What Brings Out the Best in People?


A team of engaged, driven and empowered people can achieve amazing things. In our careers, we strive to be on such a team. We shouldn't just look for one but rather build it. How do we build that team?

To build that team, we have to start with bringing out the best in individuals. We need to create an environment where people can be at their best. But what is that environment and how do we build it?

As I've grown in my career, I've become more fascinated with this question. This post is my attempt to explore it. I do believe we can distill it to something simple.

A Short Disclaimer:
This whole post represents my own thoughts and do not reflect my current or any previous employer. I didn't come up with the insights myself but rather it's an amalgamation of my experiences, discussions with peers, resources on management and leadership, lessons from coaches and mentors and much much more.

The 5 Basic Needs


Similar to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, before one is able to even think about the higher level needs, we must take care of the basic needs first. Satisfying the core needs gives people space to focus on the harder things that they need to do.

1. Pay

Passion doesn't pay the bills. We all need a place to stay and we all want to live comfortably. If we have to worry every day whether we have enough to live, we'll never be consistently at our best. The amounts obviously varies for everyone and their situation (family, location, debts, etc). While almost all of us wouldn't say no to a truckload more money every month, I do think there is a point were it's good enough and we search for more.

Pay is also more than the initial base salary. It has to grow with the person's skill, knowledge and expertise gained. You're not going to be able to keep people if you don't grow with them. Another common issue with pay is fairness. People won't trust the organization or the people if they see inequalities all around.

2. Physical Environment

It's not about the ping pong tables but the simpler things. Am I comfortable enough to concentrate? Is it quiet enough? Are there spaces to breathe? Is our equipment good enough for what I need to do? Am I able to get the tools to become more efficient? While it is simple, it's often a forgotten area. Knowledge workers need a space to concentrate and be creative.

On a related note, one of the most common issues today is the open office. There might have been good intentions towards them but now it's proven to be a hindrance to our productivity.

3. Psychological Safety

Defined as being able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career, psychological safety is a bit harder to see at surface level. The team members need to take some time to evaluate this. Nonetheless, it's important that each individual feels safe to communicate within and outside the team. Being at your best means that you're not afraid to raise issues and give your ideas.

While, it's another deep topic on it's own, here's some questions to reflect on whether you have a safe environment.

  • Am I able to raise issues and will they be heard?
  • Do I fear looking dumb?
  • Do I think people value and respect my views?
  • Will I be punished if I make a mistake?
  • Can I take risks?

4. Support System

Besides being safe, it's also important to be able to seek support. What's the difference? Support, for me, is about having a variety of people that are willing and able to give you guidance.

It can be in different forms. Maybe it's an industry veteran willing to guide a junior in their career path. Maybe it's an expert at a particular technology teaching the effective use of it. It could be a good lead giving day-to-day feedback to a team member. It doesn't always have to be formal mentors and or managers. People not directly involved in the issue can give great support and a new perspective. Whatever it is, it's important to encourage and provide this to the team.

5. Belonging

We're all social creatures even the introverts among us. We want to be connected to the group of people we interact with. We want to have that sense of belonging. It doesn't necessarily mean being best friends with every employee and their pet.

Imagine a typical high-school coming-of-age movie. There's our main protagonist who's seemingly uncool and somehow looks like the are too old to be in highschool. They are never invited to parties. They have their lunch alone. They are not with the cool kids neither with the jocks. You get the deal. Anyway, the point is that the same thing happens in an organization and we have a duty to create an environment where people can be part of the group. We have to create an environment where anyone can belong.

The 3 Reasons to Bring Your Best


Providing the basic needs is half-way through bringing out the best in an individual. Although it may be enough to make them stay, it's not enough to make them happy. The other half involves giving individuals a vision for what they can become and help them realize it.

The Right Challenge

What is the right amount of a challenge? It's at a point where someone feels uncomfortable because they're going beyond their comfort zone. They're learning new skills, sharpening existing ones or developing new experiences. Too much is where someone feels like they're drowning in anxiety. It's when they might dread coming into work because it feels insurmountable.

It's a tough balance to figure out. It does requires knowing someone beyond surface level. A leader must be able to understand where the person is, how they react and if they'll be able to overcome it.

Long Term Vision

Putting one challenge after another doesn't make sense if it doesn't fit an overall vision. A lot of exceptional individuals look for a long term vision. It could be as an expert individual contributor or as a leader helping guide the next set of people.

To some the vision is clear and instant, they know what they want. Others may want to take some time to get a feel for what they want to be. There are others who decide to pursue something vastly different. All of these are valid and should be taken into account for. It's important for people to develop the vision themselves and not it be forced upon them.

People will bring their best when they can see they are achieving their vision.

Purpose and Significance

The last pieces of this puzzle are purpose and significance. People want to be useful (purpose). They want to contribute in opportunities that have impact. If people think their work is meaningless in the grand scheme of things, why would they put meaningful effort into anything?

Part of significance is recognition. People want to be recognized when they do contribute. It comes in different forms and from public recognition, role changes, title, etc. The form should match the impact to the organization and the individual. We also have to be careful to be consistent, honest and fair when we do so.

Summary: It's Simple.


If you notice, nothing here is revolutionary. Anyone can consistently be at their best if you can create an environment that supports it. While it seems simple, that doesn't imply it's easy.

The tougher challenge is figuring out how to build this in your particular situation. Let's talk about that another day. For now, ask yourself, is your environment one where people bring their best?

Further Reading


A bunch of different materials related to this topic: