Male boss high-fives his team of one

How To Motivate a Team of One

As a team of one, K’s biggest challenge is finding time for professional development: “I’m hoping to get more serious about learning, conferences, and certifications, but I need to get better about guarding my time.”

J. used to be a team of one, but left because he felt unappreciated. “When nobody in an entire organization understands what you do, they will never understand the value you add.”

D. also quit, for a different reason. “I never really got a day off (…) It was a great job from 23-27 but I would hate to have it now. I’ve got a wife and kids. My job now allows me to focus on them more than on work and I like that.”

The three discussed being an IT team of one in this thread, where common complaints included working overtime/being on call 24/7, feeling unappreciated, and feeling like professional development had stalled. 

“Team of one” coping strategies

Professionals in other areas that lend themselves to a team of one setup—like Human Resources and Accounting—share similar challenges.

But if the internet is any indication of how companies are supporting these often overworked, overwhelmed, and underappreciated employees, it looks like there’s room for improvement.

Most articles we found on the topic of being a team of one focused not on what organizations can do to support these lone workers, but on what workers can do to cope.

“Make your voice heard,” one article suggests. “Join online communities,” this other one recommends.

Both are good ideas, but we think that companies can do more to engage and retain workers in single-person departments.  

Taking the issue of money off the table

A good place for companies to start is to offer their single-person departments a good salary and benefits. Organizations should pay workers enough, author Daniel Pink says, to take the issue of money off the table.

Beyond that, it’s best not to use financial incentives to drive productivity and engagement. Studies show that higher financial rewards actually lead to a decline in performance.

Boosting intrinsic motivation

Instead, companies should focus on designing work environments that support workers’ natural need for autonomy and meaning.

Igniting the fire within

People are naturally motivated. It may not seem that way when they’re missing deadlines and spacing out in meetings, but we’re all born with what researchers Richard M. Ryan and Edward Deci describe as an

“inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise one’s capacities, to explore, and to learn.”

They call this natural propensity for discovery and growth “intrinsic motivation.” It’s different from the determination to achieve a certain outcome or comply with an external rule, which is known as extrinsic motivation.

Compared to extrinsic motivation, intrinsic motivation is much more powerful. When a team of one (or any employee) is intrinsically motivated, they’re more creative and more likely to keep going when they face setbacks. They also perform better.

Company culture can either boost or diminish a team of one’s intrinsic motivation. What helps boost intrinsic motivation? Autonomy, opportunities to pursue mastery, and a sense of purpose, researchers say.

Happy being a team of one

The discussion thread we mentioned earlier confirms this.

Autonomy

In their own way, most happy “team of one” folks cite autonomy—the freedom to make their own decisions, set their own goals, and direct how things go—as their biggest motivator at work.

D. says: “I’ve been given lots of latitude.”

M. writes: “I get to do what I want.”

Here’s how F. describes it: “I’m more or less allowed to run the IT ship as I see fit.”

Among the things D. misses most about his days working as an IT team of one is—you guessed it—the autonomy they had at work. “I was the master of all.”

Opportunities to pursue mastery

Second on the list is having the chance to learn and grow, i.e., opportunities to pursue mastery.

When D. writes, “I’ve been able to play with technology, learn, experiment, and grow, making the occasional mistake without much fear of getting canned,” that’s what they’re talking about.

Likewise, Z.’s favorite thing about being a team of one in a small company is that “you can do good work and you learn a lot.”

In Z’s experience, continuously working to improve things not only helps you develop your skills, but it also helps “get the systems to the point where they aren’t bugging you at night.”

A sense of purpose

O. writes: “Even though I don’t make a six-figure salary like some sys-admins, I feel meaningful in my job and we get to shape the IT of the company almost entirely.”

P. writes: “I love my job. (…) I have seen so many interesting things and met a lot of interesting folks from companies far bigger than mine. Their IT needs are often specific so I like that I get the chance to shine a little bit by delivering for these companies.”

They’re describing a sense of purpose—having a “why” behind what they do that inspires them to go to work each morning.

Ways to support a team of one

Companies can and should support their single-person department employees’ need for autonomy, the pursuit of mastery, and sense of purpose. Here are some ways to do that:

Autonomy

  • Trust and respect. Instead of micromanaging and surveilling, give the team of one autonomy to make decisions.
  • Flexibility. Give the team of one the freedom to create their own schedule and work from anywhere.
  • The best tools. Equip the team of one with the resources they need to perform well. Access to modern technology will help them better serve customers and be more productive. 
  • Pet projects. Encourage the team of one to use to work on a personal project.

Opportunities to pursue mastery

  • Positive feedback. Acknowledge the team of one’s improvements to performance.
  • Education allowance. Give the team of one an annual stipend for learning something new, whether it’s related to their job or not.
  • Conferences. Encourage the team of one to attend industry conferences (at least two per year).

A sense of purpose

  • Impact. Share insights and stats that demonstrate the impact of the team of one’s contributions. 
  • Networking. Connect the team of one with people in similar positions in other locations.

Helping a team of one succeed

Employees in single-person departments are more likely to feel isolated and like they have stopped learning and improving their skills. Because they tend to work longer hours, they are also more at risk of burning out.

To compensate for this, companies need to be intentional about supporting them. The best way to keep a team of one happy, productive, and creative is to empower them to make choices about how to work, give them opportunities to improve their skills, and provide them with an inspiring vision to work towards. 

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