Let me share something I’ve recently learned the hard way. Back story — one of the engineers on my team has decided to pursue another opportunity and leave our company, which caught me and most the rest of our team a bit off-guard. There were no warning signs and no discussion around the possibility as far as I’m aware. But it happened.
After a deep reflection, I realized and learned something that might have led to this unpleasant surprise. I now understand that emphasizing teamwork can occasionally send the wrong message. As a company, we highly value teamwork, and we’re proud to have software engineers who buy into that. We all believe that we are only as effective as the team is effective, and that the sum of individual results is never as valuable as the entire team’s result. But here’s how it can go wrong.
The wrong message
Teamwork is never a bad thing (or at least I would like to believe so). But emphasizing too much on it can sometimes water down what’s just as important — individual preferences. The truth is, team players, in their conviction to put the team above all else, can often lose awareness about what they really want for themselves. Worse, even if they are aware of their preferences, they might naturally make a lot of assumptions about how that fits poorly in the team’s context.
In reality, team values are not something that just emerge out of nowhere. Neither should it be something that’s imposed from above (though admittedly, that can often be the case). In an ideal world, your team values consist of what’s important to each and every individual — at least the part that makes sense to everyone else.
Ultimately, it might turn out that your individual preferences, in fact, don’t fit very well in your team values. But it doesn’t mean it will never be so. Being aware of it and opening it up for discussion, and a healthy amount of debate, would be a great start towards a win-win situation.
Avoid this in your team
For managers, it’s important to establish a culture and environment where that transparency is not only possible but encouraged.
Here a few tips on avoid this, both for individual contributors and managers.
First, for individual contributors. Always take time to self-reflect on what you like and don’t like about your job (that means the work itself, your team, the company, and every aspect that factors into your day). When there are things you don’t like, don’t assume that it’s a non-negotiable just because it doesn’t seem like the team would buy into it. That assumption might turn out to be right, but there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain by validating that and having it heard by everyone.
For managers, it’s super important to establish a culture and environment where this transparency is not only possible but encouraged. How do you accomplish this? Be consistent. Ask frequently and learn to listen well. It’s not going to be very comfortable. People will raise things you have absolutely no control over. It doesn’t mean you should shy away from them. As I’ve learned personally in contrasting experiences, a clear and well-reasoned “no” reaps better outcomes than an improbable “yes”, and a whole lot better than avoiding the topic altogether.
A question I’ve recently been asking more frequently in my 1-on-1’s is, “ what’s your least favorite thing about your work?” As compared to a templated “ what are your concerns” or even “ what don’t you like about your work”, the question framed this way has proven to bring out more answers and better feedback. People tend to think in black and white, that things are either good or not good. But even the good things have a scale, and identifying what’s at the bottom of that is a good step to improving the situation.
If it doesn’t work…
It’s also important to understand that the value of certain things can change from time to time and that’s completely fair. You might want stability one day and to be challenged the next. Your pay might be heavy on your mind today, and learning opportunities more valuable tomorrow. This isn’t a bad thing at all. You should embrace these changes in your values and discuss them just as often with your team or your manager.
Granted, it’s possible you’ll never be able to arrive at an agreement that’s feasible on the manager’s end and acceptable for the report as well. Here’s where I say, retention should not be a standard or metric to adhere to. Most of the time, a bad fit is no one’s fault, and people simply outgrow the company they work with.
The important thing is that you’ve laid everything on the table and made sure all the options have been properly explored. If you have to part ways, it’s better done with no regrets (and no unsaid assumptions) on both ends.