Designer Confidential: How do I create a healthy team culture when my own boss is toxic?
Welcome to the next installment of Designer Confidential: a new column sharing practical advice on solving your toughest challenges like transforming your organization, creating a better-connected workflow between designers and developers, and building a great team. Submit your questions via this form, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at us at @InVisionApp.
As a manager, I’m constantly striving to empower my designers and provide a motivating and inspiring environment for them to flourish. On the downside, my own manager is completely demotivating and discouraging. Do you have any tips to help deal with the lack of leadership support and to stay driven?
—Signed, Discouraged Design Lead.
I’d like to start by acknowledging how difficult it must be to build a healthy team environment under less than ideal circumstances. Culture is set at the top, and while you can create effective microcosms, the environment—as a whole—cannot be set up for success without a foundation of supportive leadership.
That being said, there are some things within your control, and I applaud you for seeking them out. Laszlo Bock put it best in his book Work Rules: “It is within anyone’s grasp to be the founder and culture-creator of their own team, whether you are the first employee or joining a company that has existed for decades.”
In my experience as a Design Operations lead, I’ve found shaping the right environment comes down to thoughtfulness in four key themes—purpose, roles and responsibility, respect, and rituals. Let’s dive in-depth into each of these:
The basis of a good culture is clear communication of purpose, or exactly why something is (or isn’t) happening. I’ve found that we all too often remember to share the business importance of a project while forgetting to identify the role it can play in our team’s personal development. To combat this, I use what was called a “team leap” from my days working at frog. For every project, we held a kick-off consisting of two key components: establishing the essential goal of the team and identifying what everyone hoped to get out of the project. Each of us created a “playbook” that not only framed each project around their opportunities for growth, but communicated their personal and professional parameters. I found that this process not only helped drive alignment and empowerment, but also helped us stay accountable to each other.
Roles & Responsibility:
Clarity in roles and responsibilities can help foster good communication (which often is the difference between high-performing and poorly-performing teams.) There’s a reason role definition exists: so people can know exactly what they are and are not accountable for. Clearly communicated roles help identify who to turn to when questions arise and prevent redundant work from occurring.
In order to do great work, everyone needs to feel free to voice their opinions. However, I’ve found radical candor can sway into the quadrants of Obnoxious Aggression under the guise of “being candid.” You should foster healthy dynamics early and check in on them regularly. Openness, trust, and dissent need to be encouraged, but you first and foremost need to make sure these conversations are built on respect.
Rituals, like pre-scheduled breaks and group outings, are often an afterthought, but I’ve found they’re the cohesive glue in effective teams. Not only do they install good habits and opportunities for bondings, but they give everyone the space to be human and, most importantly, have fun. On my teams, some rituals are absolutely necessary for all members, others are decided upon as a collective, and some are decided individually. Devik Lansing, a colleague of mine, likes to refer to this method as “fixed, flexible, and free.” I love it because it creates consistency and reliability, gives everyone a sense of autonomy, and nurtures the individual contribution to the collective.
Hopefully, some of this framework can help you think of the best ways to support your team within the existing parameters. Though it’s a tough challenge, I’ve found any work put into creating and maintaining healthy, happy, and high-functioning teams yields increasing returns—not only is their output generally of better quality, but the culture is infectious. Management will often see that the proof is in the pudding and inspire the broader change your organization needs.