Almost everyone has had at least one experience with two different types of leaders: the overbearing micromanager who needs so many updates that it’s nearly impossible to get any actual work done, or the one who’s so “laid back” that they might as well not be there at all. It’s easy to look at these leadership styles and decide that you can do a better job, but when you’re responsible for the successes and failures of your team without having a hand in the work that they’re doing, how do you strike the right balance between being engaged and giving your team room to breathe?
There is no one universal answer to that question, but these tips can help you create an environment that makes your team feel supported, confident, and productive, while still giving you peace of mind.
This may seem obvious, but it’s all too common to see people in leadership positions hiding away in offices or tied up in a full day’s worth of meetings. It’s best to be physically present whenever possible. Either sit with your team or hang out somewhere that’s easily accessible to them so that they can find you when they need to. Face-to-face conversations help eliminate confusion and foster better relationships. If you absolutely can’t be on site, make sure your team knows how to get in touch with you and that they feel comfortable doing so. Respond to chats, emails, phone calls, and text messages as soon as you’re able. If you have to attend a lot of meetings, try blocking off a little bit of time in your schedule each day in order to be available for your team and make them aware that you’re there for them. This availability will let team know that you have time for them and remind them that you’re part of the team, too.
Check in regularly.
As a leader, you’re likely responsible for reporting back to someone about the progress of the team. The best way to be confident in what you’re reporting is to actually know what’s going on. Checking in with your team on a regular basis is a great way to get updates, discuss any potential roadblocks, and make sure that everyone is on the same page. A great way to manage this is by having a standing touch point each morning—fifteen to thirty minutes is usually plenty of time to get everyone communicating and ready for the day ahead. Don’t hover over your team and demand updates to the point of distraction, but take a few minutes each day to chat with each person about how their day is going. It may also be a good practice to have regular one-on-one meetings with each team member to allow them to discuss sensitive topics and to learn about them on an individual level. Every person on your team is just that: a person! Make sure you treat them accordingly.
Foster family, not contempt.
Everyone groans at the thought of team building activities, but team dynamic can make or break your entire operation, especially if you’re all working closely on a project. Team building doesn’t have to be cheesy icebreakers and trust fall activities. If your environment allows it, get everyone together for drinks or dinner after work. Go bowling on a Friday night. Schedule a potluck lunch and take a break during the work day to decompress and have fun. Work can be stressful, and if all your team ever does is work under stress, it can be very easy for them to start resenting other team members, including you. Keep in mind that not everyone on the team may want to participate in these activities, but getting the team together outside of a work environment creates the strongest teams and helps them become more comfortable coming to you during work hours. These events are often where some of the most creative problem solving occurs, too!
Don’t ask your team to do anything you’re not willing to do yourself.
We’ve all been in a situation where we hit peak season in our industry, or run straight into crunch time during an important milestone on a project. What this usually means for our teams is a lot of stress, hard work, and the dreaded overtime. Sometimes these circumstances are unavoidable, but the concept here is simple. If your team is working over or staying late, you should strive to be there with them. If you can contribute to the work, it means that the team might get their work done a little faster. If not, your presence will lend moral support that’s invaluable to a team working under pressure.
Encourage problem solving.
If you’re in a leadership position, your team is going to come to you with questions. Some of those questions will be valid—you’ll likely have some decision making to do in your role—but a lot of them will involve your team asking for advice. In organizations with traditional top-down reporting structures, teams may not have the confidence or the authority to make decisions without asking for leadership’s blessing. Allowing this trend to continue is going to result in you spending the majority of your time answering questions, likely to the detriment of your team’s progress. Instead, when team members come to you with questions, try posing their questions back to them. More often than not, they’ll already have a reasonable answer, and they’ll learn that it’s okay to solve problems without you.
Trust your team.
In the spirit of trusting that your team knows what they’re doing, it’s important to listen to what they have to say and give them the freedom to do what’s best. All great relationships are founded on trust, and as long as your team are qualified and adequately trained, it’s safe to say that they can probably make sound decisions. Even if you’re an expert in your field, you’re likely not working in the weeds the way that your team is, and that makes their insight more valuable than gold. A good rule of thumb is to encourage your team to use the “I intend to…” method of communication with you, which comes from a great speech by Captain David Marquet. Rather than having your team ask you for permission to make every little decision, or allowing yourself to dictate direction to them at every turn, allow them to tell you what they’re planning to do, and give them the chance to try things out. It can be difficult to release the reins when your neck is on the line, but it will ultimately lead to a massive increase in confidence, productivity, and creative output.
Have your team’s back.
The most important point on this list by far, backing up your team should be standard for every leader. Unfortunately, it’s very common for leaders to sacrifice someone on their team in order to save themselves. Self-preservation is a natural instinct, but it doesn’t foster a healthy team dynamic. Your number one job as a leader is to shield your team from those who may seek to distract, derail, or deride your team (intentionally or not) so that team members can simply focus on the task at hand and get the work done without sweating about being interrupted or thrown under the bus. Be sure to support them during difficult meetings, and speak honestly about your team’s strengths and pain points to all stakeholders. In the end, every decision your team makes is your responsibility, even if you weren’t part of making the decision. If necessary, you can go back to the drawing board to reassess strategy and logic with your team afterwards. If you want your team to be successful, it’s imperative that you back their decisions up.
Inno-versity. Inno-Versity Presents: “Greatness” by David Marquet. Performance by David Marquet, YouTube, Inno-Versity, 8 Oct. 2013, youtu.be/OqmdLcyES_Q.