A high-performing team whose members trust each other is a beautiful thing to watch. The story goes that a tourist in Amish country stopped to watch a barn-raising. He observed for a long time trying to figure out who was in charge. When he was finally sure, he went up to the man while the team was taking their lunch break and said “I’ve been watching your team and how well you work together. Am I right that you are in charge?” The Amish man stroked his beard, looking at the work that lay ahead of them and said, “No, the barn’s in charge. We all just know what it’s supposed to look like when it’s done.”
Several years ago, I helped an organization evaluate their teamwork. A forty-question survey of “teamwork behaviors and preferences” yielded some oddly contradictory results. Of the people surveyed, 80 percent rated two of the items as “strongly agree:”
- Our performance is heavily dependent on working effectively in teams.
- If you want something done right, you need to do it yourself.
To be clear, 80 percent of the individual respondents “strongly agreed” with both statements. These results seem to highlight our conflicting feelings about teamwork. We recognize the value of teamwork in the abstract but don’t trust the other team members to “get it right” when it comes down to doing the work. This ambivalence leads to four of the most common mistakes in team management.
1. Micromanaging the “How.” When team leaders don’t trust the team, they feel they need to control the process end-to-end. They say, in effect, “do what I tell you AND do it MY way.” If team members don’t have enough flexibility to play to their strengths, the team doesn’t reach top performance. You need clear expectations about quality, but you also need to leverage the team’s full range of skills. Team members can get so focused on the “how” that they lose track of the big picture, the ”why.” If you want a high-performing team, provide scope and support for initiative, growth, and experimentation.
2. Dump and Ding Delegation. When team leaders try to do too much themselves, they get overwhelmed and “dump” tasks on team members at the last minute. Then they “ding” the team members when they can’t meet the deadline. Effective delegation takes careful planning. People need the right tools, training, and authority. Maybe you have seen that sign on someone’s desk that says “lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” I have another favorite saying, “just because you think you work best in a crisis doesn’t mean you should create one for the rest of us.”
3. Overloading One Team Member. I am not a big fan of the old adage, “if you want something done, ask a busy person.” First, people can be busy doing the wrong things or just terribly inefficient. Second, if they are well-organized and are busy accomplishing the right things, then don’t punish them by overloading their plate further. If your team begins to think that “no good deed goes unpunished,” you will soon have even bigger problems. A better strategy would be to use their individual organizational skills to help the team get better organized as a whole so that everyone is efficient and effective, not just busy.
4. Becoming the Bottleneck to Communication. If your team has a clear shared understanding of what they are trying to achieve, all communication should not need to go through the team leader. (See Dealing With the Dangers of Hub and Spoke Management.) Team members need to talk directly to each other and work together regularly (either virtually or in-person). A particularly dysfunctional version of a team leader bottleneck occurs when the team leader personally edits all written communication from the team to clients and stakeholders. Management by edit is not leadership. Make sure you have some team members who communicate effectively with the written word and once you trust them, get out of their way.