When Two Rights Get It Wrong in Team Leadership.


When Two Rights Get It Wrong in Team Leadership.

Team leadership requires a diverse set of skills, and as business owners, it’s essential that we develop them. 

There are times in life when your good ideas don’t get the results you need. Your best people skills, no longer bring out the best in them. And you begin to recognise your need for new skills, only after you’ve already started a project.

Taking the driver’s seat.

When I was first learning to drive a manual car as a teen, there came a time when I needed to have already mastered two key motoring skills; performing a handbrake assisted hill start and changing gears going up hill.

Historically, both of these two procedures did not rate high in my natural skill set.

My appreciation for their importance (and dedication to mastering both skills) was not overly in front of mind.  Then one day, during my on road driving test as a naive and distracted teenager, I suddenly found myself stopped in heavy traffic; in the rain, on a hill, behind a small car towing a big caravan, to which I had stopped far too close. Did I mention it was a very steep hill?

Stressful situation? Yes. But the level of stress at that moment was significantly less than the stress levels I’ve experienced leading teams of diverse creative introverts mixed with competitive type A individuals.

Both situations call for the right approach before you know the one you need.

Business runs on teamwork.

It’s no secret; business relies upon teams of people working well together. Solutions to the most complex of problems, usually only come from teams of people with diverse skill sets – often from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds – all sharing their knowledge and insights.

So how do we build trust within teams of people with different backgrounds?

When it comes to trust we’re really talking about the behaviour of people and usually the behaviour of people in groups. 

Given diverse teams have fewer natural similarities to connect over and often measure levels of trust differently, the need for establishing team trust early is a key priority.

Leading teams and herding cats.

A quick read of many business blogs could leave you thinking managing a diverse team is simply just focusing on one of two, possible leadership styles.

  1. Be a task-focused leader, focusing on detailed job descriptions and lists of things to do by a particular date, or
  2. Be a relationship-focused leader, focusing on getting your new team together socially so they can learn more about each others’ personal shared interests outside the work environment.

As to which particular type of leadership approach was actually best, is usually left to the default leadership style of the team leader.

Why both default leadership styles fail – over time.

Bad news. The consistent outcome of both of these leadership styles overtime is bleak.  Teams appear to lose their initial impact and their ability to collaborate dilutes.

Over time, the natural fault-lines in the group begin to show as team members separate into subgroups, usually based upon shared demographics, social or educational similarities.  In a pressured environment, these natural divisions between team members appear more quickly.

It’s actually hard to lead a high performing team of diverse people.

Paradoxically the same traits that create team diversity can become traits that fuel a decline in team innovation and effectiveness.

Behind the failings of both leadership styles (and what to do about it)

In long term teams, two common failings can emerge: 

  • A failing of collaboration, where the team members do not develop trust and goodwill between themselves.
  • A failing of knowledge sharing, where team members withhold their individual knowledge, expertise and insights from other team members.

Understand why this happens.

In some cases, these dual team failings are the direct outcome of the leader’s bullying behaviour where team members protect themselves and withdraw sharing their skills, in silent protest.

In more functional teams, these same team failings appear as a direct result of the fault lines and formation of subgroups (or perhaps warring factions) that can naturally emerge within team environments.

Defensive subgroups rarely collaborate with each other, instead preferring to only share their inside knowledge with the inside group. 

Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

How you first start is not always an indication of how you’ll finish, but ultimately, success will depend upon the leadership flexibility of the team leader.

If you start with a task oriented approach, your team may meet deadlines and perform well initially, but then their results may wain as they begin to repel new ways and suggestions for innovation.

If you start with a socialisation approach, you risk creating an atmosphere where people look for ways to bond around what’s already shared most between them. This can be gender, age, sports, family size etc. This increased socialisation from the outset actually fractures the team and accelerates the formation of group fault lines.

This increased socialisation from the outset actually fractures the team and accelerates the formation of group fault lines.

Counterintuitive leadership.

When establishing your team, focus first on task oriented leadership and getting people to complete basic jobs and meeting basic deadlines together. This is particularly important where there’s a high probability of a subgroup emerging from the outset. 

  • Create the team energy around the task itself.    
  • Give your new team detailed job descriptions, set realistic performance goals and provide a direct line of who to ask for what. 
  • Focus on providing the resources and coordinating your team members activities.

Result: This allows subgroups to emerge, but their divisions will be around task oriented responsibilities, experience level, and product or procedure education, rather than personality differences.

Then change gears.

After beginning with a task oriented leadership style, plan the right time to switch leadership styles from task-oriented to relational-oriented. When team members start to feel united in their common work goals more than in the differences of the subgroup, change gears.

  • Now the team will have developed a basis for relating and subgroup creation around shared work skills, shared work goals and shared work ability – rather than personal similarities.
  • When switching to a relational-leadership style, team members will be now already be pre-equipped with immediately relatable (and perhaps now braggable) work and group skills, that can then be further strengthened with their relating around individual and personal interests.

Result: Team members have the opportunity to learn about each other’s skills and competencies first, rather than through the lens of their personal lives. Simply put, natural differences in personalities can now be bridged by a clear sense of a shared task and goal created by the team leader. 

When you’re leading a team not only will you need to manage complex personalities but you’ll also need to learn which style of team leadership to start with – and then when to change gears and select which leadership style to finish with.

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