Leading Teams: Not for Bossy People

aug_2008_blog_pictures-teamtower.jpgLeading a team presents greater challenges than working alone, but if you want to accomplish tasks that are impossible for one person you’ve got to have a team. One person can’t play a baseball game by themselves, play all of the instruments in a live symphony performance, or run a global company. What’s the difference between a team and a group? A team is a group of people with a common goal. Now maybe it’s a dysfunctional team, or just ineffective, but if you’re working in a group towards a common goal you are part of a team. So that should make it pretty clear what you, as a leader of a team, need to do: assure that your team has a shared goal and that the people on your team know what it is. As obvious as this seems, it has been proven repeatedly to be the #1 reason that teams do not achieve their goals. For me, the acid test for whether goals are clear and shared by all team members is to call each of them up at 3 AM and demand to know what the team goal is. If they each answer similarly in their groggy state, you’ve done your job.

As essential an ingredient as assuring a shared goal among the team is, it’s not the first item in the team leader’s recipe for cooking up a delicious team. People are not robots. They need to get to know and trust one another before they can work effectively. Taking time to build trust is an excellent investment as it will greatly speed the process of generating the business results that you desire and require. Trust takes a long time to build and only a moment to destroy. The best team leaders make that their first order of business. They know what builds trust, what weakens trust, and how to repair broken trust. The #1 way for a leader to build trust is to make themselves vulnerable. Share a personal story about yourself. Admit a weakness. Invite alternative opinions and ask for feedback, then be sure you don’t make people sorry they offered it.

Business is about achieving results, and these results depend greatly on human relationships. How can you contribute significantly to the quality and the results produced by the teams that you lead? Relationships with high levels of trust generate greater success with far higher efficiency than when trust is low. The leader sets the tone for trust in a relationship or team through the values, language and behaviors that they practice. Building trust involves taking risk, and the leader must make the first move.

Patrick Lencioni’s book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” (I was surprised there were only 5) is among the top 100 books on Amazon these days, which tells you something about how tough it is to work in teams. In his book Patrick declares that absence of trust, fear of conflict, avoidance of commitment, lack of accountability and inattention to results are the 5 dysfunctions that stand between teams and successful results. Unresolved conflicts, grievances, and miscommunication waste enormous amounts of time and energy. There is also a bottom-line cost in lost productivity, possible legal actions, and negative market reputation. This is especially true in fast-paced, highly driven, and politically competitive environments where stress can lead to conflict. Although unintentional, the impact on the business bottom line can be as much as a 30% decrease in profits and a 50% drop in goal attainment success. Although no one enjoys dealing with dysfunctional behavior, leaders simply can’t afford to ignore the negative dynamics at work in their teams, hoping the problems will resolve themselves. If you want to achieve goals that only a highly functioning team can accomplish, results that may seem highly unlikely or even impossible to those unskilled in unleashing the power of teams, you’re going to have to grapple with the dark side.

We’ve all known jerks who managed to sour entire organizations for years, sometimes decades. (Bob Sutton has written a whole book, “The No Asshole Rule“, about the high cost of having assholes on your team.) You can’t solve these problems by ignoring them, ordering people to trust each other, or admonishing people to behave themselves and act like professionals. In fact these days, in most cultures, you can’t get anyone to do anything just because you’re the boss by telling them to do it, asking nice or even begging. In his book “Winning ’em Over”, Jay Conger claims the business world has moved beyond command and control into the age of influence and persuasion. People don’t respond well to leaders who rule only by position or title. Leading through fear and intimidation crushes creativity, diminishes enthusiasm, and undermines the long-term success of an organization.

But leaders cannot simply hand over control to their teams. Leaders must adapt their style to changes in both individuals and the team as a whole. Paul Hersey’s Situational Leadership model offers guidance on modifying leadership to match “follower readiness”. As follower capability and confidence increases, effective leaders move from directive behavior (basically bossing people around, or more delicately put, giving them detailed instructions on what to do) to influencing, then to a more facilitative role with shared control, and finally to delegation, where responsibility for many decisions and all implementation is in the hands of the followers. Easier said than done. Leaders who are able to delegate effectively can focus on strategic issues with greater impact. And yet even extremely accomplished people find it very difficult to delegate to competent team members.

Teams also evolve through phases of development as people get to know one another and figure out how to work together. The Tuckman model labels these phases “Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and Adjourning”. Each phase of individual and team development requires changes in leadership behaviors in order to achieve optimal results. The result is a high-performing team where the leader is freed from daily tactical tasks to focus on more strategic issues. High-performing teams prioritize effectively, and use their collective time to best advantage. They share control and make better decisions by including diverse perspectives. They optimize results while managing the over-commitment of resources. They do capacity planning and make a solid case for reasonable commitment of resources to avoid the huge productivity hit of excessive multi-tasking.

In this global business environment very few businesses can afford to rely on the productivity of a few individuals in official leadership positions. Every individual needs to contribute to their fullest potential regardless of hierarchy, position or title. The conductor of an orchestra makes no sound. Your job as a team leader is not to be “in charge” or “in control”. This might support your ego, but it undermines your ability to achieve results. Get the spot light off of you and focus on understanding the phases of follower readiness and team development, and flex your leadership approach so that your people can get the best performance and the best business results. Ultimately you can only succeed through the accomplishments of your team, so get busy making them as successful as you possibly can.

– Kimberly Wiefling is the author of Scrappy Project Management: The 12 Predictable and Avoidable Pitfalls Every Project Faces, hovering among the top project management books in the USA since launch in 2007. She is the founder of Wiefling Consulting, a scrappy global business leadership consultancy committed to enabling her clients to successfully tackle seemingly impossible goals. For the past 3 years she has worked primarily with Japanese companies committed to becoming truly global through transformational leadership and execution with excellence.


4 thoughts on “Leading Teams: Not for Bossy People”

  1. User Avatar

    Yes, great idea, Josh! Asking people theoretical questions just gets theoretical answers. The best questions to ask references are “Would you hire them again?” and “Would you recommend hiring them to a friend?”, which parallels the net promoter score used by many companies these days to track customer satisfaction. Check out the book “The Ultimate Question” for more on net promoter score.

  2. User Avatar

    I’m glad you brought up references…how about using behavioral interviewing techniques on the references? Do most companies require that some of the references be people who worked for the candidate?

    With a combination of good interviewing of references, “Tell me about a time when a major issue occurred on the team? What did [candidate name] do?” and good behavioral interviewing of the candidate themselves I would bet companies could end up hiring less “bossy people” who rely on formal authority.

    Josh Nankivel

  3. User Avatar

    Thanks for your enthusiastic support, Josh! The state of the art in choosing qualified candidates for a job who will deliver outstanding results is “behavioral interviewing”. Behavioral interviewing involves listing the behaviors and abilities that you want in the person you are hiring and then asking them in the interview to describe situations where they demonstrated those behaviors and abilities. For example, you might say “Please describe a time when you were dealing with a team in conflict. What was happening? What did you do? How was the conflict resolved?” Notice that you DO NOT ask “How WOULD you handle such a situation?” Unlike stock performance, past work performance IS a good indicator of future work performance. A promising team leader candidate should be able to share stories about real situations where they effectively led a team. Of course you need to confirm with independent references (those NOT given to you directly by the candidate, but discovered by your own sleuthing) that this person actually did lead this way in the past. More info on behavioral interviewing can be found on the web, for example http://www.uwec.edu/Career/Online_Library/behavioral_int.htm

    – Scrappy Kimberly Wiefling

  4. User Avatar

    Great post Kimberly! Makes you think about the criteria used when hiring managers in the first place! What is the best way to evaluate these qualities in a candidate?

    If you are reading this comment, please post another comment with your thoughts on the question above!

    Josh Nankivel

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