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It is interesting how often as senior professionals we find ourselves needing to take on roles or responsibilities for which our training has not prepared us. This is particularly true when we need to lead a team for the first time. Rarely are we given any training on what makes a high functioning team, or how teams can get derailed. If we are fortunate enough to have been a member of a team that worked collaboratively and delivered high quality results, then we do our best to emulate the behaviours of that team leader and hope for great outcomes. Every team has different dynamics and different personalities within it though, and this brings new challenges each time.

As team leader, your first priority is to build an atmosphere of trust. What does that look like? Team members trust each other if they are confident that every member has the best interests of the team as their top priority. How may teams have you been a part of where it feels more like a group of individuals competing to demonstrate why new projects should not be their responsibility, why they are the most deserving of new opportunities or show that the problems are being caused by someone else. Even if this does not all come out during meetings, there are the knocks on your office door afterwards to helpfully bring this all to your attention.

If team members feel they need to protect themselves from the rest of their team or compete with them to be successful, the team will never achieve its full potential. So how can you as the team leader foster this key goal of team building?

Your behaviour sets the standard you expect from others. Communicate professionally at all times with members of your team. Demonstrate respect for the skills and knowledge they contribute, and seek their opinions and input. Follow through on commitments you make to the team, and be prepared to own up and apologise when you recognise you have made a mistake. Be honest with your team about your goals for the team and acknowledge the challenges they are facing. Above all, your team need to know that they are safe in their communication with you, and will not be humiliated or attacked if they speak up.   Think about subtle ways in which you might be discouraging open communication in your team meetings.

Do you…

  • Shut down discussion by expressing your disagreement with a point they are making and then moving on? “I acknowledge your point Fiona but I think this idea will work”.
    • TIP: Instead try “I hadn’t considered that Fiona. What do others think?”
  • Allow the more vocal members of your team to dominate meetings and not give other the opportunity to speak?. Remember that some members are likely to need encouragement to speak up, but they may have valuable contributions to make.
    • TIP: Be aware of those whose opinions have not been expressed in the meeting. “We haven’t heard from you Greg. What are your thoughts?”
  • Mock the contributions of others in an effort to foster a light-hearted tone? “Oh here comes another out there idea from Naomi”.
    • TIP: Something you regard as gentle humour may be received by the target as belittling or humiliating. If you have a tendency to offend people without intending to, ask a trusted colleague to give you feedback when they think you have crossed the line.
  • Give short timeframes for decisions, resulting in little opportunity for constructive discussion?
    • TIP: If a topic is complex or contentious, the team may not be able to arrive at a decision quickly. You may need to adjust your timeline in order to ensure all views are heard, the best decision is made, and the team members have ownership of the decision.

Only once you have thought about how to be a trustworthy leader can you turn your attention to trust within the team.

“There is a difference between being a leader and being a boss. Both are based on authority. A boss demands blind obedience; a leader earns his authority through understanding and trust.” Klaus Balkenhol

Are you the sort of leader who inspires others with a vision and empowers them to work with their team to make it a reality?  Or are you the sort of leader who is so bogged down in interruptions and details that the big purpose is lost in the minutiae of your working day?  Sometimes it is easier to bury yourself in the management tasks than turn your focus to strategy and future direction.  Start with a few simple questions.

What is your core purpose? Consider why you are there, what you are trying to accomplish, what drives you and adds meaning to your life.

What are your core talents? Tapping into your natural strengths will help you determine the ways in which you can contribute most.

What are your core values? These are the standards and guiding principles that are your bedrock.

If you can answer these, you have taken the first step to creating a clear blueprint for yourself as an authentic leader, not a manager.