What I Know For Sure: 5 Things Teams and Leaders Need

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team of 3d cute people in a circle with a leader

1. Individual team members need to know that their specific needs won’t be crushed or ignored. They need to see a path forward with respect to contributing to the team’s goals and managing their own concerns.

Team leaders must know what a team really is.  If it’s called a team, but I, as an individual can succeed without the team, it isn’t a team.  In turn, if I have to choose winners and losers, I’m always going to win at the expense of the team, particularly if my individual win enhances my paycheck, reputation, or performance evaluation.  Therefore, leaders must design team successes such they depend on teamwork.

2.  Teams need clear goals and clear boundaries as well as demands that take into account the idiosyncrasies of the environment. The idiosyncrasies of the environment is where the value of employee feedback becomes noteworthy. To this end, team members need to know that their feedback is respected and that it is safe to offer it (even if it is rejected).

Team leaders mustn’t be afraid to discuss and levy consequences (“consequences” doesn’t necessarily mean punishment) for both individuals and the group.  Likewise, leaders need to offer rewards and reinforcements. People need to know that their leaders are concerned with more than their own “conscious authority”.  Beyond an individual’s intrinsic motivation, people need to know that their work (or the lack thereof) has an impact and that productivity is measured.

3. Team members need to respect each other as credible members of the team. Mutual respect among team members is central to process improvement and innovation; how can team members act on each other’s advice and trust each other’s perspectives if they believe one another to be incompetent? When team members respect each other, there are greater opportunities for engagement as well as pointed, yet respectful communication. However, it must be said that even with mutual respect based on credibility, organizations must intentionally foster environments where destructive criticism isn’t mistaken for communication.

Teams leaders should master being politically tactful, but demonstrating that their word is sound regardless of who is present.  If a leader distances him or herself from those higher up in the ranks, s/he actually undermines his or her own authority. Meanwhile, if a leader’s behavior and statements change depending on the audience, team members will test that leader in various settings as a way of forcing commitment to a direction. Finally, team leaders must communicate openly and honestly because they realize that people feel insecure when they are perpetually shut out of the information loop.

4. Teams need to be shaken up from time to time, i.e., new blood, team mates temporarily re-assigned, etc. Monotony is a death knell.  Team members need something to keep them poised to give their best, whether it be a new goal, a new process, fully integrating a new team member, or recalibrating after losing one.

Team leaders must find the fine line between connection and appropriate distance.  On one hand, a leader must have a soul; however, leaders must recognize that the context in which they work is a type of “them against me” environment.  All too often, leaders forget that there is some merit to the adage “familiarity breeds contempt”.  When a leader is too much like the team, he risks losing the ability to fully influence the team.  This doesn’t mean leaders are to put up a full facade, rather, leaders must be selective in their disclosures.

5. Teams need traditions. The trick with the traditions is that their purposes must be clear, i.e., is this regular bonding time, a celebration, a signal that the team is gearing up for the intense season (for example, think about tax accountants), etc. Clarity of purpose tells people what to expect and makes it safe for them to participate. Likewise, they know what they are rejecting when they decline participation.  As a word of caution, while the broad objective of team traditions is group solidarity, traditions must not make it unsafe to be different.  People must be allowed to maintain individual boundaries.

Leaders should be somewhat predictable. When leaders behave consistently and articulate their expectations, team members are better able to give them what they want. Likewise, inconsistent expectations have the effect of reducing engagement because employees don’t know what leads to success and they can’t duplicate that.

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