How (not) to kill your team creativity and a good spirit?

Joanna Cymkiewicz
Feb 2, 2019 · 7 min read

If you think that it’s quite easy to run a team or collaborate within it, then you’re probably wrong. Each of your team members is a unique personality with its habits and a way of work — even you.

It’s good to understand what a team is. I bet that your first thought was “my team are my closest colleagues in my profession”. If yes, you couldn’t be more wrong. By definition, a team is a group of people that work together to achieve a common goal. So what’s a team? Well, if you think about a project and all the people that are responsible for its delivery, then this is precisely your team. All developers, designers, product owners, and other stakeholders, all of them create one organism — a team. Whether you are a manager or a regular employee, you are a member of a team that will achieve its goal only if it collaborates.

Try to understand

For a moment (and for each new team that you end up with), try to forget who you are (your job position), and think about your dependencies — you rely on people in the same way as they depend on you. Otherwise, we wouldn’t need a team at all. We would have been a one-man army ready to solve all the problems and take all the challenges ahead. Thank God we have a competence silo — a bunch of people from different professions with skills and knowledge needed to build the best solution.

A good start is to stand aside for a while and just watch and learn. Observe your colleagues at work and try to know their needs. Meet them as if you were meeting new friends. Ask how they like to work on a daily basis but don’t forget to confront it with your own needs. It’s not right to sacrifice yourself for other team members. You are all equal and need to treat yourself on the same level. Finding a sweet spot between your needs is the best way to cooperate on a good level of understanding. Never judge people through a prism of your habits or expectations — it’s the easiest way to make collaboration hard.

“We need leaders who are emotionally intelligent, and able to model and champion co-operative working. They’ll coach, rather than command; they’ll be driven by empathy, not ego. The digital revolution needs a different, more human kind of leadership”

Klaus Schwab, World Economic Forum

Expect maturity (and be mature)

From my experience, it doesn’t matter if you collaborate locally or remotely. It doesn’t even matter if there are distractors all around you or your colleagues. Because maturity doesn’t mean that someone will sit ‘in front of his desk’ for the next 8 hours every day — this kind of thinking is a classic mistake.

Maturity means that each team member (including you) will be responsible for his tasks and within a given time the task will be finished with good quality. Maturity within a team means that people can rely on each other, they can ask for help without being punished, they can openly talk about risks, challenges or dependencies without being judged or (what’s even worse) being ignored by other colleagues. Set the expectations for your team in the same way as you set expectations for yourself. And remember one crucial thing, if you fight against your team, you fight against yourself.

Respect and trust

I believe that trust is the hardest thing while working with others. Try to acknowledge, that your colleagues have the same goals as you have in the project — they need to finish their tasks exactly as you do. And if you won’t deliver something, most probably they will fail as well. Be reliable and rely on them. I have seen many teams that failed, only because they didn’t trust each other. Remember that your team is not a place to compete, it is a place to cooperate.

Let people make their own decisions. Let them set up their work in the most convenient way. You are among specialists in their profession. They know their work from guts, and they know how to do it the best. They will achieve their highest point of creativity if you let them think and be responsible for the solution. The more you force them to work in your way, the more they will give up and do what you expect them to do without any deeper thoughts and considerations. It is the most common mistake that can cause a lot of mistakes along the way. Challenging or even sometimes questioning someone’s ideas or decisions might be fruitful in some better solutions. Be open to that, and do not treat it in a personal way. No one is perfect. And it’s an excellent way to keep healthiness if we can challenge something that deep inside we strongly disagree. Keep in mind that sometimes others simply are missing information that leads you to make that particular decision. So it is better to answer a few more questions than leaving a situation with a strong statement that the team disagrees with or do not understands the cause.

Don’t be fooled by envy. That’s another common mistake while working in the group. If you see that your colleague goes for a coffee and chitchats with someone, it most probably means that he needs a few minutes’ break for a quick reset. Or if you see that he plays some youtube videos on his second monitor, maybe it is his way to focus like your way is to listen to the music and softly nudge your head in the rhythm of the sounds. I’ve heard so many times about lack of trust from managers to their subordinates because of those examples. We quickly forget that each of us has its way to focus and break away from distractors, mainly when you work in an open office area. Trust is the most robust foundation of each team, and a lack of it can kill the best ones.

Ask, before you judge

Sometimes it’s easier to judge the outcome instead of finding the reasons for it. We often tend to seek guilty among others, and forget to go through our own decisions or actions that might influence others work. The outcome is usually a result of a group, not one person only. In hard situations, try to stop for a moment, do a step back and ask about the reason instead of drawing hasty conclusions.

Demand from the team as much you demand from yourself. Both regarding the outcome as well as setting a process itself. Do not change decisions and agreements every 5 minutes. Avoid mistakes as much as you can and always try to establish a process (yes, even in an agile environment). Be a guardian of quality and secure whatever you can, to make others work easier. Your team will be grateful for that and feel more secure.

Work hard and let them do the same

Take the ownership of your part of a job. Do not expect that someone else will do it for you. You’re responsible for your tasks and delivery and don’t blame others if you fail (unless it’s honestly others fault). Give others a good example of your work and behaviour. It is what you can do the best and have a real influence on. At the end of the day, you all have the same goal to achieve. And believe me, no one likes to stand out. While working in a group, we prefer to keep up the pace rather than delay and gather all the frustrations on our shoulders. Try to keep the rhythm of your team and do your job the best you can.

And if something goes wrong, try to put your frustrations aside, take a deep breath and try to find a solution to solve a problem — together, not only by yourself. Do not be afraid to ask for help. We all make mistakes, after all, we are only humans. But trying to hide something under the carpet can end much worse.

Keep a good spirit

Tight schedules, challenges, and obstacles make you feel stressed and tense. You’re not the robot, nor are your colleagues. Be open and have a good attitude. Respect others and be ready to support them if needed. The group is only strong if it stays together. Be kind and honest, and your team members will give you the same.

Try hard and repeat

It’s not an easy job to work within a team, not because you can’t, or you’re a kind of independent personality, but because of this amazing diversification of habits, needs, and human emotions, across the team members. So try hard, learn by your own mistakes, don’t ever give up, and repeat like a mantra — with each new team always start with a blank card. Trust people from the very beginning of your cooperation with them — it’s the best what you can give them.

And don’t be surprised, there is something bittersweet in each and every team.

I had a chance to work in many different teams with many individuals, challenges and dependencies. I have seen so many struggles, sorrows, competition and at the end the tiredness of people who regret that they were a part of that particular team. Those have been my experiences for over 15 years of work across many projects and many teams. I’ll be endlessly happy if this article will bring you a bit of peace and understanding among your everyday struggles.

Joanna Cymkiewicz

Written by

I’m a designer that loves to solve problems.

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