When people talk about team building we typically mean finding ways to build a greater rapport and trust between our team members. When done well, this can have a positive impact on team productivity, and fortunately there’s a lot of material out there on this subject to help us all. Instead of working with an existing team, I want to talk about another aspect of team building: actually building the team.
I believe the single most important type of decision we make as leaders is how we hire and assemble a team. These decisions have far-reaching impacts on our teams and on our own work and shouldn’t be delegated away as a nuisance.
There’s a lot of data to support this. Recent data shows that employee turnover costs $223B annually, that disengaged workers have a 37% higher absenteeism and 60% more errors, and that workplace incivility can cost $14k/person annually in lost productivity.
In spite of this data, I’ve encountered managers at tech and digital companies that brag about hiring the “brilliant jerk” type of employee. They’ll say things like “I don’t care whether they play nice with others, they’re some of the smartest people I know”. This stems from a mistaken belief that tech organizations function as meritocracies. Unfortunately, this simply isn’t true. In most organizations I’ve seen, the “best” ideas don’t rise to the top no matter how much we want to believe in a meritocracy. In an unhealthy culture it’s the loudest ideas and those promoted by the biggest bully that rise to the top.
And in part, while these brilliant jerk types may or may not actually be the smartest people in the room, they often believe they are. Believing you have no room for improvement or no room to learn is a fast path to mediocrity, and hiring people like this will lead to mediocre results at best.
At the other end of the spectrum are people I refer to as “pleasant poison”. These are the people that are great cultural fits in that people like to be around them, but are not competent at their job. Sometimes hiring folks like this is an overcompensation to the brilliant jerk trope, but can be just as deadly. Simply getting along isn’t enough, and in fact, over time your valuable team members won’t enjoy working with this type. They become a poison as they linger in the organization because team members start wondering why someone who isn’t competent is still here. These pleasant poison team members can actually be harder to get rid of because they’ll fly under the radar longer due to their pleasantness and both team members and management have a hard time having the difficult conversation with or about them.
This is why hiring is such an important process and decision. And for good or ill, what you look for you will get and what you don’t look for you leave to chance.
So what characteristics do you look for when you build a team? Just expertise in their domain, be it coding, designing, project management etc.? Do you hire developers that are deep in a stack or do you also assess their problem solving skills? Do you hire designers primarily because of tool familiarity or is client interfacing an equal consideration? Are you thinking about if you’d like to work with that person or do you think about whether or not they are a good cultural fit for the organization (or neither)?
Ultimately, we need to be explicit in what we are looking for and what we aren’t looking for when we assemble a team. Doing the work up front will have a far greater impact than any team-building exercises brought to bear once the team is formed. Constructing your team with a holistic team view will help create a true team rather than a collection of individuals. If we fail to do this, the results can be disastrous.
Seth is the CTO at Bounteous where he sets the technical strategies for both his firm and his clients, and where he coaches technical and non-technical leaders.