How to Tell When Your Team Members Have Your Back
We can expect to have each other’s back when we have shared deliverables. If a team has committed to a deliverable, we jointly and individually own the deliverable, and so the outcome matters to us individually and as a team. Each team member “does his or her own math” and is likely to be motivated to have others’ backs in order to reduce the chance of failing and its personal implications.
Shared responsibility is more than being civil or professional. Shared responsibility is about the team, the team’s work, and the actions of the team—the “teamwork” itself. You might offer help without someone asking for it. Sometimes, helping a colleague finish a chunk of work takes precedence over finishing your own work. If you’re in a meeting and someone insults a member of your team, you might defend your colleague.
Having someone’s back means when one of us gets in trouble, we handle it. It’s moral support for when the situation turns emotional, it’s helping someone finish some task when you are available, and it’s helping others notice when they are speaking or writing without thinking and providing feedback.
Shared responsibility doesn’t always require you to do anything. Sometimes, it means you avoid certain things. When you have another’s back, you won’t use a team member’s known weaknesses to your own advantage. It means not blaming team members for mishaps. It also means not placating people when their actions are truly not helpful.
Building Shared Responsibility at the Team Level
How does a team—even a newly formed team—have each other’s back?
First, you need to be part of a team: Everyone needs a common goal and interdependent commitments, so that everyone has the same long-term view and the feeling of being together in the same boat. You are all looking through the same viewfinder.
Second, you need to have a strong affiliation to the team. When you affiliate with a team and your primary allegiance is to your team, you are more likely to have the trust necessary to have each other’s back. You know you’ll stay together, working together, without the organization pulling you apart.
The next step is to build rapport. Rapport is about how approachable you are, how you enter the other person’s situation, and your respect for the other person’s model of the world. Building rapport means you make the effort to build human connections to the other team members individually, which often involves finding common ground with each person. Beyond mere civility and professionalism, you may ask about their families, hobbies, or interesting problems they found or solved recently. Building rapport without in-person experience is possible but difficult, and having continuous face time is certainly helpful.
Team members who can give and receive congruent feedback can share responsibility and have each other’s back. Congruent feedback means we don’t blame each other for problems. We don’t placate, allowing bad behavior from others. We don’t ignore members of the team or work around them. We actively build healthy relationships with others, even if we don’t always like them.
Having Each Other’s Back Helps Teams
It’s not enough to have process, “best practices,” agreements, and motivation. Having each other’s back occurs in the white space, when the team—or, more likely, one person on the team—is under the gun to deliver.
A team that has each other’s back has insurance against human failings. They experience less fear. If they fall, they don’t fall so hard, and the personal implications are less severe.
Even if they don’t