Things I remind myself when working with others

May. 12, 2024

People usually say that I’m a pleasure to work with and that I’ve a highly collaborative spirit. The fact that I’m good at teamwork doesn’t mean that it comes naturally to me. Quite on the contrary, being a good teammate is a skill that I constantly need to train and refine. The following are things I remind myself on a daily basis, à la Dune’s inner monologues, to be a better teammate at work.

Be patient and count to ten

Writing is hard. Writing socially is harder, especially when one seeks a certain consistency of style and quality. Moreover, writers have opinions on a wide variety of topics, from the usage of em dashes to the Oxford comma. And our egos are fragile. At the beginning of my career, I used to lose my temper and brood over silly disputes, embargoing potentially useful avenues of collaboration because of disagreements.

These days, I let go. Opinions aren’t showstoppers in technical writing; critical projects seldom fail because someone prefers to use animated GIFs over text diagrams. I do my best to acknowledge different opinions when I see them, keeping the good bits. I let them pace and browse old magazines in the waiting room of my attention. After a while, hot takes get bored and depart. It’s no big deal.

Don’t fret if someone doesn’t act according to your expectations. Don’t bite folks because they don’t seem to get it. It might be you who isn’t getting it. Instead, study their modus operandi to understand why they might be acting like they do or saying the things they say. A positive side effect is that you might learn something new about your teammates while you give yourself time for building a dialogue.

Assume good intent, always

I grew up in a very competitive environment, my brother and I constantly clashing and chasing each other in pursuit of high grades. In hindsight, it would have been better to enjoy my youth more, but that’s not my point. What I want to say is that our past influences the way we interact with people by default. When I started my career, I didn’t expect people to be friendly or supportive, just like when I was in school.

You don’t need to have had a troubled past. Sometimes, a bad day is all you need to feel that the world is set on a collision course with your life. When that happens at work, especially in remote environments, feeling that someone crossed you can come easy. And if you’re a hot-blooded individual like me, there’s a risk you might launch preemptive strikes – figuratively speaking.

The secret to avoiding the tragedy of misunderstandings, with all its cathartic post-mortem discussions, is to refuse to act when you don’t have sufficient data. When in doubt, assume good intent. You don’t need to overcompensate and assume the best either: just strive for an agnostic point of view, one that allows you to shrug and disengage quickly when something just doesn’t sound right.

You can be both honest and kind

People go through a lot. They might look like smiling avatars to you, their email signatures cheerfully saluting you from the inbox, but what happens in their lives could be vastly different in nature. For all you know, that colleague who failed to push changes to a git branch could be enduring such existential pain that it’d be difficult to describe in person, let alone in a chat window.

As you don’t know – can’t know – all that happens to your teammates in their lives, your default mode of operation must be kindness, that is, an attitude of empathy, consideration, active listening, and friendliness. In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes: “Kindness is unconquerable, so long as it is without flattery or hypocrisy”. It then goes on explaining its effect and usefulness, with an important caveat:

For what can the most insolent man do to you, if you contrive to be kind to him, and if you have the chance gently advise and calmly show him what is right…and point this out tactfully and from a universal perspective. But you must not do this with sarcasm or reproach, but lovingly and without anger in your soul."

Kindness doesn’t detract from honesty. You can be kind while at the same time voicing your concerns or expressing your unfiltered thoughts in a gentle, assertive manner. It’ll be good for you and your team.

Communicate clearly and timely

Your most important writing at work doesn’t happen in the documentation: it’s the one you use to communicate with teammates and other people at work. In An update to my tips for working remotely, I listed several strategies for enhancing communication at work, like maintaining your own README file or documenting everything. The most important, though, and the most relevant to this post, is the last one: write well.

Writing well shows respect for the people you interact with, and facilitates work, as clear messages are easier to understand and lead to less questioning. You don’t need to sound like a book, but you shouldn’t write as if you were texting someone before going to sleep. Remember: You write, therefore you exist.

One important aspect is to communicate your limits clearly. Teammates can support you better when they know how much work you can take or what areas you feel more comfortable with. Kat Stoica Ostenfeld masterfully explained this in her talk Lone technical writer: Practical tips for getting you up and running.

Your first priority is to be of service

Picture a small spaceship crossing the cold wastes of interstellar space. Perhaps you thought of the Millenium Falcon, or the ship from Guardians of the Galaxy, or Mass Effect’s Normandy, or Becky Chamber’s Wayfarer. Those are, at least, the examples that come to my mind. They all share a common denominator: they feature tightly-knit and diverse crews that support each other in all kinds of situations.

You want to be part of that crew.

Your individual goals should never, ever get in the way of team growth. Nobody should get left behind. If that means stopping to work on something important so that you can lend a hand to a teammate, then do it. If you’re in a more senior position, be a servant leader, especially with junior staff. Also, don’t forget to celebrate your teammates’ victories, as a stronger team is also a safer, stronger place to be.