Team-oriented, outcome-oriented

March 2023

Maybe the real treasure was the friends we made along the way.

No, I want my fucking gold.

In my career, I’ve found two different ways1 in which people are motivated:

  • Team-oriented people care about helping their team.
  • Outcome-oriented people care about achieiving outcomes.

The distinction is easy to see when playing games with friends:

  • Most are team-oriented. The game is a fun excuse to hang out, any game would do.
  • But a couple will be outcome-oriented. They want to play the game and win.

This distinction is also present at work but it is much harder to notice. Work is a much larger part of our life and there are many reasons to do it: make money, achieve certain outcomes, etc. Nobody explicitly thinks "I am here to hang out with my work friends". But when you drill down, you find out that a large part of people's motivation is effectively, to hang out with their work friends.

Some disclaimers on this dichotomy:

  • Like all ways of classifying people this is not a rule or a “true category” but rather a fairly bimodal spectrum.
  • It is also context-specific: the outcome-oriented at work may be team-oriented when playing games on Friday night.
  • I am drawing this distinction to identify what motivates people, which is correlated but not totally determinant of how they act.


Team-oriented people want to help the team they are part of. When you meet them, they ask you how you are doing. They want to know you as a person and they want you to be happy and fulfilled. They make you feel like you belong.

In the best case, team-oriented people understand that it is easier to get things done if everybody gets along. They know to invest in relationship, communication, education, and anything else needed for others to do their best work.

In the worst case, team-oriented people think first about what the team needs and then change the outcomes accordingly. The outcome becomes an instrument to help the team. An engineer may want to prioritize a project to save the team tedious work, even if there are other projects that are much more important for customers.


Outcome-oriented people want to achieve something in the world. They rarely smalltalk and end the conversation quickly to get back to whatever else they were doing. Working with them is exciting and a little bit stressful.

Outcome-oriented people think first about what they want to accomplish in the world and then change everything else, including the team, to do that. For example, if they realize that a sub-team is not contributing to revenue, they will conclude the sub-team is not needed anymore.

Managers: leaders vs coaches

Managers serve two roles2:

  • Coaches help their reports improve their skills and advance their career.
  • Leaders set goals and guide the team to achieve the outcomes.


  • Team-oriented managers are usually stronger coaches than leaders.
  • Outcome-oriented managers are usually stronger leaders than coaches

From experience, I’ve learned that the leader and coach roles are better done by two separate people. You need a certain objectiveness and detachment to make good decisions as a leader. For example, deciding that project is a dead-end and should be discarded is always hard. But it is even harder if you are viewing it through the lens of "what will it do to the person working on it?", which is what you need to do as a coach.

When I've had to fill both roles myself, I split them into two separate days:

  • Monday project meetings: as a leader, I am checking how the project is going. Problems are resolved quickly and there is no room for personal discussion.
  • Friday one-on-ones: as a coach, I want to know how your week went. Did you hit any problems? Are you learning from the work? What should we change?

Managers have to think at the team level, so team-oriented people are disproportionally attracted to management. In a large company, this means that most of your managers are coaches, not leaders. Such a skew will make the company a great place for employees to work and improve their skills (good for retention) but it might lead to institutional decay.

Institutional decay: looking only inwards

We can distinguish between a company and a business:

  • Company: the people working together on a business.
  • Business: the system doing something for the world.

If every manager is team-oriented, the company won't always necessary work on the goals of the business3.

It is not necessarily bad for these two to diverge. The company behind the Petroleum Fund of Norway could rebrand as the Norwegian Energy Fund and reinvest all profits into sustainable energy. This is bad for the oil business. But we can still consider this divergence as a net positive. After all, the system is there to serve people.

But in general, when all management is team-oriented we get principal-agent problems and institutional decay4. People's overriding incentives are "inside" the company: having happy colleagues, providing for themselves and their family, having a good career. These are not only good incentives to have but they are impossible to ignore. The problem is when they become the sole incentives driving the company.

Somebody in management must be looking outwards for what the business needs; customers, suppliers, competitors, regulators are all outside of the company. It is hard work to constantly re-align what the company internally wants with that the business externally wants5. If nobody does it, the company's inward incentives take over and the business eventually dies, leaving everybody without a job.

DRIs decouple management from leadership

Assigning a Direct Responsible Individual (DRI) to every project is a way to decouple “who is the leader” from “who is the manager”. This is a step in the right direction but it is only effective if the DRI is outcome-oriented. As such, I encourage teams to have individual contributors (i.e. not managers) as project DRIs. Statistically speaking, individual contributors are more likely to be outcome-oriented than managers.

When the outcome-oriented become managers

Working with others is often the best way to accomplish ambitious goals. Team-oriented people naturally understand this. The outcome-oriented sometimes fail to see it and remain lone wolves their entire careers.

Eventually, some of them realize how much more they can get done with a good team. Working with a report, you can achieve 10x more than what you put in: 4 hours a week of your indirect management work 6 for 40 hours from their direct work. A 5 person team can do 200 hours a week, much more than what the manager can do by themselves7.

The Score Takes Care of Itself is a great account of somebody outcome-oriented, internalizing how a large group of people can do great things, and acting accordingly. Notice the title is about the "score" even though the book is about the team. I see this as the prime example of somebody motivated by outcomes but choosing to act exclusively through the team.

For the outcome-oriented, the transition into management is often very hard time:

  • They don't enjoy the day-to-day of talking to people.
  • They feel like they are not doing anything.

Talking to people is the job, and a fun puzzle

"Why do I need so many meetings? Why do I need to help my reports with X? Can't they figure it out themselves and just do it?". The outcome-oriented don't necessarily enjoy the day-to-day of management and that wears on them.

Reading Bob Iger's biography, it is remarkable how much of his career boiled down to understanding others. He starts several chapters describing a thorny problem, figuring out the people behind it, and then the aha moment when he figured out what incentivized those people. Once he understood the incentives, the resolution is obvious and swift. Clearly, Bob learned to treat people as a puzzle. This is important because, as a friend puts it, when you have enough people all problems are people problems.

Treating people as a puzzle does two things:

  1. It lets you enjoy dealing with people
  2. It sometimes defuses the emotional charge people problems come with

If you fail at this, you can always play Pavlovian games on yourself, as the next section suggests.

Delayed gratification

After their first week as managers, the outcome-oriented complain: "I didn't do anything this week!". The problem is delayed gratification:

  • As an individual contributor, you get dopamine daily. For example, when you are programming, you work hard for an hour, and when something works, you get a dopamine hit. The feedback loop is tight; the link between the work and the dopamine is clear.
  • As a manager, you rarely get dopamine. You spend an entire week talking to people which doesn't feel important. Many days later, somebody tells you how everything you wanted is done. At that moment, you get this seemingly random reward.

My advice is to:

  • Consider the team’s output as their own so that they feel like they did accomplished things even thought somebody else in the team did the literal work.
  • Associate the incoming dopamine with the entire week of talking to people. The next week, as you talk with people, remind yourself how cool it will be when they come back and everything is done.

Founders are the first victim

Founders are usually outcome-oriented (they achieved the outcome when there was no team) and as such, they often struggle with management too. They hire other outcome-oriented people as executives, which also struggle with management. Thus, in young startups, the higher up you go up the ladder, the worse managers / coaches people are.

Identifying motivations

In interviews

If you know how to listen, people tell you right away what motivates them.

During interviews, team-oriented people will ask and say:

  • How many people are there in the team? What is the composition of the team?
  • How do people get along? What are the norms?
  • How would I fit in the team?
  • We had a great crew and a lot of fun working on that project
  • No, it was a bad experience: we didn't get along

Outcome-oriented people will ask and say:

  • What are you trying to accomplish? Why?
  • What happens if you succeed? What happens if you fail?
  • How can I contribute?
  • That was a failure, we got nowhere
  • We knocked it out of the park, we got to $X ARR after a year!

In different phases of a project

In the beginning of a project, you only have a goal and no team: so you mostly need outcome-oriented people. As soon as you need to scale the team, you need more team-oriented people.

To launch a project, an outcome-oriented person will set a deadline and work “unsustainably” until the launch. As soon as they launch, they might take a break and work more slowly while they prepare for the next outcome. This makes for an uneven see-saw pattern of work. As such, you want to start High Variance projects with a larger proportion of outcome-oriented people.

Team-oriented people care more about their work being long-term sustainable: otherwise they will not be able to stick around and work with the team! This working-style matches longer but less intense projects.

In different departments

There are certain roles and functions that are fundamentally focused on the team, like HR and education. As such, team-oriented people gravitate to them.

On the other hand, in more individual roles like sales you get the opposite selection-effect.

Finding the right balance

If you have too many outcome-oriented people, it is unlikely that you’ll have a cohesive, coordinated group operating well. In the extreme case, the team doesn’t function beyond a few members and never achieves the outcomes it intended. Important work is often only prioritized by the team-oriented:

  • Understanding what people need to know to do their job and unblocking them
  • Communicating what’s going on
  • Making sure the right people collaborate

But this failure mode rarely happens in big companies. Big companies strongly select for team-oriented people because:

  • They attract those that want to work with lots of people.
  • Their interviews explicitly ask for experience working with large groups, interpersonal skills, a high degree of empathy, agreeableness, which are all correlated with being team-oriented.
  • They reward getting along with the group and select out disagreeable outcome-oriented people.

In my experience in a big company, you end up getting 5 team-oriented per 1 outcome-oriented.

When you have too many team-oriented people, it is hard to set goals and achieve outcomes:

  • Slow-start: It gets harder to set goals in the first place. If everybody is looking to everybody else for what the goal should be, you get infinite recursion. It is easy to get stuck in “planning” and “strategy” indefinitely.
  • Zig-zag: It is unlikely that you’ll stick to the same goal for long. If achieving a certain result is causing problems for the team (as it often does!), it is always easier to change the goal than the team. In the extreme case, the team stops serving their original purpose and devolves into serving itself as described in the institutional decay section above.
  • Meetings and "alignment": The team spends more time in meetings, even if they are not necessarily productive or move outcomes forward. “Being aligned” feels good and meetings help with it.
  • Meta-work: The team spends more time talking about how we work than actually doing whatever work is needed. Improving the team always feels more high leverage than doing any single task even when it is not8.

Over time, having too many of either side generates conflict:

  • If there are too many team-oriented people, the outcome-oriented get impatient as the meetings pile up and meta-work takes over.
  • If there are too many outcome-oriented people, nobody on the team feels like their needs are met: they are not learning, spending time getting to know each other, etc. Outcome-oriented people also have some of these needs (e.g. being coached) and need team-oriented people around.

Finally, I’ve found that pointing out the dichotomy itself helps people recognize what is going on when certain tensions arise. For example, if an outcome-oriented person gets impatient with the length of a meeting, this dichotomy helps them seem how others have different needs and how the meeting contributes to meeting those needs. And if a team-oriented person feels the deadline is unnecessary or forced, you can explain how the deadline helps the team focus on the outcome.

This dichotomy serves a similar purpose to the big five personality traits9 or Myers-Briggs in that it’ll help you understand your team better. Please don't take it too seriously: it is just another sign to add to your corporate horoscope.

Thanks to Devon Zuegel for reading early drafts and providing feedback. Special thanks to Bryan Irace for teaching me much about the subject and contributing important ideas to the essay.


  1. Claire Hughes Johnson makes a similar distinction in Scaling People: “task-oriented” vs “people-oriented”. From my reading of it, it is roughly the same distinction (but that doesn't mean she would agree with the conclusions in this post!). If you were interested in this post, you should read her book. She goes one step further and also slices between introverts vs extroverts giving four quadrants.
  2. Claire Hughes Johnson makes a similar distinction in Scaling People: “leadership” vs “management”. While it sounds very similar, it is not the same. Her distinction is between long-term vision and day to day tactical operation, while mine is between “leading the group” and “leading the individual”.
  3. Company vs business is another lens on labor vs capital. n tech, I find the labor / capital less less useful: much of "labor's" compensation is shares, so most of the company is part shareholder, part employee.
  4. Live players vs dead players describes institutional decay at length. I don’t fully agree with the examples given in the essay or the labels chosen but the overall framework is useful to decide if an organization is on the offensive or the defensive.
  5. It is also hard to determine what the business wants in the first place but that I'll leave that for another essay.
  6. Approximating time per report per week: 45 mins one-on-one with 15 mins prep, 1 hour reviewing design docs or PRs, 1 hour of group project management meetings, 1 hour of ad-hoc meetings.
  7. This may be false. If all 5 engineers are constantly debating and coordinating, their collective output may smaller than an individual's output. I am assuming the happy case where you are doing your job as a manager, parallelizing the work, and adding little overhead to the team.
  8. If you are spending more than 5% of your time on meta-work, you are greatly overdoing it.
  9. To those familiar with the big five, this essay is largely seeing how extraversion and agreeableness manifest in a company.