Bring Your Own Team: The New Trend Disrupting Recruiting

The industry has always focused on hiring atoms; we’d like to try hiring molecules. — Stripe

By: Rachel Mendelowitz

Stripe made waves in the startup world last week with its BYOT announcement — bring your own team that is.

The fast-growing payments company is experimenting with a new recruitment approach, which invites teams, instead of just individuals, to apply for jobs. Small teams, between two to five people, would collectively email their resumes, outlining the details of how they know each other and work together. Team members would be taken through the hiring process together, with group and individual interviews on the same day, and at least one interview problem-set to be tackled as a collective. If an offer is made, it will be extended to all team members, and they will continue working as a unit within Stripe.

One line of the BYOT announcement in particular was striking:

The industry has always focused on hiring atoms; we’d like to try hiring molecules.

This team-based tactic of “hiring molecules” is founded on the idea that people are stronger as part of a team than on their own. Or to put it another way, the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. This notion is gaining acceptance within organizations. A growing emphasis has been placed on teamwork and collaboration in recent years.

This makes a great deal of sense when we think about the characteristics of high-performing teams. Elite teams are often marked by trust, common understanding, and familiarity, which creates an almost fused unit that can seamlessly innovate and adapt to shifting circumstances. It creates a shared consciousness and quick flow of information that enables the team to execute much more effectively than their less cohesive counterparts.

Organizations are acknowledging that the interactions between people are even more important than the contributions of any one individual. In complex environments, such as the one we all live and work in, this is an excellent example of an emergent property — a quality that emerges from a combination of parts but is not explainable by a sum of the parts themselves.

If a dialogue of teamwork is reflective of broader workplace trends, why was Stripe’s move so noteworthy?

The reality is that while most leaders champion the promotion of teamwork and collaboration, the concept meets quite a bit of resistance in execution. Our workforce and HR policies and processes are currently designed to generate completely different outcomes.

We want people to collaborate cross-functionally and perform well on teams, but people are individually hired and individually compensated. Evaluations are based on personal performance, bonuses vary greatly by individual, and salary discrepancies from the highest to the lowest paid worker are greater than ever, which spurs competition over collaboration.

In short, the way we’ve set up our workforce drives a marketplace that pits individuals against one another, yet we are constantly encouraging them to collaborate and work together to innovate and drive results. The environment around us has changed dramatically, yet our internal hiring, evaluation, and compensation tools have remained static.

An industrial-era approach pervades our current policies — we still largely think of our organizations as giant machines and the people within them as cogs. This metaphor is comforting for leaders, in that a machine, however intricate, is ultimately understandable. It can be constructed, deconstructed, and refit with interchangeable parts until it is humming. Most of us largely intuit on our own, the magic happens when the right combination of people come together in teams and work environments. Perhaps you’ve been lucky enough to be part of one of those teams. Unfortunately, those productive and motivating experiencing are usually fleeting, and all too often, they come to an end at the hands of the organization that was benefiting from the team’s high performance. How did your high performing team disband? At the close of a project? A reorganization?

Stripe’s BYOT initiative is a bold recognition of the reality of the emergent properties of teams while acknowledging that it’s becoming less and less useful to break things down to the individual level. The machine view of interchangeable parts doesn’t work in complex domains, which most businesses are in, given today’s dynamic corporate world.

Hiring teams instead of individuals is an interesting experiment that could prove to be transformative. However, it will only be able to move the needle so far if incentives are still individually based.

Designing performance management systems that reward the right things will be key, as will relooking at how we compensate our workers. Individuals, not teams, bring home a single paycheck, and that reality is not changing. But, some work has been done around team or organization bonuses, basing individual assessments on teamwork behaviors, and increasingly, companies are limiting the disparity between the lowest and highest earners.

What about poor performers that aren’t good for any team? If you truly shift your focus to team-level effectiveness and empower your teams to manage with more autonomy, you are much more likely to hear about it, enabling you to manage those individuals out of the organization quickly.

Teamwork does not mean always getting along, it means getting something accomplished together. If someone’s paycheck is suddenly affected by the deadweight that is their poor performing teammate, you may be surprised at the rate that individual’s performance improves, or failing that, the speed at which they are suddenly considered to “no longer be a fit.”

Both senior leaders and HR professionals should focus on changing incentives, mitigating internal competition, and viewing individuals as part of a team instead of cogs to swap around. This requires a willingness on the part of leaders to give up the illusion of control over every aspect of the organization and begin thinking about how they can foster an environment in which high performance emerges.

The organization has more to provide than any one leader can engineer— those gifts are emerging every day, and the leaders that empower people and put them to work for the organization will place themselves well ahead of their competitors.

Rachel Mendelowitz is an organizational psychology expert and managing partner at McChrystal Group, an elite advisory services firm where she leads the internal product development and research team. She and her team conduct original research, develop new products, and consult on performance management and leadership development solutions. She received her Master of Arts in Social-Organizational Psychology from Columbia University, with a concentration in organizational change and consultation.