3 Openhearted Behaviors That Will Make Your Team show Extreme Ownership

A brick wall that says "Together We Create" in Graffiti Photo by "My Life Through A Lens" on Unsplash

Matt is a long-time manager known for being technically savvy. He was once one of the best Engineers in Acme Corp. He's one of the oldest engineers in the company and has in-depth experience with many of the services, technologies, and projects that got the company to where it is. Matt has personally built or led teams that created many of them. Known for having very high standards for quality, he's quick to dismiss ideas that do not meet that bar.

Matt prides himself on being an excellent asset to the company. His experience allows him to nudge technical and product decisions on many different parts of the organization. He relies on that experience to give feedback on ideas and identify tools his team should build based on these discussions. He protects his team from being in these meetings to provide them with as much time possible to focus.

On paper, Matt is a fantastic leader. He has relationships that allow his team to be effective. His direct reports are always shielded from meetings and have ample time to build. But lately, Matt has faced serious challenges:

  • Ideas from the team have dried up
  • His best engineers are not growing or meaningfully contributing to Acme's tools and Platform
  • When Matt's directs are assigned to work with other managers, they soon go from being high performers to start failing
  • Motivation and Energy on the team have begun dropping

But what's the problem here? Surely being a technical expert, keeping a high-quality bar, and shielding the team from meetings are good ideas. We know that to be a fact since we see many articles telling us to do precisely that. What we've failed to see so far is that Matt is also:

  1. Not allowing people from his team to be seen and perform as experts by always being the go-to person.
  2. Not creating a safe environment for people to share by shooting down ideas before people have the chance to Clarify them.
  3. Making the company dependent on him, but especially making his employees dependent on him.

These behaviors directly impact aspects that are critical for the team to be effective: Ownership and Psychological Safety. When people work long enough in an environment where it's not safe to share and don't feel challenged, Motivation, Energy, and effectiveness are bound to drop.

Giving people the chance to own their work

I understand the noble desire to shield your team from meetings. I appreciate your desire to help, share your experience, and use it to leverage other people's work. I do. Although the intention is good when you do this, you're not allowing people to own their work and expertise. Matt got to where he is by being challenged by problems and discussions with his peers and stakeholders. His direct reports won't get there if he frequently shields them from these challenges. Not being in the room when the discussion happens, the team is bound to feel like they're executing on somebody else's vision. They lose agency, and with it goes their Ownership.

Enabling people to own their work usually looks like this:

  • You add people to meetings and coach them on how to be effective in those;
  • Allow them to act as experts on their projects and fields by putting them in the discussions that matter and giving them a chance to have a voice;
  • New responsibilities flow through the team with a healthy cadency. More senior people get the chance to work on what drives their career forward by sharing their responsibilities with more junior people, pushing the juniors' careers forward as a consequence.
  • You hold them accountable for their work. But give them the resources they need to succeed.
  • You celebrate and recognize their wins–giving them full credit.

When we create an environment where people who show Ownership and are motivated can thrive, we reinforce these behaviors. We shape the culture. Environments like that are challenging, but they're also safe.

Fostering a Safe Environment

Without Psychological safety, your idea well will dry up. Mediocrity will ensue, and you will feel like you need to carry the team on your back. Quite often, leaders do a lot of carrying and complaining, even fire people on their teams before realizing it's the leader's fault they're not performing. People need to feel safe in taking risks, in giving their opinions and ideas. If we shut ideas down, don't frame our projects as learning experiences, and don't model Curiosity, we won't build safety.

Supporting other people's ideas

Usually, when we're experts and used to having good ideas, our first impulse when someone shares a problem or idea is to say how we would solve that problem. We tell our war stories. We come in from experience and let people know why their vision may have a flaw. We want to help but end up killing good ideas too early as a result.

If we want Psychological Safety, people need to feel safe sharing their ideas in the rawest form possible. They need to have time to clarify and evolve their ideas. We need to react with Curiosity. There might be something we didn't pick up from the context or from the idea itself. Shutting it down too early will fizzle out the team's creativity.

So we need to get in the habit of backing our team's ideas and providing opportunities and resources to bring those ideas to life. In her book, Radical Candor, Kim Scott presents this idea with a visual aid that is very easy to understand:

A cycle with different steps: Listen --> Clarify --> Debate --> Decide --> Persuade --> Execute --> Learn --> Listen Support ideas from others and help them be successful

Nurturing Dissent

Dissent is traditionally considered a negative—a show of weakness. I urge you to think differently. We should not only welcome dissent but nurture it. When we have a psychologically safe environment where everyone is committed to the results and each other, dissent is love. It's people trying to help each other get to the best results.

Leaders need to encourage people to disagree with them. To tell them where they got things wrong. They need to dedicate significant effort to disconfirm their beliefs even when those beliefs were what made them successful.

Making people independent

If your team only works when you're inside it, you're failing. If people can't grow or won't stay in the company unless you're around them, you're failing. I understand this might seem unfair, but it's the truth. We can't be Super Heroes that protect the team from harm.

People need to go through the processes themselves. They need to be allowed room to fail, to succeed, and learn on their own. If we're constantly pushing and don't take the time to teach them the process, they won't know how to do it for themselves. This means fighting for their promotions, writing their development plans, coming up with their stretch projects and ideas. Ultimately, it means working ourselves out of our jobs.

In conclusion

Being a good leader is an intense exercise in Vulnerability, Humility, and Curiosity. It's hard to lead from those values because of our egos. They push us to be vain, to let shame and fear drive our actions. We can't get to the right answers if we lead that way. We waste opportunities to develop our people. We create environments that have gravity and pull people down instead of helping them go higher.

So give people the chance to grow, build a safe co-elevating environment and be aggressive in removing any dependency your team has on you. Your results will be better in the long run, and your team will remind you as a leader that pushed people forward–a true leader–instead of a brilliant over-paid shit umbrella.