Focusing on your team’s success shifts the management focus from your own performance to team developmental needs. Often mangers make the mistake of extremes when they lose sight of the team’s development. They either over control, stifling learning, initiative and confidence, or they stay too “hands off” without providing the necessary supports at critical times. But how do you avoid these extremes to get to the desired production requirements while developing your team?
It starts with an understanding of team developmental requirements. Just as a human being goes through developmental stages, so do workplace teams. Much has been written about the team stages and managerial qualities required at each stage (ie. Forming, storming, norming and performing and the Five Dysfunctions of a Team), but it is helpful to look more carefully at the process details.
1. All beginning learning is rigid, but find ways to encourage innovation while maintaining the expected standards.
Remember that all first learning is rigid. Think about learning the alphabet or counting to 10 to understand this phase. A team needs specific rules and procedures and they have to learn how to perform them well enough to move to the next stage of performance. Lots of managerial support is required in the form of direct instruction and coaching for job performance. There are right and wrong ways to do things and there are degrees of excellence. But don’t get caught up in the idea that everything has to stay rigid. A child who can play three notes on the piano will, unless continually discouraged from doing so, automatically experiment with those three notes, improvising and composing patterns. When your team learns a simple structure, they can be encouraged to use it in new and interesting ways, while respecting the underlying required structure. Take for example the WestJet flight crew. They have a standard operating procedure to lead everyone in a plane through a boring and redundant safety explanation. But they add humour, skits, riddles, songs and endearing personal disclosures to the standard procedure, winning the support of their passengers and showing a sense of kinship and fun that is very infectious.
During the beginning learning stage team members need to feel the support and approval of their management, but the expectations for performance have to be high. Once the team can perform the required procedures, the manager needs to let them do it. There is always a temptation to jump in and add a comment, make a correction or provide a demonstration, but that is detrimental to the team at this point. Show support and once they can do the required task(s), resist the temptation to jump in and show how much better you are.
2. Structure the first team challenge for success.
The next stage sets the tone for increasing challenges. You want the team to be able to meet challenges and you need their input. They have to learn to respect your authority but not fear speaking up when they see something you should know or when they have an idea. It is a delicate balance to direct the team to a new challenge when they have not yet faced anything substantial. Note that the first new challenge for a new topic or process must be an easy win or the team will doubt their capacity to meet other challenges. As much as possible, structure the beginning challenge in a way that you know they will be able to handle it. Then congratulate them on their success. This is a very critical step because it sets the stage for unexpected and critical issues later on. Even if you are in the middle of a difficult situation, if your team has never handled a challenge before, give them the piece you know they will be able to do, and congratulate them on it before diving into the rest of the problem. If you follow this general principle, the team will be ready to face future difficulties without suffering a dive in confidence or being paralyzed with fear of failure. More confident individuals in the team need to support the less confident ones and everyone has to feel responsible to bring the whole team to success. With this method you will identify your weakest links during this first challenge. Anyone who cannot meet a dead simple challenge in a controlled situation is not likely to be able to do it later on. You will also see leadership qualities as certain team members begin to take charge. Which brings us to the next critical step.
3. Teach the team to see and name qualities and to have the courage for public praise and private criticism.
Recognizing the talents and limitations of team members is the responsibility of the entire team. Most people do not know what they are good at and if they do, have difficulty articulating it. Teach your team to name and appreciate the qualities they see in other team members while paying attention to their own personal limitations. It is not productive to have individuals name limitations and be silent about qualities. Reinforce the principle of “public praise, private criticism”. If anyone has a problem with another team member they need to practice the courage to speak with that person in private. Gossip poisons the team and public humiliation spreads a climate of mistrust. At this stage of the team development you want them to develop two critical habits: seeing the qualities of their team members to use them in the right place at the right time, and learning the self control not to backbite and gossip.
4. Help the team with its first project strategizing and check in regularly to overcome obstacles and avoid potential disasters.
5. Watch for limitations and leadership initiatives and help the team structure its work to develop an increasingly longer view for each new project.
You team will now be ready to take on a project. They should be speaking respectfully to each other, both contributing and listening to ideas, showing professional conduct and respect of authority and suggesting ways to address problems that engage the team. Help them strategize, set milestones and create expected outcomes. Then show support for their development by contributing to check-in meetings to help them see and avoid potential pitfalls or obstacles. Remember that they will not have your long-term vision or experience yet, so you will need to guide them away from any potential disasters and help them stay focused on their goals. As much as possible have different team members take turns to facilitate meetings. The group will eventually self-select project leaders, but they should all have the opportunity to try facilitating before this happens. Sometimes the quietest participants can be the best facilitators, but you might not know that if you allow the most dominant personalities free reign.
6. Debrief the learning from previous projects and keep up human interactions, valuing team successes as the team increases in competence.
Your team will need to debrief what they learned from the experience of running a project as a team. Once that has happened they are ready to work on the next project with even less help from you. Let them know you are ready to help if required and set check ins on the time line to make sure you are aware of their progress and obstacles, but mostly stay out of the way. The mistake some managers make at this point is to be so confident in the capacity of their team that they ignore them. People need personal interactions and a sense that their work is valued by their superiors. Ignoring a good team with the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality, can cause it to become apathetic, develop bad habits, or result in individuals taking liberties that erode the team’s ethical base.
To summarize, a team needs different kinds of support at various stages of its development to become an autonomous group that you can trust to do good work. This requires mindful management that pays attention to the developmental needs of the team.
Key points are:
- All beginning learning is rigid, but find ways to encourage innovation while maintaining the expected standards.
- Structure the first team challenge for success.
- Teach the team to see and name qualities and to have the courage for public praise and private criticism.
- Help the team with its first project strategizing and check in regularly to overcome obstacles and avoid potential disasters.
- Watch for limitations and leadership initiatives and help the team structure its work to develop an increasingly longer view for each new project.
- Debrief the learning from previous projects and keep up human interactions, valuing team successes as the team increases in competence.
By Marie Gervais, PhD – Global Leadership Associates