Team Leadership Skills

Teams have become critical to workplace success — they are everywhere in business today. Teams offer many advantages, including improved problem-solving capabilities with complex challenges, expanded creativity and synergies resulting in greater overall performance. While the benefits of high-performing workplace teams are well known, leading them effectively remains a tremendous challenge for many managers.

Working in a team environment can bring out the best — and the worst — in people. Individuals often struggle working cooperatively with each other and adapting to the variety of personalities, interpretations, opinions and varying skills of other team members. Many employees may have specific expertise or technical skills but can lack the “people” skills required to be an effective contributor in a team environment. Throw in competing agendas, office politics, limited resources and time pressures, and teams can be a recipe for trouble. It can be enough to make even the most seasoned manager cry out for help.

There is an art to effectively leading teams. It requires a specific skill set and a high level of emotional intelligence. Yet many managers have never been taught the necessary leadership, emotional intelligence, interpersonal and facilitation skills required to successfully lead a team. In a recent survey from the Center for Creative Leadership, marketplace leaders identified the ability to build effective teams and being collaborative as the top skills required for managers to be successful. Alarmingly, this same survey reflected that only 30 percent of respondents believed their leaders were currently skilled collaborators.

Succeeding at leading teams in a way that maximizes the performance potential of the individuals (often with competing interests and different approaches to conflict and problem solving) is a fundamental leadership challenge.

This is one of the reasons that high-performing teams tend to be the exception versus the rule. Successful companies almost always have them, whereas failing companies do not. Many managers are painfully aware that simply throwing a group of people together doesn’t mean they will necessarily jell as a team. Most teams fail to achieve their potential due to a variety of reasons, including:

  • Lack of clarity around team goals and objectives — and accountability to each other to meet those responsibilities (who will do what by when).
  • Ineffective decision-making and/or conflict resolution — either conflict is avoided or dealt with in a way that harms team performance.
  • Lack of trust between members.
  • Lack of emotional intelligence among members.

Facing these kinds of challenges is difficult, though certainly doable with the right help. Typical off-the-shelf team building solutions rarely address the heart of what’s wrong nor give individuals the skills they need (including the team leader) to fare well on their own. They may provide temporary cheerleading relief but rarely address the long-term issues.

Teams need effective leadership to get to a high-performance stage. It’s a team leader’s job to create the conditions for teams to be successful. These include:

  • Establishing structure — clear direction, objectives, decision-making, meeting processes and team member roles.
  • Establishing effective team norms (how we will solve problems, communicate openly, honestly and constructively with each other).
  • Setting a team emotional tone and environment to maximize collaboration and creativity and to ensure the team benefits from the talents of each member.

Team leaders need skills to work with (not against) competing interests, approaches and varying individual motivations. The most effective team leaders balance their time and attention between a) the task demands of the team and b) facilitating team processes (making continuous adjustments) to work better together (enhancing trust and camaraderie).

The best team leaders pay close attention to what is going on interpersonally and emotionally in their teams. They clarify for team members how their behaviors are affecting others (helping them to increase self-awareness) and support them in minimizing unproductive habits that hinder team performance. For example, if Joe has been interrupting Sharon repeatedly during meetings, the leader may note this and remind Joe that the rest of the team might benefit from hearing Sharon’s idea.

If you are a frustrated team leader, it may be time to call in expert help. There are resources to a) grow your skills in leading teams effectively and b) provide facilitation and coaching expertise to lead team sessions more productively and collaboratively.

Team Building Ground Rules

Many of my clients complain about their workplace teams. They often share common frustrations: wasted time spent in ineffective meetings, a lack of accountability, members not speaking the truth or being unwilling to call each other out for bad behavior. High-performing teams (in business or in sports) maintain high expectations, have clearly understood standards for behavior and hold each other accountable for results. They recognize that to achieve and maintain high performance levels will require both a disciplined and deliberate action plan.

Establishing team ground rules — collectively — that reflect desired norms of behavior can help serve as a self-policing method to overcome many typical team dysfunctions. These ground rules can be simple directives, such as “no cell phones or PDAs in meetings,” to overall expectations and guidelines, such as “everyone has a right to be heard.” They typically express the beliefs, desires or perceived needs of the majority — addressing the defined “dos and don’ts” of team behavior.

High-performing teams often use these team rules to resolve common performance challenges. While some leaders will attempt to mandate team ground rules, this is rarely an effective approach. Just because you make a rule doesn’t mean people will follow it (anyone have teenagers?). Wise leaders facilitate a team process that allows the team to identify how they will work more effectively together — and to co-create helpful team norms that will increase productivity and performance. People are more committed to follow norms they help create and also will be more likely to hold each other accountable to them. A great first question to ask is, “What expectations do team members have of each other?”

Having solid team ground rules can also help your team deal with problematic behaviors. We have all observed dysfunctional behaviors (someone constantly interrupting or getting the group off topic), and yet no one says or does anything. If no one intervenes, the behavior likely will continue. Many times the offender is not even aware that the behavior is a problem for others. Ground rules offer team members (and leaders) a useful way to identify, intervene and resolve dysfunctional team behavior. The first “golden rule” of team dynamics: Ignoring and not addressing bad behavior does not make it go away.

For example, if a team has agreed to a ground rule of being specific, when members make general statements like, “Some people don’t …” a team member can respond with, “One of our ground rules is to be specific; when you say ‘some’ people, exactly who are you talking about? ” Or if the topic of the meeting has been pulled off course (without the group agreeing), someone can intervene with, “I believe the team is off track. Does anyone else agree?” Reminding each other of team standards is an excellent way to encourage team accountability and improve performance.

It’s tough to cultivate accountability when expectations are ambiguous. In order to hold other members accountable, team members need to know what each other is working on. Have a check in at the beginning of meetings where team members update each other about their progress toward task goals. Again, peer pressure to account for your actions and results will help foster accountability.

Keep ground rules clear and member responsibilities out in the open so they aren’t ignored. A few key ground rules are better than a long list. Revisit them from time to time to see if they are still working or needed. If not, remove them or develop new ones.

All teams have norms that influence behavior. Just because they aren’t “formal” or explicit doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

The key question is, are these norms helping or hindering the team? Good facilitators and leaders will help teams to surface their unconscious norms, identify their effect and allow the team to decide whether they are effective and still want to operate by them.

SETTING RULES

Here are some ground rules to consider:

  • It’s OK to disagree.
  • We challenge each other constructively; no personal attacks.
  • When we present problems, we also offer solutions.
  • No electronic disruptions.
  • When confused, ask.
  • Notify members if and when commitments can’t be met.
  • Leave meetings clear: Who will do what by when.
  • All members participate in problem solving — we value all perspectives.
  • Stay focused and on track.
  • One person has the floor at a time (no interruptions).

I am available for team building help:  360 682 5807.  My clients are all over the world, I coach via Skype or Facetime!

Customer Service Starts With Leaders

GREAT CUSTOMER SERVICE is critical to business success — loyal customers are the ultimate competitive advantage.

Many companies espouse that they provide great customer service, but few deliver. The inconsistency often stems from a failure to model it internally. The quality of customer service that co-workers provide to each other invariably shows up with outside customers.

Sadly, not all co-workers treat each other with the same kind of respect and care that they treat their customers. Perhaps you’ve heard the relationship advice of, “Treat your spouse/partner as if they were a guest in your home.” With co-workers (not unlike spouses), there are times we forget we are all rowing for the same team!

Challenges, conflicts and turf wars between co-workers from different company groups or departments are often a result of conflicting goals, budgets, resources and priorities. There are many examples: sales vs. finance (or service), human resources vs. operations, or information technology vs. any group depending on them. The differences between most internal company groups are often astounding in objectives, activity and the skills required to be successful.

Many company units have opposing perspectives and motivations. Take the common tension between “service” and “sales.” The service people want ownership of their jobs without the oversight and “butting in” of their demanding sales counterparts (who put the pressure on service when they identify customer relationships are at risk).

One has the technical experience to fix the product properly, the other has the interpersonal skills and understanding to develop and maintain customer relationships. Each operates in different worlds — it’s no surprise that their differences and dependencies create conditions that foster friction.

Internal infighting often escalates and is emotional. But it most often ends the same, with participants retreating back to their corners, where the battle, roadblocks and unresolved core systemic issues continue. Senior executives are often buffered from the battles below them, but the dysfunction between the groups is often felt by almost everyone else in the organization (and ultimately by the customer). If not addressed, this evolves into company culture with significant consequences (talented people get frustrated and leave, or key customers just go away).

To get rid of the “not my job” company culture, senior leaders need to help workers see the big picture, provide unifying goals and reward team achievement (so a co-worker’s request from another department is viewed as an opportunity to help a team member out and meet overall company goals vs. an “irritating interruption”).

Most employees simply don’t understand the priorities, day-to-day challenges and motivations of other departments (an underlying cause of the common “turfdoms” that plague many organizations). Feuding co-workers aren’t focused on collaboratively resolving the needs of the external customer. The fault for all this infighting often lies with senior leaders. It’s their responsibility to create a culture of united vision, understanding, accountability and teamwork.

As a coach, I often hear managers complain about the “personality” problem of a team member (usually presented as “so-and-so is difficult to work with”). Sometimes this is true, but more often than not, what I find when I dig deeper is the presenting “personality” concern is often a result or symptom of a greater systemic issue. Often the person deemed “difficult” turns out to be at the mercy of another department that isn’t being responsive and is demonstrating pent-up frustration at a culture that lacks internal customer service accountability and/or the inability or willingness to change.

What to do next:

  • Senior leaders need to foster an internal culture of great customer service and accountability. This requires solid sponsorship from the top down, where all managers are on the same page of providing great customer service to each other (remember, what gets measured is what gets done).
  • Survey your internal customers and find out if you are meeting their needs. Hold “debriefs” and postmortems following project completions. Target internal customer improvement.
  • Provide training for workers to develop healthy conflict resolution and feedback skills.
  • Make sure feuds are addressed; provide help to identify differences and options to effectively resolve them.
  • Find ways to bridge departmental gaps. Host social and team events to boost morale and understanding between groups. Promote teamwork across departments by creating teamwide goals. Reward individuals based on team success.

Demonstrate gratitude to co-workers who go the extra mile for you — like those IT support people who resolve your computer crisis! Just like external customer relationships, internal customer relationships require “maintenance” to foster teamwork and trust.

Invest in yourself by hiring me as your coach! I can help you learn, develop and grow your leadership and coaching abilities.  I coach leaders all over the world via Skype.  Call me:  360 682 5807 or email: mmoriarty@pathtochange.com