Hey Team Leader, the dynamics within your team are all high-fivey and perfect. You like working together, you (willingly) hang out after work and you’re committed to building great things. Only, you’re not.

You’re not, because, even though internally all seems to be fine, you might be lacking a crucial ingredient: there’s no THEM in your TEAM, and it can sink your projects. Who’s THEM? We’re talking clients, higher management and any external parties that are a part of the project your team is currently working on.

(If it’s not the case and your team understands the importance of treating the external parties as if they were a part of the core team — kudos to you, Team Leader. I salute you and encourage you to leave your pieces of advice in the comment section.)

I’ve been leading teams for over 8 years — as a lead developer, product owner and a CEO. I’ve also been led by many producers and project managers. One thing I’ve noticed? Great leaders care about both the inside AND the outside of the team.

Avoid the us-vs-them trap

The us-vs-them attitude was a normal thing when we were growing up.

We’ve all done that, whether it was hiding comic books under the desk in class or giggling when a parent wasn’t in on a joke. The adults were still in power, but a little mischief made us feel deliciously rebellious.

This kind of behavior often translates to work dynamics. Haven’t you ever seen perfectly grown-up people excited about not having a bug disclosed during a client demo? And I get it, it’s a short-term reward (as in “phew, we avoided the negative feedback”), but in the long term it negatively affects transparency, productivity and team spirit. When frustration settles in, the mischievous excitement wears off. And, hey, the projects don’t seem to get done any faster when you don’t vibe well with the clients.

Would you be able to look me in the eye and tell me you’ve never seen the us-vs-them dynamics at work? Whether it’s the client or the management that people defy, it’s a relationship that is going on in many companies. Fret not, there are several things you can do to mend the fences and to foster a “theam” concept (I know, right?).

Please, don’t lie to your clients

That’s the easy part, at least in theory. The trick is to make your team believe (and enjoy) the fact that the client is a part of the group.

1. Be about the why, not the what.

People make decisions based on the information provided, duh. One of these decisions (conscious or not) is whether to be fully dedicated to the project you are currently working on. When introducing new projects or new features, remember to, first of all, outline the reason for the action. Such process not only increases the engagement but it also encourages critical thinking; you may be able to optimise the project and think of a better solution when everyone in the team is focused on the same goal. Foster ownership over responsibility.

2. Take charge of the process.

From my experience, what often leads to conflicts between the team and the client is a process takeover. It goes without saying that a well-thought and optimised process helps to run your project smoothly. The thing is, it only works when everyone knows the process (and the rationale behind it) — that includes the client as well. My advice would be to kick off each project with the client and provide a clear overview of:
– who is in the team (it’s a great chance for everyone to put the names to the faces and form a more meaningful relationship),
– what is the daily/weekly process — a meeting schedule, when (and how) the updates will be presented,

– tools that will be used for communication, project management or resource management (not all of them will be accessible for the client but I believe that a transparent overview is needed).

3. Establish a feedback procedure.

Feedback is important for project progress and, if you’re following Agile principles, it surely is a part of your process. Some clients and managers like to provide an “ongoing commentary” that, although good-willed, tends be confusing and even disheartening. That doesn’t mean you should avoid feedback! Instead, make sure all interested parties know when their feedback is expected and appreciated.

Speaking of feedback, let your team know how they’re doing. Studies show that people perform better when they’re expecting rapid feedback. I’ve recently took part in the world’s largest hackathon and, together with my team, we developed an experimental app for 360 feedback. As it turned out, we made it to the top of the contest, beating 1.2k other ideas. I take it as a sign that peer evaluation is a much needed process in companies.

4. Make the managers a part of your team(‘s success).

The bigger the company, the more difficult it seems to be noticed by the management. The situation gets even worse when all your team hears from the bosses is either complaints that something went wrong or an occasional praise at the end of the project. You, as a team leader, can change this by:

– regular updates. I’m not talking weekly reports and timesheets — as data-packed as they can be, they’re also extremely impersonal and difficult to read at a glance. Being a manager myself, I can tell you that visuals go a long way. Enrich your updates with meaningful charts and send concise memos outlining the latest events,

– adding some personality to your team’s effort. Mention the team spirit when reporting to your manager. If your team has a nickname, logo or unusual rituals, make sure other people in the company know it. The elements you used to build a great team culture should be visible to other employees, especially the managers. Not only does it help to spread the good practices but it may also strengthen your team’s sense of accomplishment.

– asking for feedback, not just waiting for it. Scheduled review sessions are important but you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for advice and feedback. Granted, your bosses are busy people but you should be able to count on some guidance.

5. And, again, please, don’t lie to people! 

If something goes wrong, it is on you to pass the news to your team or to your client. It’s tempting to keep the information from other people, especially when the crisis was quickly solved but transparency towards your team and clients will make everyone feel like they’re working towards the same goal.

This is what you shouldn’t do, though

I truly believe that the us-vs-them attitude between your team and the client/management can hurt you in a big way. At the end of the day, however, you are the team leader, so you have to support your people. Every so often, hostility between your team and the external parties comes from things like irrational criticism, exaggerated requests or overall unprofessional behavior.

healthy team culture means that people shouldn’t be afraid to challenge the status quo when something is not working — cultivate that attitude and don’t be afraid to challenge the management or clients when you feel it’s reasonable.

TEAM + THEM = THEAM (and love, and success, and happiness)

Together with my team, we’ve recently released our first own product and being in the “client” role made me realise the importance of this rule even more. Being transparent with each other and focused on the same goal made us fast, effective, and genuinely happy with what we’ve achieved.

Hope you will be able to translate the anti us-vs-them strategies intto your team’s relationships with clients and higher management. Find a place for Them in your Team. Technically, you’ll create a ‘theam’ then but treat that as a upgrade from the standard version. Good luck!

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