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Taking One For The Team

Would you take a $100,000 pay cut so your co-worker could get a raise?

That’s the sacrifice that five actors from “The Big Bang Theory” made this year for their team. These actors decided to voluntarily reduce their pay so that their co-stars would be more highly compensated. We can imagine how powerful this felt to the team – the actors felt so strongly about the group that they were willing to sacrifice their money to benefit others. In our work with teams, we’ve identified a willingness to sacrifice as a hallmark of extremely high-performing teams, and an area often overlooked in team evaluations and development.


We are a nation of individualists with a long history of self-reliant mavericks. But our world has become interconnected in myriad ways, from social media platforms to shopping online. Not too long ago, individuals could deliver great results without considering the broader organization. Today, the impact of a decision runs through an entire company. If a retailer changes a product, that change will reverberate through marketing, physical stores, customers, supply chain, digital, and associates. Working together is no longer just HR’s concern, but a prerequisite for success. As business has become ever more competitive, harnessing the full power of a team is required. But human nature often gets in the way. We often see leaders behaving as if their success was possible without their peers. Hoarding resources, neglecting to share information, and failing to support a peer’s initiative are all symptoms of a team that is failing to work and win together.

If we had to pick one thing that best predicts teamwork and a team that wins, the frequency of “taking one for the team” - or sacrifice - would be at the top of the list.

It is not sacrifice if you love what you're doing. ~ Mia Hamm

Sacrifice has a negative connotation, conjuring images of denying ourselves that croissant for the sake of our diet. However, when we are passionate and committed, sacrifice isn’t that hard, and we barely notice this effort in pursuit of our goals. A team that is willing to make sacrifices to advance the aspirations of the organization is a team that is aligned, focused, and committed. A willingness to sacrifice is the apex of team performance. It is certainly not natural to give up your resources for others, not matter how deserving they might be. A few common and visible examples of team sacrifice:

  • Freely sharing information, resources, and talent.

  • Taking on others’ commitments.

  • Giving your time, energy, and attention.

Here are a few real-world examples of sacrifice in action:

We facilitated a team budget meeting where a team member volunteered to take on a higher sales goal, even though she knew it would be challenging, and the risk of failure was very real. Why? She understood that her peer was working through a turnaround situation, and her higher commitment meant her peer could lower his sales goal and gain some "room to breathe". Without this sacrifice, one player would surely have missed their goal, impacting morale and future results. Instead, both leaders achieved their sales budgets, and the boss benefitted from the team producing unprecedented results.

We worked with a company that was expanding into new markets, and required talented, internal managers willing to relocate to these new locations. The leadership team responded with full support for the company goal, encouraging employees to move, and finding talented managers to take their place. It would have been much easier to keep their best players, but the sacrifice these leaders made enabled the company to grow and realize incredible success.

Here are a few deeper, less obvious examples of sacrifice in action:

  • Thinking about your First Team (the most senior team on which you serve) first.

  • Being willing to use political capital to support your peers’ projects.

  • Giving up time in the spotlight.

  • Making the time for the “not-urgent-but-important” things like meeting with peers.

  • Being proactive, inconveniently thinking ahead and giving people the heads up.

  • Apologizing, sacrificing one’s ego, and demonstrating vulnerability.

  • Being open and willing to change strongly held beliefs and perspectives.

  • Admitting to mistakes in group settings.

  • Holding yourself accountable to team goals.

Failing to focus on your highest-level team can have disastrous consequences for one's career. One leader we observed delivered phenomenal results, enabled by building a team of high-performing managers. While this leader supported his team in their pursuit of goals that served him, he also made sure to block any attempts to promote or move to a bigger job in the company, in order to protect his results. Eventually those great results caught the attention of Senior Leadership, who considered promoting him, but he was rejected as a candidate due to his inability to promote (or sacrifice) anyone off his team.

A team will always appreciate a great individual if he's willing to sacrifice for the group. ~ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

What can leaders do to inspire this level of performance?

Shared Goals and Vision: Aligning your team around a clear objective greatly enhances your chance of achievement. Team members with individual goals as their priority will act as individuals, not as a team. You will see sacrifice when it is in people's best interest.

Reward and Recognize Sacrifice: Your people are looking for your guidance and direction. If you reward individual accomplishments, you'll get some wins, often at the cost of team goals. However, if you recognize and reward actions that require sacrifice, you'll see your team respond.

Encourage Disagreement: Get comfortable with disagreement during meetings and on topics you care about. Conflict means people are passionate, and are openly sharing their POV. Set guardrails - conflict should only involve the business problem, never devolve into personal attacks. Encouraging open discussion not only encourages better ideation, but creates true alignment when consensus is reached.

Relationships: Devote time and attention to creating connections, personal relationships and building trust. With all the urgent tasks to complete, relationship building is often the easiest task to neglect. Trusting relationships are critically necessary for a team to operate; nurturing these relationships will pay off in results both today and tomorrow.

Pick Team Players: Team members will only sacrifice when they feel the team is worthy of this effort. Allowing even one member who puts their personal success first will undermine all your efforts at collaboration. Selecting team members with shared values around teamwork and sacrifice will lead to a team that exceeds your greatest expectations.

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. ~ Mr. Spock

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