, that is one of the big points of striving for more diverse workplaces: you end up with a more complete picture of that vast spectrum, as others’ different experiences and perspectives help provide a broader and ever-more-complete view of the world in which we and our organizations exist.

That said, I simply want to offer a few suggestions to help anyone make small yet meaningful contributions as a part of everyday work life.

9.4.1 Help

Start by seeing whether you can do something to help widen the top of the funnel for technology teams. That is, even if today’s workplaces aren’t as diverse as they could be, what can you do to help make tomorrow’s workplaces more diverse? Volunteering for organizations that help teach kids to code, build networks, or fix computers can be an investment in making future generations’ workplaces better reflect the makeup of the world we live in:

  • I’ve also supported Tech Impact’s IT Works program (https://techimpact.org), which targets kids from disadvantaged backgrounds and helps them get entry-level tech jobs.

  • Latino STEM Alliance (LSA; https://www.latinostem.org) focuses on the Latino and Latina audiences, broadly covering science, technology, engineering, and math, including a wonderful robotics program.

  • CODeLLA (https://www.codella.org) teaches Latina girls to code; there’s also an informal Latina Girls Code movement with presences on Facebook and Twitter.

Those are just a few examples. The point is to find these organizations and support them, often with your time in helping teach your trade to young people who might not ordinarily have access to it. Maybe it has nothing to do with being a great team player today, but it has a lot to do with setting up future teams to be even better.

9.4.2 Offer respect and support

As you move through your workdays, be aware that we—every single one of us—have different backgrounds, come from different cultures, and were raised in different environments. Those differences make us valuable, but they also make us vulnerable. Every little thing that makes us stand out from the crowd is something that someone can use to push us down or make us feel ashamed. In my generation, a lot of us in the tech world went through that in school. I was one of two kids who helped out in our school’s nascent computer lab, and I took all kinds of grief for it. Geek and nerd weren’t fun terms back then, as they are now; they were a way of hurting someone. I was ostracized, and when I spoke up about it, I was told that I should “toughen up.” That’s a common phrase—”toughen up.” When people complain about being made fun of, that phrase is used to make even more fun of them. And the people telling us to toughen up are usually the ones who aren’t being made fun of at all and who are in positions where they’d never be made fun of.

Try to be aware of that fact. Nobody wants people making jokes about them without their consent. If that’s never happened to you, you can’t possibly understand how miserable it can make a person. Just waking up and knowing you have to go to work where people are going to make fun of you and who don’t consider you their equal is horrific. Given how easy it is to not make those jokes, comments, or whatever else, how easy it is to say nothing or to offer a compliment? Why would anyone choose to be hurtful when choosing to be not hurtful is so much easier?

I’m definitely aware of the sentiment “Everyone has to be politically correct now; you can’t say anything at all.” I’m aware of the sentiment “Some people are snowflakes and need to toughen up.” But you can still say plenty to people. You can choose to tell them that you hope they have a nice day. You can leave them room to speak in a meeting so that their voice can be heard. You can stand up for them when someone else is being a jerk. If you’re the type of person who likes to make jokes at the expense of other people, your life is not significantly diminished by holding your tongue or finding better jokes.

We all want to feel that we belong. It’s a basic part of the oldest pieces of our brains: belonging to a tribe confers safety, which is one reason why humans are such social creatures. We all want to be part of the popular crowd in high school, and although most of us grow out of that as we grow up, we all still want to feel like we belong. You can do a lot on an everyday basis to make people feel like they belong.

I remember one job I had, which I got shortly after meeting the person I’m now married to. Most mornings at work, people would move in and out of the break rooms, getting their morning coffee and such, talking about the weekend or the previous evening. They’d talk about their wives and husbands or their kids. They’d invite me into their conversations—because, I thought, they didn’t realize that I didn’t have a place in those conversations—and I’d keep it neutral. “Oh, we watched such-and-such a show,” I’d say, or “We went to a new restaurant”—always we, us, or something else neutral.

My co-workers weren’t stupid, and they didn’t miss my omissions. Finally, one of them, Mike, pulled me aside. “Hey,” he said. “I notice you’re always careful about how you talk about your family life. If it’s because you have a boyfriend, just know that you’re completely welcome to say that. We’re all fine with it. It doesn’t matter.”

That one little invitation to belong made an enormous difference. I hadn’t even realized that although I didn’t dread going to work, it was an effort. It was an effort to edit everything I was about to say to make sure I didn’t slip up. And now I didn’t need to do that. That’s the kind of little, low-cost things you can do every day: let your co-workers know that they don’t have to edit themselves so long as they’re being professional and respectful. (Believe me, I still edit the amount of swearing I do; if you come from a military community, you pick up certain words that aren’t appropriate in a civilian workplace.) They’re free to be themselves. They belong, exactly as they are.

Offering an inclusive workplace isn’t something we should do as a human-resources exercise to prevent lawsuits. It should be something we do because we work with other actual human beings. We might not all recognize our sense of belonging at work, because we’ve never been without that sense. But if you think about what it’d feel like for someone else, even small steps toward alleviating that feeling for them is a true gift, and it’s no less than they deserve as fellow human beings.

9.5 Further reading

  • You Are The Team: 6 Simple Ways Teammates Can Go From Good To Great, by Michael G. Rogers (independently published, 2017)

  • The 17 Indisputable Laws of Teamwork: Embrace Them and Empower Your Team, by John C. Maxwell (HarperCollins Leadership, 2013)

  • The Soul of a Team: A Modern-Day Fable for Winning Teamwork, Tony Dungy (Tyndale Momentum, 2019)

  • Belonging At Work: Everyday Actions You Can Take to Cultivate an Inclusive Organization, Rhodes Perry (PYP Academy Press, 2018)

  • Disconnected: How to Deliver Realness, Meaning, and Belonging at Work, by Colleen McFarland (New Degree Press, 2020)

9.6 Action items

For this chapter, I want you to think about the kind of team you’d most want to be part of:

  • Make a list of attributes that your ideal teammates would exhibit. How would they behave toward you every day? What would they bring to the table, and how would they interact with you in ideal circumstances?

  • Referring to that list, which of those attributes do you exhibit toward your other teammates on a daily basis?

  • Ask some of your teammates whether they’re open to discussing the team itself. Ask them to create similar lists, perhaps anonymously. When everyone’s made their lists, compare and contrast them as a group. Are there any common attributes that everyone would like to see? What differences exist? Those differences show how we’re all a little different as humans and that we can’t always just treat people they way we’d want to be treated: we need to treat them they way they’d want to be treated.

  • Ask one of your teammates whether they’ve ever felt like they didn’t belong at one of their jobs—whether that’s the current one or not. Even if you’ve struggled with a sense of belonging, it’s incredibly helpful to hear other people’s takes on the subject and to hear about their experiences.

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