When I’m leading new teams, I start by having a conversation about ground rules. I want my teammates to be explicit about what they need to be successful and how they want to work together. One of the ground rules I always introduce is to “have each other’s back.” It’s a sports aphorism for protecting your teammate’s backside, so that others can’t stab it while your teammate isn’t looking.
It’s one of the things I look for when I’m assessing the health of a team, and it’s a quality I seek when recruiting my own teammates. It’s an individual trait, but it’s also very much about team culture, about whether or not each individual feels accountable for group success, not just his or her own. I’ve seen the same person act very differently on different teams.
The other thing I try to encourage my teammates to do is to speak up, especially when they disagree. For my more conflict-averse colleagues, this can be challenging, and so I often have to be extra sensitive about how to encourage it. Furthermore, striking the balance between speaking up while also having your teammate’s back is challenging when you don’t actually agree with what your teammate is doing.
How do you have someone’s back when you forcefully disagree with that person?
First, you have to be very honest with yourself. You have to ask yourself whether it’s possible to go along with a decision or a certain type of behavior given your strong feelings. If your answer is no, you need to opt-out.
Second, once you make the decision to stay in, you have to do everything in your power to contribute to success. You are as accountable as everyone else to the team. If things go south, take responsibility, don’t just blame the other person. If you can’t do this, you will subtly undermine the team, whether or not that is your intention.
Hall of Fame coach, Bill Parcells, was widely known for his ability to turn around the culture of any football team he inherited. Here’s a story he recently shared about the greatest player who ever played for him (and there were many), Hall of Fame linebacker, Lawrence Taylor:
Here’s the best thing about Lawrence. And this goes for that team too. I could be not talking to that son of a bitch for three weeks. You know, we would have those times where… contentiousness was not the right word to describe it. It was worse. But no matter how bad it was, no matter how pissed I was at him, no matter how pissed he was at me: Sunday, 1 o’clock, he’s standing right next to me when they’re playing that anthem before the game. Every single time. And you know what that meant? Well, “You might be an a–hole, but I’m with you right now.” That’s really what it meant. I loved him. He was a special kid.