Protect yourself first

3 minute read

A common refrain in software engineering is to put your team before yourself. Also, put the customer first. Make sure you align with the organisation’s goals. Everything comes before yourself.

In leadership positions it can be important to protect a team, whether it’s from organisational noise, stress around change, or just focus. It’s easy to feel a burden of responsibility, especially if the team isn’t healthy or there are lots of external pressures you can’t control.

It’s certainly important to build and maintain psychological safety in any team, but when I’m thinking about safety I’m reminded of Cave Rescue training where it’s the other way around.

Self, team, casualty

I was surprised on my first casualty care course. One of the first things we covered was assessing the situation and making sure we weren’t putting ourselves in danger. Our instructor summed it up nicely:

If you rush in and get hurt, what use are you to the casualty? You’re another casualty, and that might make the rescue more dangerous for the rest of your team.

Fine, so you’re making sure you’re safe. Now the casualty is the priority. Nope. Your next responsibility is to the team’s safety. Pretty much for the same reasons. One person alone can’t haul a casualty out of a mine, so it’s all about working together safely as a team, watching out for each other.

So the casualty is last.

Last doesn’t mean unimportant

Even though the casualty sits at the bottom of the list, they’re the whole reason a group of volunteers set off to help in the first place. They get specialist medical attention and a personal stretcher carry. If they’re lucky maybe even a helicopter ride. Taking care of self and team enables that level of care.

But team leadership isn’t a rescue

Okay, you’ve got me there. It’s a bit outlandish to equate running an engineering team to rescue services. But there are lessons to take from it.

For yourself

If you’re not in a good place you can’t help your team. Take holiday. Finish on time. Say no. Different people need different things, so just make sure you’re looking after yourself.

I still really struggle with this one. It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to “just push through”, and I’m a sucker for thinking things will be easier after this one last thing. Spoiler alert: that one last thing always unearthed something else. Quelle surprise.

For your team

Empowering your team to look after themselves is no easy task. Often even a supportive, safe team will have members who work through sickness or work late to get something over the line. In the UK I’ve found a cultural aversion to sickness absence, as if it’s a failure to be ill and need to rest. It doesn’t help that we often celebrate the unhealthy behaviour – staying late to meet a deadline, coming in on a day off to save the day. These things get praise in all-hands meetings, they get your name known, and they maybe even get you a promotion.

Back in 2016 Government Digital Service wrote “It’s okay to say what’s okay” and it holds up well today. It’s incredibly powerful to give individuals permission to say no, or not know everything. Even so, it’s often hard to advocate for ourselves so watch out for when your team is struggling to do it. It’s often easier as an outsider to see what’s happening.

Finally, one of the best things we can do is to lead by example. By taking time off when we’re ill, and demonstrating that self-care is important, we normalise it. Conversely, if we say taking mental health days is important but never take them ourselves, we’re modelling the unhealthy behaviour.