If you have been leading a team for a while, you may have felt the strain of this challenge. It can be hard to know when your team needs strong leadership and when they simply need support.
A small adjustment in the balance of leading and supporting your team can make a huge impact on results. You and your team can become happier and more productive almost overnight.
Sometimes, when you provide a lot of direction and guidance, it may not seem to help. You might try to supply team members with templates, examples, and the clearest instructions possible. Weirdly, it can sort of backfire.
And you might have notice that sometimes when you provide lots of understanding and encouragement, results don’t change much. You may use your best listening skills, most clever motivational techniques, and every soft skill at your disposal. Still, it doesn’t seem to help.
You might feel like some mix of these approaches is the right answer. But it’s hard to know when, where, and how to best deliver what the team needs from you.
That’s what this post is all about.
We are going to break this down into a very simple approach. One that you can start to apply immediately.
First, recognize the nature of the team’s challenge
Is your team facing a creative challenge or an operational challenge?
This is an important question that can often be overlooked. It’s also easy to mis-read.
Your team is facing a challenge somewhere along the spectrum of creative to operational.
On the creative side of the range, the work requires more critical thinking, planning, and strategy. The work is more likely to be project oriented. And it’s going to require both independent and group decision making.
On the other side of the range, are the more operational challenges. Here the work is more structured, many guidelines are in place, and the success metrics are clear and easily measured. These challenges require clear and regular feedback.
As you might have guessed, the more the work of your team is on the creative end of the spectrum, the more leadership is required from you.
And the more the work of your team is on the operational end of the spectrum, the more support is required from you.
But to be clear, it’s never really “all or nothing.”
You always need to provide both leadership and support. The only thing we’re talking about adjusting here is the mix.
You will blend more one way or the other depending on the what your team is up against.
Next, consider the 3 requirements of great teams
A great team needs 3 things: trust, accountability, and freedom.
A team with strong trust among its members (and of the leader) is less bogged down in politics and hidden agendas. Having everyone comfortably and reliably depending on one another contributes to happiness and efficiency.
Accountability is necessary to cultivate a sense of responsibility and seriousness about achieving those shared goals. This brings the focus that is necessary for high productivity.
And finally, there is freedom. In a trusting and focused environment, people will be able to work well independently. Individual motivations can line up with the group’s goals.
A successful team needs all 3 of these elements.
A team with trust and freedom but no accountability will drift. Productivity will suffer and eventually the culture of shared purpose will erode.
A team with trust and accountability but no freedom can be somewhat productive, but individual motivation will fade without some sense of individual freedom.
And a team with accountability and freedom but no trust becomes the kind of pressure cooker that will end up with the sum being less than the total of its parts.
Once again, a balance must be achieved.
Then, look at the mix of challenges
Your balance of leadership and support should be guided by the challenges facing your team.
Your team might be facing something more on the creative end of the spectrum. Or they might be facing something more on the operational end of the spectrum.
But likely, they are facing a mix of these challenges.
And that’s the thing that can be a real leadership challenge.
Too often, we can approach challenges with a particular leadership style that we think is great. Maybe it’s the kind of approach that has been successful for you in the past. Or maybe it’s the kind of approach that you admire in other leaders that you have worked with. Possibly it’s something you’ve read about that seems like the “right answer” to the leadership challenge.
But there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Because your team is dealing with a complex blend of challenges.
You might have a very operational team that is implementing some project. While the operational nature of the team’s function requires one type of leadership, the project brings a totally different set of challenges to the table.
Maybe you have a project oriented team that is facing more operational challenges. Maybe their work process needs fixing or maybe they are running into trouble working with a more operational part of the business.
Your team is also probably facing different challenges at different times. The mix is fluid.
Of course, you then have to look a little deeper.
Each individual on your team can be facing different challenges at different times. Just as your team isn’t a simple monolith, neither is any individual on your team.
Each member could be carrying both operational and creative responsibilities to some extent. And their individual mix is changing over time.
What an individual needs from you can be different than what the team needs from you. That’s another important part of the mix to consider.
Finally, adjust your approach
Your approach needs to be situational.
You might be leading a discussion with your team about a new project. That might require you to foster critical thinking, planning, and strategy development.
You might also need to lead a discussion with the very same team about something operational. That might require you to shift more to support mode where you are trying to suss out obstacles, figure out resources they need, or interpret feedback.
If your team is a functional department within an organization, you might have these different conversations in the very same meeting as you shift from topic to topic.
Your approach needs to be dynamic. You will need to shift from highly directive, functional guidance mode to listening and encouraging mode and back.
Recognizing that the challenges your team is facing–together and as individuals–will help you to calibrate your response appropriately.
Aiming your sites at the 3 elements that make a team great will also help. You know that the team needs a mix of trust, accountability, and freedom to operate well. You can aim at each of these as you guide people through various situations.
More creative unstructured work is a good opportunity to foster trust. But so is operational work. You can show your people that you trust them to be responsible on both fronts. And you can show them that they can trust you.
Operational tasks are well suited to accountability. But so is the focus of strategic planning. You can earn their trust through decisiveness and follow through. They can learn to trust each other by relying on each other in mechanical tasks and by supporting each other in inventing new things for the future.
You can cultivate a sense of freedom on both ends of the spectrum too. You need to give people room to operate on their own no matter what task is before them. You can give them opportunities to grow, and you can encourage them to take those opportunities.
Adjust your approach to balance leadership and support, depending on what your team–and individuals–need at the moment.
Focus on building the three strengths of trust, accountability, and freedom on your team.
And you will be well on your way toward success as a team leader and, more importantly, as a team.