Preserving Culture When Someone Leaves the Team

When someone leaves our team, it’s natural for us as leaders to focus on the immediate practical implications e.g. we’re losing our Python expert, the team’s velocity will reduce by 10 story points, or hitting the next milestone for project X is in doubt. These things are important, but they are far from the complete picture of how this individual’s leaving impacts the team. Technical, or knowledge-related impacts are easy to identify, however there are a myriad of non-technical or behavioural aspects that are less obvious, and less easy to quantify, that nevertheless have a strong bearing on the team’s culture.

Behaviour shapes culture

A team member is more than just a collection of technical skills — the way that they work has a profound impact on the culture of the team. It can be helpful to think of someone’s behaviour in a given context as a point on a scale — this represents their default approach, often optimising for one thing over another. For example, some people prefer:

  • Compromising on extensibility and reusability in favour of simplicity, versus anticipating future enhancements and building for those from the start
  • Talking through a solution out loud before writing any code, versus working alone until they have something to show
  • Initiating team activities or coffee breaks, versus participating only when invited
  • Shipping a feature when it is 80% finished, even if some edge cases aren’t as well tested, versus shipping only when all requirements are implemented and fully tested

There are numerous examples of these operational biases that impact the culture of the team. It’s not that one point on a given scale is necessarily better than another — in many cases it’s just different. Your team likely has a diverse set of positions on these various scales, that when combined together, complement each other to be effective in the context of your organisation. If the team skews to the extreme ends of these scales, this lack of balance can cause issues, e.g. consistently overcomplicating implementations, or building something overly simplistic can both have significant ownership costs in the long term. When someone leaves the team, the behavioural balance of the team shifts. As a person responsible for the team’s culture, you need to be attentive to how one person’s absence will affect the balance of the overall team.

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Regaining balance

It’s important to recognise what individuals bring to the team, and, if they leave, think specifically about how you will replicate that value. Here are some steps you can follow, with an example about a fictional teammate, Jamie. For a given person:

  1. Start by identifying a behaviour of that person that impacts the team.

Jamie is first to pick up the pen and facilitate discussions around a whiteboard when the team is figuring out a problem. Jamie is great at this — they encourage people to share ideas on how to solve problems, and they ensure everyone is included in the discussion.

2. Assess how their absence might impact that cultural dimension of the team.

If Jamie was to leave, what effect might this have on team discussions? What signals could you look for? Maybe the same quality of facilitation wouldn’t be available, resulting in fewer people contributing? Maybe the team wouldn’t reach the same shared understanding of a problem? Maybe there would be less collaboration in general?

3. Based on the culture you’re trying to create, and your perception of the team’s balance, decide if this is something you need to take action on.

In Jamie’s case, we would really miss people sharing ideas on how to solve problems, and we want everyone in the team to continue to feel included.

4. Decide how to compensate for those behaviours. Note that strengthening a particular cultural aspect can be achieved in different ways — do what feels authentic for you. This could be some combination of:

  1. You as the team leader look to change your behaviours
  2. You encourage one or more of the team to reinforce those behaviours
  3. You begin looking to hire someone new, and tailor your interview process to assess for this cultural behaviour

Rather than relying on Jamie for this behaviour, we decide as a team to rotate responsibility for hosting whiteboard sessions.

5. Repeat for other behaviours.

Cultural changes often start small and compound over time — they’re rarely immediately visible, and it’s easy for dysfunctions to appear without understanding how. Although some of the examples I’ve given might sound minor, with culture it’s often the little things that turn out to be the big things. Technical skills are learnable, but someone’s behavioural approaches are more deeply ingrained, harder to change, and harder to replace. Let’s begin by recognising and appreciating the unique value each person brings to the team above and beyond their technical skills. By taking time to consider what gaps will be left by the departing team member, we can take action before these gaps become problems.

Thanks to Melanie Harries for reading drafts of this.

Written by

Engineering leader at Bloomberg. All opinions are my own.

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