How can Leaders Help Teams Succeed?

Some of us think team leaders are crucial to business success. Who will steer the ship, if not the person in charge? Others think leaders are completely useless. That all they do is micromanage and use control to get their way. Which side is right?

It turns out, the answer is in the middle. Team leaders can and should do more than micromanage. Effective leadership involves organizing, planning, and motivating teams with a clear vision. The good news is that more people can be good team leaders, if only they focus on the right actions.

Yet the success of leaders’ teams, departments, and businesses comes from many factors the leader can’t control.

So why does the leader of a team seem to get all the credit? The romance of leadership swindles us for three reasons. It is:

  • Visible: There’s only one person at the head of the table, so they look like the source of all the team’s greatness.
  • Pervasive: We blame the leader for the team’s failures and reward them for successes, placing leaders as the root cause of good and bad performance for all kinds of teams.
  • Powerful: The romance of leadership is so strong, it convinces us the leader was at fault even when they don’t do anything! If a group of people end up disagreeing after having a discussion, the members in that group often blame the silent leader – when the leader had no role in the conflict.

Team leaders can have real influence beyond this romantic notion. Instead of the all-or-nothing approach to leader influence, we’re better off understanding when leaders matter for teams and when performance is out of their control.

Out of a Team Leader’s Control: The Limiting Factors of Team and Context

Team performance comes from three major factors:

  • Effort: The level of effort that group members put into the teamwork.
  • Performance Strategies: How appropriate the team’s strategies are for achieving peak performance.
  • Knowledge and Skill: How much expertise team members bring to the task.

Leaders have limited scope to help their teams directly improve these three factors. First, you would think a team can always increase its efforts but outside limitations make some efforts futile. For example, if the inputs a team needs to do its work are slow or missing, working harder doesn’t improve performance. Here, a leader pushing the team to put more effort wouldn’t see results.

Next, teams’ performance strategies are only as flexible as their operations. If teams need to follow a manual at each step, leaders have no room to improve their team’s strategy.

Finally, complex and unpredictable tasks mean that leaders can improve their teams’ knowledge and skill use. But if a team’s tasks are based on simple and predictable work, adding more skilled members won’t help as much. This means the ideal team scenario for leaders to make an impact is when teams have complex, unpredictable tasks, with no restrictive procedures, and all the team’s inputs are easily accessible.

Leadership helps teams when: Leadership doesn’t help teams when:
Effort More team effort leads to more results Teams’ inputs are slow or missing
Performance Strategy Teams don’t have a standard process to complete work Teams have a strict process to follow
Knowledge and Skill Teams have complex and unpredictable tasks Tasks are simple and predictable

Team factors get in the way of leaders’ influence at lower levels, but higher-order contexts also keep leaders’ hands tied on the three factors above. First, the company’s purpose can be a barrier or a driver of team effort. If a team is aligned with a higher-order company purpose, they will be more motivated to perform well, regardless of the leader’s actions.

Next, institutional forces like legal or regulatory rules limit how teams can do their work. For example, executing a clinical trial in a healthcare context is highly regulated, meaning teams are more influenced by clinical trial protocols than the direction set by their leadership.

Finally, a team’s knowledge and skills are limited by the labour market. With a tight labour market, teams will be missing the skills they need to succeed. In the short term, leaders can’t train for missing skills which can make the team fall short.

This chart shows when leadership won’t work on the drivers of team performance:

Drivers of Team Performance Team-Level Constraints Context-Level Constraints
Effort Limits on Team Inputs and Resources Motivating Company Purpose
Performance Strategies Inflexible Operations Strong Legal and Regulatory Environment
Knowledge and Skill Simple and Predictable Tasks Tight Labour Market Conditions

What Team Leaders Can Do: Remove Barriers and Make Key Design Decisions

Leaders can overcome limitations and still influence their teams toward success. One way to do this is by changing the constraints and expanding the options for teams to work more effectively. This includes redesigning the systems and processes that create barriers to team success.

Another way is by bringing the team norms and context into the open. Leaders who use initial project meetings to discuss the team structure, including reviewing team members’ roles, the support available to them, and the unique situation the team faces, led more effective teams than leaders with no initial meeting or a disorganized kickoff. This helps teams to start off strong by turning them from a loose group of people to an interconnected system.

When no clear team limitations exist, leaders are free to design the team’s inputs, structure, and coaching philosophy as they please. Yet leaders’ instincts about what works may not fit with the data. To start, consider whether the task needs a team at all. Some things are better done alone, or at most with revisions from others: creative writing, reports, and corporate vision statements are best when they come from one voice.

When leaders are faced with a challenge that needs more than one person to succeed, they should ask, “What kind of team should I create?” To build a successful team, leaders must decide on the responsibility level for individual members compared to the whole group and how much interaction needs to happen in real time compared to work that can be done on one’s own.

Next, the team needs structure. Leaders can improve the chances of team success if they do these four things:

  • build real teams with clear boundaries, not just a collection of independent workers,
  • create a challenging, shared goal that motivates team members,
  • empower autonomous, collaborative work instead of building barriers to it, and
  • make sure the broader organization supports the team with information systems, skill development, and performance management.

Finally, taking a coaching role instead of a command-and-control leadership style can help teams maximize their performance. Leaders can coach teams on building effort and motivation, developing new strategies to perform, and using the team’s knowledge in a balanced way.

Drivers of Team Performance Leaders can Impact Team Structure Through: Leaders can Impact the Organizational Context Through: Leaders can Coach Teams to:
Effort Designing more fulfilling tasks Redesigning the reward system Build members’ commitment to the team
Performance Strategy Making team norms explicit in project kickoff meetings Creating an appropriate information management system Use the right strategies for the challenge instead of cookie-cutter approaches
Knowledge and Skill Creating a team with balanced and diverse backgrounds Strengthening the learning and development system Share their ideas and integrate information from other members

Now we’ve busted the dual myths that 1) leaders deserve all the credit and 2) leaders have no impact on their teams.

We can see that leaders influence their teams through the three key drivers of team performance: effort, work strategies, and knowledge/skill. Using techniques from team design, organizational context, and coaching, leaders have much more in their toolkit than micromanagement and coercion.

Contrary to what we might think, teams often embrace this helpful guidance and coaching. With key leadership behaviours, teams perform better than if they were completely autonomous and unsupported. Although leaders don’t have ultimate control in all situations, they have a measurable impact on their team’s success.

Before you go…

At Orgnostic, we apply Wageman and Hackman’s team diagnostics algorithm to measure the conditions of team effectiveness explored in this article.

Quantifiable nature of the six conditions model makes it useful both as a performance indicator and a guiding framework of work for different layers of leadership in the organization. Revealing barriers and harmful organizational design elements makes it easier for team leaders to gain focus on what they should do.

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