I’ve Got Your Back


Having similar motivations and processes may help to establish a team, but you and your coworkers won’t be the best teammates you can be until you also have each other’s back. Here, Johanna Rothman and Gil Broza describe valuable approaches to whole-team support, including banking trust and building shared responsibility.

Calvin is a technical lead, the team’s “go-to” guy. Now in his late thirties, he’s been developing since he graduated and has been a tech lead for the past five years. When anyone has a technical question, Calvin finds the answer. In the past, he’s been available to help others with their design, and he’s been the voice of reason for estimates.

But, Calvin is having trouble on the current project.

A month ago, Calvin’s mother fell down the stairs. He has spent every spare second helping her while still putting in normal office hours. He has been absentminded, has made several mistakes on his tests, and has misestimated several chunks of work.

Two weeks later, just as the team began developing important features and their associated infrastructure, Calvin’s six-year-old had appendicitis and was rushed to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. No one in his house has had a full night’s sleep in weeks. Calvin didn’t tell anyone about his mother and his sick child, and he has not realized how much his lack of sleep has affected his judgment.

Calvin was not his usual self in the team’s design meetings for the new infrastructure. Normally, he would have discussed, poked, prodded, and asked many questions about their conclusion. This time, he just said, “Sure, that seems reasonable to me.”

The team applied the architecture without questioning their choice and its long-term effects. Now that problems have emerged after several weeks, they’ve realized they are late for the project—not a disaster, but a setback. They need a few days to work their way out of this mess.

Cissy, their fear-driven project manager, asks, “What happened? Why are you late? Calvin, I relied on you as the technical lead to live up to your commitments. Now what are you going to do?”

And the team says, “Even though Calvin approved it, he’s part of the team, and we share the responsibility. We’ll fix it together.” The team doesn’t presume to know why Calvin is having trouble. Everyone on the team has Calvin’s back.

Yes, Calvin has the responsibility to deliver on his commitments. And, because he has invested so much in other people over time and banked their trust, the entire team is willing to help him. That spirit of shared responsibility—really esprit de corps—is what we mean by having each other’s back.

Why This Matters
You can have great individuals who deliver value, communicate well, and leverage their process effectively, but if they can’t pull together as a team when they need to, they won’t succeed under adverse circumstances. These include individual circumstances or circumstances of which they are unaware. For teams to be great, the team members must have each other’s back.

If you have each other’s back, your team is that much stronger. It may not perform better, but it’s more resilient and adaptable. Think of this shared responsibility as insurance: You might not be happy about Calvin’s dropping the ball for several weeks, but you can deal with it well.

The more your personal fate is tied with another person’s, the more it makes sense to have that person’s back. When the other person needs help, you’ll be there for her, and when you need help, she’ll be there for you. In both cases, the whole team—not just individual members—benefits.

When your personal fates are less tied—for instance, you both work for the same organization and, even if the project fails, you’ll keep working there—there’s less of a need (or personal motivation) to have that person’s back. Your cost to build shared responsibility might outweigh the benefit.

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