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Building Your Teams: How to be there and when not to

Updated: Jan 19, 2020

By Michael Whaby

Image of a team

“…behind every great leader, at the base of every great tale of success, you will find an indispensable circle of trusted advisors, mentors and colleagues” – Keith Ferrazzi

We all know these common sayings:

You are the average of the five people you surround yourself with most;

Two minds are greater than one;

Nobody gets anywhere alone;

and while there may be some caveats, these sayings generally hold some truth. In life, whether business, school or in the personal context, who we spend our time with reflects on who we are. Time should be spent wisely with people whom care about us, hold us accountable and offer respect that, hopefully, we bring to the table as well—relationships are never one-sided. While this is a topic that can be elaborated for days on end, I will try to keep it concise and offer tips on maximizing relationships of all sorts.

Having each other’s back

Most of us have people that we can turn to for advice, support and motivation. But be careful not to mistake these people for problem-solvers. One thing I have learned through my experience with having a life/career coach—an extremely beneficial aspect of the Biomedical Master’s Program at the University of Pittsburgh—is that you can’t solve problems for people. Having a skillful coach helps you realize something important: the only person that can really resolve your problems is you.

To highlight my experience with coaching, the best advice that I ever received was actually no advice whatsoever. When I was stressed out or feeling depressed, the best thing to have was someone to listen. Then, the next best thing was for someone in a clearer state of mind to offer a new perspective—a new way of viewing my situations.

Because when you’re stressed, your mind is foggy and the sky is falling, and you feel there is nothing that you can do to stop it.

The last thing that anyone wants when reaching out to someone for a shoulder to lean on is someone making the whole thing about themselves. Everyone reading this has likely been in said situation, whether as the victim or perpetrator. When someone comes to you to talk about a terrible day, one-upping them with talking about how terrible your days have been will be like headbutting each other—no winner there. Congrats.

Listening without thinking of yourself is not an easy skill, and, in fact, that’s why I’m writing about it. Ever hear of mindfulness? Emotional intelligence? Those are literally skills, skills which require attention and practice.

Now, who’s got your back?

It’s a possible topic for conversation—probably a difficult one—with a friend, or boss or mentor that doesn’t seem to have your back. It’s nice to have friends to be around when you’re up, but are they there when you’re down. Do they shove advice at you without thinking about your current situation and state of mind or do they consider where you’re really coming from and ask questions to gain insight? In other words, are they interested and engaged in what you are saying and how you’re feeling?

Often, other people are not to blame; not everyone is good with these sorts of interactions. So, if you find that a particular person isn't the best person to talk to about a bad day, it doesn't mean that you must exile them. If someone on a team isn't good at the sport, he is usually benched until he gets better. In this case, the game is just emotional support—you can bench him here.

Take this information with a grain of salt. Consider the time of others and consider what kind of friend you are to them. You can’t treat people like a punching bag, that is, only bringing problems and releasing your frustrations on them. Its easy to do this and its very convenient. Imagine if your punching bag were a person—that person would probably hate you.

Career/life coaches are like punching bags that help you realize you don’t need to be punching anything at all. And in times of seemingly unsurmountable stress, I highly recommend a coach—or an actual punching bag. They are essentially trained to help you redirect your energy towards something more productive and meaningful to you—energy that may have otherwise been spent metaphorically or literally punching something.

The right groups

I used the word groups (plural) intentionally because it’s okay to be involved in different groups. You might have different groups for school, work and just everyday life. You can even serve as bridges between groups—like connectors would. Importantly, find groups that match who you are and want to be; avoid groups that will hold you from that. Sounds simple, but it gets harder when the groups—or people or person—that aren’t good for you are the ones you’re in right now. We have very derived brains that allow us to make the right choices when it is the harder thing to do, and sometimes the harder choice is to distance ourselves from the people close to us that aren’t necessarily good for us.

Don’t just take it from me, take it from science. Research suggests that one reason groups—good groups—can be so effective is through something known as transactive memory. Transactive memory is basically knowledge that is stored outside of our own brains, like how we have our contacts saved in our phones. Most people I know have over 100 contacts in their phones. In a similar manner, people in our groups—friends, co-workers, colleagues—may have information in their minds more readily available, and vice versa.

I think of this often when I am in group presentations: One person covers a certain topic of the presentation, but when the audience has questions, those questions might be better answered by other group members who covered different parts of the presentation. Likewise for studying for exams: having effective study groups can benefit all members of the group. If all members come prepared, then its more likely that each individual member of the group might understand certain topics better than others. In this manner, knowledge gaps can be filled by the collaborative study environment. The icing on the cake is having others to hold you accountable for effective studying.

Watching your back

Adam Grant, organizational psychologist and author of Originals, highlights an important point in his book: Usually, people think of enemies when considering watching their backs. But have you ever heard the phrase keep your friends close but enemies closer? Ambivalent relationships—those who sometimes support us, but then turn their backs—are the dangerous ones.

In short, research suggests that sometimes our best allies are the ones who started out against us, but eventually came around to our side. Always having to have your guard up against those indifferent towards us is exhausting, and frankly, it’s often best to distance yourself from those ambivalent relationships than to work on them.


So, I jumped around a good bit here, but I think these are some of the most important points when considering:

1) How to be there for others;

2) How to recognize who is there for you;

3) The importance of emotional intelligence;

4) The power of good groups;

5) When to watch your back;

Life, whether we care to admit, is short and unpredictable. Might as well spend time and energy on the right people so we can make it to the places that we aspire to be. Being who you really want to be will help you resonate with those that are best for you, just don’t be held back by remaining true to people who aren’t true to you.

References and Recommendations:


Grant, A. (2017). Originals: How non-conformists move the world. Penguin Books.

Ferrazzi, K. (2009). Who’s got your back: the breakthrough program to build deep, trusting relationships that create success and won’t let you fail. New York: Broadway Books.


Moreland, R. L., & Myaskovsky, L. (2000). Exploring the performance benefits of group training: transactive memory or improved communication? Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 82(1), 117–133.

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