Whether you’ve just received your first team leadership assignment or have been doing this for a while, it can be helpful to remind yourself – or become aware of – some guidelines for team leaders that can make your job easier. I’ve been collecting them from a variety of sources, and here are the ones that I think are most valuable.
1. Get to know your team. Change is hard for everyone, and you are the biggest change that can happen: you’re the new leader. They want to know about you, and you should want to know more about them so you can understand what is important to each team member and how best to work with them.
2. Generate trust by being open to feedback, disagreement, and new ideas, and be sure to be open about your own goals and expectations. Don’t hedge on information. People would rather know than guess.
3. Communicate often. Even little changes or pieces of information and changes in strategy or goals that aren’t communicated can cause concern if people feel as if something is being withheld from them. You can never over-communicate or the gossip will outrun your message, and then you’ll have to deal with gossip that might be undermining your goals.
4. Delegate. I can’t tell you how many times my graduate students would come to class complaining that, “I can do the work. I just can’t manage the people.” And how many times I had to remind them that managing the people now is the work. No team leader can do the team’s work alone, and besides, doing the tasks is not the team leader’s job; setting goals and strategy and then getting everyone working toward those goals is the real work.
By delegating you give others a chance to grow and give yourself the chance to have some new ideas or develop a new area of interest. Identify the jobs that need specific training or expertise and assign those to someone who has those skills, even though those might be the jobs you enjoy most. Delegate tasks to someone new who needs opportunities to demonstrate commitment and competence. And really, delegate the jobs that are your least favorites and that can legitimately be done by others or you will be bogged down by work that provides no satisfaction. And when delegating, be sure to assign accountability and degree of authority or accountability won’t be understood.
5. Encourage smart risk-taking and generating new ideas. Get the ideas out on the table, encourage creative thinking, then provide guidelines for managing the degree of risk and application of new ideas. Review new approaches by phases, and continue only if it is clear the idea is worth the risk. At some point, especially if priorities change, you may have to end the experiment and consider the “sunk costs,” the time and expense already put into the idea, as the cost of a good lesson. Get comfortable saying “no” if necessary.
6. Encourage healthy conflict, and resolve team conflicts. Quickly. And without blaming people or shaming them in front of their colleagues. Healthy or constructive conflict encourages an exchange of ideas and can result in creative solutions to problems. Be sure to clarify the rules for disagreeing: remaining respectful, not shouting, not making the conflict personal, focusing on the ideas.
Ongoing interpersonal conflict can destroy working relationships, generate resentment, and completely sink your projects. Explore what might be happening with each person individually, ask thoughtful questions that begin with a neutral observation (“I sense some tension lately. Can you tell me if I’m right and what it’s about?”), and ask how each person can help to sort it out. Although it might be uncomfortable, ask what you can do to help or if you might have done anything to contribute to the conflict. If you raise the issue yourself, you might get some important feedback that could improve your leadership.
If conflict is allowed to continue, team members might become polarized as they begin to feel they have to take sides, and then team cohesion and communication are undermined. If the problem is inappropriate behavior, even if it doesn’t rise to the level of being reported to HR, it still must be dealt with or its impact will last even if the people involved leave; once people are polarized they don’t know how to reconnect. And who wants to go to work every day to face the same conflict over and over? Turnover increases, too, and you will have lost valuable expertise.
For example, if people are coming to you after the meeting with their perspectives, listen the first time and explain that these comments should be brought up at the meeting so they can be discussed, and then remind people to “bring it up at the next meeting” rather than discuss other ideas privately each time they try to talk to you privately (unless, of course, the matter is confidential).
A team leader’s overall goal is to ensure a safe and comfortable environment where each team member can work toward his or her full capacity, contribute to organizational success, and feel a sense of mutual respect and achievement. Then they might come back.
Have an absolutely wonderful and peaceful week.