David Heinemeier Hansson

April 10, 2024

You're not guaranteed a spot on the team

I've always hated the saying "we're like family here" when it comes to work. Because it's obviously not true, and it's usually cynically invoked by management to entice an undue obligation of sacrifice. Implying that you should give it all to The Company -- constantly working weekends, always being available on vacations, and all the rest -- but when the necessities of the business change, you'll realize the obligation was never truly mutual.

So far, so agreeable to most people. They usually already have a family. They're not looking to supplant it with a fake corporate version. And they don't need to. Work can and should be friendly, fun, and rewarding without the blood relations.

But if work is not a family, what is it then?

I think Netflix got it right: it's a professional team. One where colleagues earn a spot by being really good in their given position. But also -- and this is the hard part! -- one where someone may fail to make the cut, if they aren't up to the standards of the team, don't fit in the given position, or simply hasn't been playing well enough for a while.

You can't have it both ways. You can't scorn the use of "we're a family" and then also expect that colleagues who can't keep up are spared the cut. It's either or, if you're going to have a high-performing team.

Think of it this way. There are millions of people playing soccer in the world and having fun. There are probably thousands who play at some level of professionalism. But there are only 11 spots on the starting lineup of Manchester United. You can be very good at soccer, and still not be part of that lineup.

Now the natural delusion of every business owner is to think that they're running Manchester United when in fact they're barely hanging on in third division. But the point is actually the same. Even in third division, there's a level of competence that makes someone a good fit. We can't all be the best. But there's room for almost anyone who's half-way decent to play (or work) productively SOMEWHERE.

And the reality is that if someone is a fit for third division, they'd have a terrible time on that Manchester United starting lineup. The expectations would be sky high. The gaps in their competency would quickly and painfully be revealed. They'd soon realize they're in the wrong place. Cutting them from the team would be an act of mercy, not cruelty.

Note that it's more than fine to give someone who shows promise a chance in a position that seems like a stretch. But after a couple of games, the progress should be apparent. Either you're revealing the fact that they're quickly stepping up to the role or you're revealing the fact that they won't. Both are valuable learnings, but not if you squander the insight, and don't act accordingly. 

This is perhaps the most important job of the coach or manager. Knowing when to make the cut, and having the strength to do it. There'll always be a million reasons, especially if someone is well-liked, why you should wait longer, be more patient. But to do the job of being in charge well, you have to be decisive in face of incomplete evidence.

Not everyone is meant to be Messi or to play on his team. But we wouldn't have much of a sport if his level was the only level. Find your level, find a team that fits with it, and play to the best of your ability. That's the beautiful game.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.