Your team members aren’t pawns in a chess game

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Nov 22 2017 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

Project management and team leadership are often viewed as chess games. A large part of the leader’s job is to choose the appropriate pieces and move them to the correct parts of the board to achieve the goal of capturing the other team’s King (or snagging market share, or getting the software done. You get the point).

But there’s one important difference, of course. Those pieces on the chess board aren’t human. Your team members are - and they need to be treated accordingly.

In chess, the knight goes ‘up one and over two’ and doesn’t ask why. It doesn’t suggest perhaps you want to go ‘over two and one to the left’, or go one up and over and stop because he ran out of time. Of course it doesn’t.

  • Are you treating your people like chess pieces? Ask yourself these questions:
  • Are members of your team regularly replaced and no one thinks this is a big deal?
  • Have you ever quickly dismissed complaints about long hours or inconvenient call times with “well you knew that when we hired you”?
  • If death were the only option, do you know how many children combined your team members have? Can you even come close?

Particularly in highly technical fields, there is a tendency to discount human interaction as a complicating factor, rather than an asset. I remember one time asking a very good programmer why she kept refusing chances to go into leadership. “Because code does what you tell it to do the first time, and you don’t have to ask how the kids are,” she responded.

It’s not that we’re bad people. It’s just that, particularly in task-heavy situations like project management, we tend to focus on the tasks - the chess moves. We get measured on milestones met, not laughs per meeting. Social interaction on meetings is dismissed as “off topic” or “wasted time”. Laser focus on the work is regarded as the highest compliment, attempts at friendly chat are often looked at with the suspicion that person isn’t working as hard as you are.

So what difference does it make if we don’t recognize the human nature of our team members?

  • Turnover is high, and you wind up constantly bringing new people up to speed. This kills productivity, efficiency and morale
  • People do exactly what’s expected of them and no more. The team doesn’t put out that extra discretionary effort (going the extra mile for a teammate, raising potential problems, asking tough questions) because “it’s not my job”
  • The team doesn’t reach out to each other, more communication is channeled through the manager. That’s more work for you. Is that what you want?
  • Work gets done, maybe even well, but it’s not a lot of fun

In co-located teams this social interaction is hard to ignore. You overhear conversations, you see pictures on desk, and gossip is rampant. In fact, it can sometimes surround and overwhelm you. Really, how many birthdays can there be in one office?

On remote teams, however, the opportunities for accidental interaction are rare. Differences in time zones, language, even team and national cultures, can separate people as much as the actual distance does. It takes more effort from everyone to create even the simplest social connections.

Here are just a couple of things you can do to help re-connect your team:

  • Ensure everyone knows what everyone else looks like. Use webcams where possible or at least share pictures of team members
  • Use social media, SharePoint, Slack or whatever to post bios and profiles of all team members. This will help people get to know each other, but also know who specializes in what, who shares a bond ( Manchester United fans tend to stick together, no matter where they are) and where to find the resources, answers and help they need to get their work done
  • Allow a couple of minutes as meetings start to engage in conversation. If you know information about someone (that isn’t embarrassing or private), share with the team. “How did your daughter’s piano recital go?” can help offset the fact that Alice missed the last meeting. It also is an easy way for people to know a little more about Alice. You don’t have to make it the point of the meeting, just don’t kill the interaction the minute it arises.

Yes, the strategic part of project or team leadership is important. You have to know how to play chess. You also need to know that pawn’s name is Bob, and he doesn’t like to be called Robert, regardless of what his email says.

It matters.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.