Mary, the new president at a medium-sized chemical manufacturing and distributing company in Ontario, was concerned about a lack of productivity within her senior management team. She noticed the executives were reluctant to speak their minds, while their divisions competed for company resources. When tensions arose among managers they often remained unresolved, sometimes people were left out of important conversations and there was an overall lack of communication that was eating away at productivity.
Mary knew her team had to become more cohesive for things to improve. She decided to improve her leadership abilities as a first step and made a move that is rare for a company president: she openly shared her plan with her troubled managers. She asked for their patience, telling them she was going to try out new ideas and might make mistakes along the way.
Mary worked on four leadership skills essential to eliciting maximum performance from her team:
1. Assessing the team’s emotional state.
Effective team leaders monitor their managers’ mood by watching for ineffective interactions. Watching how teams interact can tip a leader off to bored, irritated or lethargic staff.
For example, if two people carry on a private conversation or make sarcastic asides, that can indicate passive disagreement, resentment or fear about speaking up.
Overly quiet members who sit on the sidelines may feel overwhelmed or insecure. Leaders can tap a chronically quiet team member’s expertise by identifying the reasons for a muted response.
Managers sometimes actively avoid uncomfortable topics. Leaders can spot this dynamic whenever team members talk around an issue, change the topic or steer the conversation away from something important. This behaviour signals that the topic being avoided is somehow troubling to the team.
On other occasions, a topic may be beaten to death. This can occur if the issue is particularly safe for the team – everyone agrees on an initiative and continues to discuss the idea. Effective teams value their time and move on after a decision has been made.
Conversely, if the topic provokes anxiety because an initiative represents a risk, re-hashing petty details can soothe team fears of failure without addressing real concerns.
Another clue to team mood is tardiness. If staff are late for meetings or return late from breaks, they waste each other’s time and send a message that they have better things to do.
Team leaders are most effective when emotions, side bar conversations, lateness, topic avoidance or bored, angry or silent behaviour is actively addressed.
2. Create opportunities for initiative and involvement.
An effective team leader encourages involvement by giving credit where it’s due and openly appreciating team member input. To encourage members to think about the company as a whole, rather than focus exclusively on their own division, leaders can make connections between member ideas and indicate ways staff can help each other for the company’s welfare.
Managers need to guard against attacks between members. If this happens, the leader can comment directly on how this negatively affects the team or could make a mental note to talk to both parties after the meeting. Either way, personal attacks have no place on a high functioning team and the leader must handle inappropriate behaviour promptly and directly.
Encouraging dissent is intellectually stimulating and important to team creativity. Assigning roles to team members in a meeting is helpful when debate is needed. Half the team can take the “pro” side while the other half can take the “con” side. Switch roles part way through, so that all team members have to argue both “pro” and “con” sides of the issue.
Build in time to learn from experience and from mistakes. Too often, teams bounce from one initiative to another without gaining insight into what went well, what was learned, or what could be done better next time.
3. Exercise the Leader Role.
Sometimes team leaders fear that commenting on team dynamics will make them seem like dictators or violate social niceties – “I can’t possibly ask if the team is frequently bored during meetings” or “I can’t tell Frank I’m confused by his aggressive approach to Ed.” As a result, they may end up opting out of the leader role altogether.
Leaders of high performing teams show commitment to their role by commenting on issues as they arise. They value collaboration, are curious about team functioning and remain open and honest with team members.
4. Listen to Yourself.
A general rule for leaders is “Whatever the leader feels (boredom, frustration, panic) is also being felt by some of the other team members.” Acknowledging these experiences can lead to increased team efficiency.
For example, a worried leader may say to the team, “I’m nervous about what seems to be our risky approach to this project, and I get the idea that the team may feel this way too. Could we take a minute to discuss any trepidation we may be experiencing?”
Effective team leadership isn’t just about accomplishing tasks, it’s about gauging team mood, continually monitoring team interactions and actively facilitating the team process.
After Mary learned to keep an eye on how well the team was functioning together, she began to see results. The senior management team began to settle its differences more easily. They were more collaborative and forthcoming and less inclined to protect themselves or their division at the company’s expense. Productivity improved as team member communication and creativity increased.
Dr. Jennifer Newman is a registered psychologist and director of Newman Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development company. Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality. Dr. Newman can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org