Principles at work
Between jobs, I thought it’d be good to reflect on some principles that I’d like to follow at work.
Some of these are borrowed from good leaders I’ve worked with and others I’ve learnt the hard way by acting the complete opposite.
We may not follow all of these principles, all of the time. Instead they act as helpful reminders when making decisions and approaching difficult situations. This is based on my own thoughts and experiences — please feel free to challenge and share yours too!
In no particular order
1. Protect the team (i.e. shit umbrella)
This one is about shielding your team from things that could affect them negatively, protecting their time and wellbeing. It’s important to involve the team in decisions and be honest, but you may not always need to share every detail unless there is a beneficial outcome, as it could bring down morale.
This is based on a few experiences where I’ve openly shared information without considering how it may affect the team. Consider the intended outcome. If it is a piece of feedback, ask the team if they’d like to receive it, when and how.
2. Teams over projects
Some of the best leaders I’ve worked with, Nayeema and Colin, have encouraged this mantra - if you support your team, then good work will follow. Focus less on the work itself and more on making sure your team are supported, happy and fulfilled. This can be through the work, by placing people in areas where they can thrive, rather than using them as bodies to deliver a project.
3. Embrace diversity and different perspectives
One of the best things about working in a team is the different perspectives we all bring. Do more to make sure all voices are represented when making decisions. It’s important to challenge your own biases, especially when building diverse teams and actively looking for people whose backgrounds and opinions differ from your own. Identify gaps and find ways to bring together individual’s expertise in the team to complement each other.
4. Align to a common goal
It can feel a bit muddled in teams without clear direction or outcomes. Get together to try to make sense of what you’re all here for, so that the team is running towards the same goal. Set a vision and prioritise tasks to get there. Although there will be different ways of approaching things, it helps to feel part of a bigger vision and be making progress each day to achieve it.
This came up a lot in the NHSX mental health alpha and care home connectivity work, where there has been a few ‘what are we all doing?’ moments. It helps to pause, ask questions and set some outcomes and goals together. Delivery Manager, Hannah Abdule, is really good at this.
5. Always make time
You can never be too busy where you don’t make time to check in with your team or the people you line manage. Blocking out a small part of your morning, day, or week can help the team to feel valued. Sometimes, a small issue might not feel big enough for someone to go out of their way to approach you about it, but these things can build up over time. Regular check-ins will help to catch issues early and show you care.
6. No blame culture — only learning
If someone makes a mistake, what can we learn from it? Avoid blaming and try to create a safe space for people to admit when they don’t know the answer or have done something wrong. Encourage curiosity, reflection and development in the team. Here’s how they own mistakes at Etsy.
7. Lead by example
Try to model the behaviours that you aspire to in work. For example, instead of preaching about collaboration and being comfortable with mistakes, demonstrate that. Once I reached out to a senior stakeholder who had made a big mistake to check they were ok, because we were a team with a joint effort. This helped them to see what we meant by a collaborative, no blame culture.
In this example, I was working in a team with a different culture and working style, one that felt hierarchical and less comfortable with problems. Reaching out to this team member improved our relationship going forward. It helped us to practice looking out for each other and showed that mistakes are something we are comfortable with in the team. This is something we encourage as part of the design process too.
8. Inspire people and encourage new ideas
Help people feel empowered to contribute their ideas for shaping the future of the team and how things are done. Give them a platform to do this. Bring your own passions to work and try to inspire others by creating opportunities to showcase their skills and expertise!
9. Be open and honest, but kind
Although it’s good to be direct and transparent, it’s important to do this in a kind way. For example, consider the fact that someone has worked on a service for 10 years before deciding to tell them how terrible it is. And in a service assessment when reviewing people’s work, remind the team that you are there as a peer to help them succeed and not to stop them from passing. This can put the team at ease and minimise any power dynamics at play.
Early on in my role at Department of Health and Social Care as the only user researcher there, I’d find myself in lots of service assessments that felt like a test. The first thing I’d say is I’m a researcher like you here as a peer, because I know the service standard and want to help you build something that meets it.
10. Listen, allow people to feel heard
We always try to practice active listening as researchers, but a stakeholder once told me I didn’t listen to a word they said. Since then, I’ve made sure to listen attentively and find ways to show that too. It is not enough to just listen, you need to show you are listening and give people the space to feel heard, even if you disagree with them. This is a good way of building trust.
I’m still working on this. Some ways to practice is by waiting until someone has finished speaking, repeating back to clarify what they have said, asking questions and suggesting something as an action to their point.
11. Be realistic and push back
Being good at your job doesn’t mean taking on all the work yourself and burning out. Learning to say no and pushing back when things aren’t realistic is also a way of bringing your expertise in a field and showing you care about the work being done well.
12. Build rapport and relationships
I’ve learnt this mostly from working on the COVID-19 pandemic response. It’s so important to build relationships in teams and even harder to do this remotely. If you can, turn on your camera in group calls or have 1–1 audio calls offline that feel more personal. Try to find out about your colleague as a person (behind the screen!) by having non-work related chats. Find allies and support each other.
13. Bring topics to discuss
Another benefit of working in a team is getting together to share views on a topic. As opposed to deciding ‘the way’ to do things, look for opportunities to bring topics for the team to discuss. It could be based on conversations happening that week, or common problems the team are experiencing. This is a good way to bring together different perspectives and have an interesting, healthy debate — it also helps to reach solutions to a shared problem.
For example, in the user research team rather than saying ‘this is how we should do incentives’, this is a great ethics topic to discuss together. We have tried anonymous forms and google sheets to submit our challenges, voting on them and tackling the most popular in the community meeting.
14. Manage expectations
Often teams can be working together and have different ideas of what is happening. For example, what collaboration means to one person might mean something completely different to another. Let’s get on the same page from the start. This is a good post about speaking the same language in user-centred design. Set expectations for what good looks like and realistically what we can deliver, to what standard, by when.
In one of our projects, some team members felt it wasn’t a collaboration and we had different ideas of what this meant. Agree expectations early on in a project to reduce confusion later, especially when working together for the first time. These buzz words are sometimes hard to interpret as well!
15. Celebrate success
In my personal Trello board for managing tasks, I’ve created a ‘Successes’ column to drop things into. It’s good to keep track of small successes, particularly if you work somewhere where progress feels slow — to reflect on what the team have achieved over time. If you put a celebration emoji (🎉) then fireworks go off when you drag a task into that column!
I hope this helps you to reflect on your own principles too. I’m going to keep on changing these as I learn more about good leadership and working in teams. What would some of yours be?
This also reminds me of Team Orders — a set of principles teams can agree on when working together for the first time or kicking off a new project.
Have a go at doing this for yourself or your team and see how you get on!