Scaling caring in an all-distributed team

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A low-performing team results from a sense that the organization neither cares for the team, nor does it care for its individual performers. In other words, employees stop caring about results when they feel the company doesn’t care about them, too. It is a reflexive property of organizational performance.

Leading a team is a lonely job. And it’s easy to start getting a little paranoid about wondering whether your team members care about the needed outcomes of the team as much as you, as the leader, care about them.

The reality is that they won’t.

Why? Because the leader is the one who is fully accountable for the outcome — so naturally they will care the most. Indeed, some of the folks on the team could potentially care just as much as the leader, and in some cases even more. When that happens, and with a good leader in place, awesome things start to happen. And that is when a high-performing team ignites and becomes close to unstoppable.

But when that kind of deeper accountability doesn’t happen, and the team members don’t care half as much, if at all, compared with the team leader, then you end up with lower performance.

What results is one of two scenarios:

  1. The leader starts to push their team members to care as much as they do. In this case, the leader has embraced the Dark Side and seeks to punish those who don’t care as much as they do. This might work in the beginning, but fizzles out in the long run. Rage has a short time constant of effectiveness.
  2. The leader steps back and gets reflective, seeks counsel from their detractors and supporters, builds up co-commitment while listening and listening and listening, and then works on small wins to create positive momentum. Why? Because people won’t care about what you want, unless you care about what they want. You need to find the compromise between multiple forces to unlock real progress in a team. This process unfortunately takes a lot of time — and it doesn’t deliver in just a couple quarters. But it has a long time constant of effectiveness, and is more of a Yoda approach.

I know both of these approaches well — #kyloboss and #yodaboss — because they embody approaches I have taken as a leader in my past few decades of leading teams. Over time I have joined #teamyoda as being the superior model — and I know the importance of creating a caring team environment as table stakes for a high performing team. And I have found it is super hard to create a caring work environment in any place I have worked — IRL (In Real Life and Face-To-Face) or now NIRL (Not In Real Life and Fully Distributed).

In the NIRL world you can’t see folks’ faces, or otherwise fully sense their affect in the natural way you might do IRL by having lunch together or bumping into each other in a hallway. That said, it is a wonderful design constraint to work within, and it always begs the question for me as a leader of an all-NIRL team to ask how I can best care as much as possible for everyone that I work with NIRL — in native NIRLian ways. They include:

  • Emoji hearts
  • Emoji hugs
  • Timely DMs
  • Public recognition
  • Lots of silly GIFs
  • Custom still graphics
  • Custom videos
  • And that is just a few of the items I now have in my toolkit. It’s growing!

So in summary, I recommend you always choose the Light Side as a leader in both IRL and NIRL. Be sure to care first about the universe around you before you care about yourself — and make those feelings of caring explicit, especially when NIRL (i.e. fully-distributed). The value of a few emojis is significantly lower than a handshake or an appropriate hug. And the NIRL world is still early days — so thanks for being curious along with me about how distributed work works! —JM