How do you enable Onlyness in teams? By having their backs, no matter what.

I will be starting a new job in about ten days. And I want to put into practice the ideas you wrote about in a “Matter of Trust.”  

My goal is two-fold.

I want to be myself in this new role. I know from experience that my success in any job —and the value the organization gets from my work— is strongly and directly correlated with how open I am and the extent to which I bring my Onlyness to work. 

And, I want to create an environment where every person on the team (and everyone else I work with!) can feel free and safe to bring their Onlyness to work. I know this means believing in people building trust and empathy, but I don’t know what all this means and what I still need to learn and practice. 

To distill this into a question, how can I build a team and an environment where Onlyness thrives as a leader who is new to an organization? I will be building a significant function in a newly formed subsidiary of a large corporation. I will have one team member in place on day one, so I will build my team mostly from scratch.

Hey there, Builder

What is the opposite of Onlyness

What is it that decenters one’s own ability to add value, so we’re not ourselves at work? 

The answer? Conformity. 

Conformity is someone giving up a part of themselves to fit in. Conformity is why we show up small because we’re anxious that we’ll be found wanting. Conformity is why we subjugate ourselves to those in charge, believing that’s what it takes to stay in the room. Conformity is also why someone advocates solely for their point of view; they’ve conformed into the conventional story of individualism and zero-sum thinking.

There is great research on how and why conformity is the default culture @work. 

And the way to address conformity is not what most of us think it is. It’s not asking people to claim their Onlyness by “having more confidence,” or leaning in, or even to “realize that your ideas matter,” as was proposed in the NYT. Yes, I get that this is what we’ve been taught and told. It’s what (and why) I first got wrong about Onlyness

This is why I have to remember to tell you this:

People aren’t conforming because they are weak-willed or even full of self-doubt. They are simply doing the wise thing, doing what they need to survive.

We conform not because we WANT to, but because we NEED to. 


And so, Builder, this is the key. 

If people conform because they NEED to, we want to understand those needs. Without addressing people’s needs, you cannot clear the way for Onlyness—that distinct spot in the world one stands, that source of value creation.

But let me check-in.

When I say “needs,” do you know what I mean? A good list is here

Now, if you do click that link, you’ll see a rather overwhelming list, a menu of all needs, ever. Like in the course of all humans, ALL OF THE NEEDS. But the point isn’t for you to meet them, because neither you as a leader nor the organization is responsible for meeting team members’ needs. That would be ludicrous, maybe even ridiculous. No one is responsible for another person in that paternalistic way; your teammate is not an infant. 

As we’ve said, a leader’s job isn’t to care for others; your job is to care with others

The goal is for you to want their needs to get met.

You want for them what they want for themselves. 


The headline of this column (and from the song I’m humming to myself as I write) derives from the slang term “roll deep,” which, in British slang (according to Adele), means to have somebody’s back, no matter what.

Have their back.

If we feel like our boss and colleagues have our backs, we feel safe enough to be ourselves. We can belong AND be. It’s the path of Onlyness. It defeats conformity. And so now I just want to offer you three ideas of how to put that into practice.  

First, seek who needs to do what you need a’doing. 

As you hire and form teams, ask people, what is the thing that you do at home, at school, in life, with friends that you just can’t stop yourself from doing?

A friend of mine is someone who creates order out of chaos. It’s born of her history and experiences. She once told me a story from her childhood where she started a calendar at age 4 to create order in her family of origin dynamics. Over the years, she applied this same fundamental need to just about everything, from programs to channel work, from product launches to acquisitions issues.

She can’t NOT create order out of chaos. It’s her particular Onlyness. And she knows how to do it in the highest-stakes situations that companies face, revenue-related issues. 

But for the longest time, she didn’t value her capacity. Instead, she thought of it as a negative. Something to be ashamed of. Something born out of family trauma. 

Instead, she thought she should be more “strategic” at numbers. A data cruncher. And a bunch of other things her peer colleagues with McKinsey-type training said mattered. 

But once she understood and valued her Onlyness, she could see how she applied it, how it activated entire teams to work so much better together. And how it lets her stay calm and curious when revenue issues are causing others to lose their shit. (And now she hires a data person on her team to add the skills the overall team needs.) 

Who we are is always valuable once we value it. 

I share my friend’s story because it reminds me that we each have a reason for being. We don’t necessarily see it unless we center correctly. 

This is the opposite of how we mostly hire, promote and choose teammates. We typically look for what someone can prove to us about their credentials. We look at education level, the number of years in a job, known brand names. And when we interview, we often lead with what we think others will want to hear, what we believe will check a box. It’s why I wrote this piece for HBR, about how we eliminate perfectly good candidates by the questions we ask

So let me offer you a better question. Ask what is always true. Their job is to share how they can’t NOT add value. Your job is to match that to the jobs you have open. 

Second, be the champion of everyone’s onlyness in meetings. 

Innovation starts with novel ideas but is shaped into reality by productive friction. 

Yet, in most work cultures, the aspiration for team alignment is often seen as an absence of conflict. You might hear “ if you’re not on board, get off the train”, or “we’re getting on the same page,” even before discussions have started. All of which leads to conformity, not Onlyness-enabled innovation.

Agreement without friction is conformity. Friction without agreement is chaos

And yet you need both: agreement AND friction. So what you want to do in meetings is make sure people are saying what they think (sharing their Onlyness), and then make the conditions, so people are listening and valuing that (honoring Onlyness). Your job is to create the ground rules for that exchange. (I name them and write them down, and then ask everyone to share responsibility for adhering to them). 

Also, because it’s so relevant, I recommend Amy Edmonson’s fantastic body of work, start with teaming and then how to create psychological safety inside organizations.)

Third, look around at the systems and structures in place and fix what isn’t right.
A bud of mine recently started a new job. And he came on board to find out that one of his top scientists had been left off a paper. The person with more organizational heft got his name published, while the person who contributed equally (but lacked organizational status) did not. He couldn’t do much, if anything, to fix that situation. It happened before he got there. 

But instead of ignoring it, he went and learned how the organization failed his person. He then wrote up policies that would ensure that less powerful people weren’t used for their ideas and then discarded when it came to credit. He got an executive buy-off and put a formal process into place. He did all of this before telling his teammate what he was doing.

Because he didn’t want to say, I tried to have your back. He wanted to report; I’ve got your back. And this is why he’s one of the people I have in my kitchen cabinet. I trust him to watch after my interests, even when I’m not aware of how he’s doing it. 

Do that, too, Builder. Fix stuff that you see limits someone’s Onlyness. You won’t be able to do it all at once, but start with what you can. And, in bird by bird style, you’ll be enabling a culture of innovation. 


We each want to belong as ourselves. And we will if we can. We will when someone has our back. 

Be THAT person. (and, by the by, have your crew do it for you!)

It’s true that many of our work cultures and leaders don’t understand how to have our backs. They think they need to “hire the best” as if there is one version of “best.”  They think they need to “manage” people rather than create the conditions to work together. And they believe that cultural issues are impossible to fix as they can’t change the systems. 

So while the task you set for yourself isn’t an easy one, it’s work worth doing. 

Go, go, go, Builder. Show us how it’s done. (And we’ve got YOUR back as you do!) 

And my editor’s pick, who is now introducing me/us to new music: 

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