On Teams:  A Blog About Team Effectiveness

Got my back? Backup behavior doesn’t happen by chance.

Written by Scott Tannenbaum on .

My recent 2-day business trip to Texas was unexpectedly extended due to a snow storm in the Northeast,Got my back so I needed to buy clothing. I went to a Nordstrom's because I'd experienced good service at their stores in the past. What I observed during this visit was a nice illustration of "seamless backup," a phenomenon that many high-performance teams demonstrate. So what is seamless backup and how does it happen? Read on...

Backup is the provision and acceptance of assistance from team members. Seamless backup is when it happens so smoothly that it is almost unnoticeable.

My recent experience: As I meander through the menswear section, Sue introduces herself and asks about my needs. She guides me to clothing that fits my style (New York-ish) and stature (5'7" on a good day!). As I find a few possible items she says, "let me take those and set up a dressing room for you while you continue shopping." She was very helpful and made it clear that she would help me find what I needed to make it through the trip. I continued wandering around the floor, looking at various items and grabbing a few more to try on. I looked around and didn't see Sue; within seconds Linda glided over and introduced herself. "I'm Linda, I know you are working with Sue. Allow me to help you while she is busy. I'll add the items you're holding to your dressing room. I noticed that you tried on a Robert Graham shirt, have you ever seen the shirts by Ted Baker?" A few minutes later Sue returns and continues to help me, referring to the items she picked out as well as the one that Linda suggested. For me, it felt like I was working with one person who happened to occupy two bodies. That's seamless backup.

Notice what didn't happen. Linda didn't ignore me because I wasn't "her" customer. Sue didn't get offended that Linda stepped in. She didn't think, "why is Linda talking to MY customer?" In contrast to my Nordstrom's experience, when consulting for a well-known retail company several year ago, I observed a sales professional pretend to answer a phone call so he wouldn't have to spend time with a customer who was making a return, because it wouldn't help him make his individual sales quota! That's not teamwork.

The research regarding team backup behavior. So what does research tell us about backup behavior? After reviewing the empirical research on teamwork, Eduardo Salas and his colleagues concluded that backup was one of the most important aspects of team effectiveness, and considered it part of their "Big Five" of teamwork.

Michelle Marks and Fred Panzer showed that mutual monitoring enables team members to backup one another, which in turn boosts team performance. Recognizing when a team member needs help or has made a mistake is a necessary step that allows you to fill in, provide feedback, or offer assistance.

Kim Smith-Jentsch and her co-researchers studied commercial Air Traffic Controllers and found that teammates with greater experience working together were more likely to request and accept assistance. While most of the research on backup is quite positive, Chris Barnes and his associates did discover that there can be a potential downside. For example, when workload is evenly distributed, providing backup can lead to neglecting one's own work, and team members who receive a lot of back-up support sometimes decrease their effort in subsequent tasks.

Five key questions. So how can we encourage constructive backup behaviors? It is helpful to understand five questions people are likely to ask themselves when determining whether and how to offer or accept backup support.

  • Does he need help? I'm unlikely to offer help unless I'm aware of the need. That means I have to either recognize the need (by keeping my eyes/ears open for signs) or the person needs to seek my assistance/backup.
  • Can I help him? Do I have the skills and capabilities to fill in or back up effectively? Am I adequately trained and prepared to so? Do I have the time and resources to stop what I'm doing and help?
  • Would he want me to help? Although an initial answer might be "of course," we can all recall instances when our help was rejected, either overtly or subtly. So this question is often answered by reflecting on how that person responded to prior offers of help.
  • What will happen if I do help him? What are the consequences? Will my help be appreciated, not only by him but by my team leader? Or am I likely to get in trouble for "abandoning my post" or not getting my own work done?
  • Can I ask him for help? Is it considered acceptable to ask for assistance or might that be interpreted as a sign of weakness? Is our relationship mutually supportive? Can I count on him to back me up when I need it? Or is this more of a one-way relationship, perhaps an "expert-novice" or even a "giver-taker" connection? Is it reciprocal or altruistic?

Fostering effective backup. Seamless backup doesn't just happen. It is typically the result of one or more of the following practices:

  • Training – to ensure individuals have the skills they need to fill-in – in some cases fully "cross-training" individuals so they are interchangeable, but at a minimum ensuring they know enough to help out in a pinch. Sue and Linda both knew menswear quite well (and yes, I did buy a Ted Baker shirt).
  • Role clarification – to ensure all team members understand when backup is expected (and when it is not) and when it is appropriate to ask for help (and when you will be "on your own"). Without a shared mental model about this, seamless backup is impossible. Sue and Linda both understood that, although I was Sue's customer, Linda should step in as needed.
  • On-going Communications – to keep team members abreast of what is going on so that they are able to fill-in when needed; what my military colleagues call "situation awareness." Sue and Linda clearly communicated about me (I'm assuming Sue said something like, "keep an eye on the tall, good-looking guy").
  • Leader support – to recognize and reinforce the right behaviors (and change the wrong ones, such as pretending to answer the phone). Regardless of company policy, a team leader can send a clear signal about whether to work as a team. Sales people earn commission at Nordstrom's, so there is little doubt in my mind that Sue and Linda's manager was reinforcing a team-oriented approach.
  • Expressing gratitude – to encourage your teammate to help out again in the future. I'm guessing Sue and Linda say "thank you" to one another and express gratitude by reciprocating.

Seamless backup is not magic, although it may appear that way at times. Many high-performing teams demonstrate it and it can be the difference between success and failure. But it doesn't happen by chance.