When the leader is the team’s weak link

“The good news is that I have found the reason for your team’s problem,” says the coach. “The bad news is that it is you.” This beloved scene from my playbook works only with my most trusted clients. Although leaders of struggling teams often become inadvertent parts of the problem rather than the solution, calling attention to that requires delicate navigation across minefields of inevitable alarm, denial, politics and vested interests. Pointing out that someone pushes the wrong pedal is an awkward moment. But leaders who master the necessary skills to openly discuss such situations may gain lasting advantage.

When the Board appointed my client, a European high-flyer, to head a new global business services unit from an Asian mega-city, it looked like cost-cutting brilliance. Following the region’s neck-breaking growth, endless markets and youthful workforce, he gathered a team of trusted international managers. But instead of the expected synergy of Western effectiveness and Eastern momentum, the leadership equivalent of Game of Thrones ensued. Asians mistrusted Europeans, functions barricaded their silos and genders polarised. As he raised performance pressure for motivation, my client recalled from his E-MBA reading list The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, and realised in alarm that his people displayed all five.

Leaders who realise that their vision and determination back-fired may wish to go home and pretend to be sick for a few weeks. Some do. But those who can’t do so must realise: a team’s unruly energy is like water that can destroy or create, depending on available channels. Leaders can engineer such channels and turn conflict into creation. When I coach leaders or leadership teams in such conundrum, I advise a journey so simple that it only has three steps: awareness, skills and habits.

Are you one of the suspects, Sherlock?
A team may struggle for countless reasons, and leaders tend to blame the factors they cannot control: poor processes, the market or the character of the team members. International or otherwise diverse teams provide quick and easy stereotypes for blaming unexpected behaviour: emotional women, narrow-minded men, suspicious foreigners, ungrateful youth, hair-splitting accountants and so forth. But during the desperate search for the causes of underperformance, low morale and conflict, leaders often ignore a key influence: their own. Gathering apex predators and telling them to fight, my client unwillingly triggered a civil war within his management team.

The key to fighting pressure is understanding it. In stressful situations, the human brain limits higher cognitive functions and searches for the most obvious cause of danger or discomfort. This mechanism served us well in nature, but in modern circumstances we try to solve complex problems with a mental capacity counterproductively reduced by stress hormones, warn authors of The Leading Brain. In so many words, stressed-out people are bad leaders, at least momentarily. As he pushed managers to perform, my client increased stress and essentially reduced the team’s composite IQ and EQ. The simple realisation that they may either cause or worsen some of the problems they try to solve trigger breakthroughs when I coach executives.

When should you step in, when out?
Like panicked SCUBA-divers kicking up silt and overusing air, leaders must first deep-breathe and check the environment’s reaction without desperate efforts to ‘do something’. The additional information thus gained will become the basis of lasting solutions. Once he calms down and stops shouting, condescending or manipulating, the leader will be able to observe the objective causes of poor team performance, above all the universal secret to teamwork: personality. Most professional teams either consist of members with similar interests and thus compete for the same resources (clients, projects, experts), or include diverse professions, styles and personalities that create an explosive chemistry.

Both types have their challenges, although diversity offers more opportunity. Teamwork hinges on one or more members playing each of a few basic team roles. A variety of professions and styles helps leaders align goal-setters and executors, motivators and evaluators, innovators and fixers. Assessment tools like the one in the picture provide insight. Simple observation about people’s work style is a good start. But first, the leader must overcome a common fallacy: forcing everyone to follow the same style, which is the boss’s own. ‘Tolerating’ diversity is not enough: leaders must actively encourage problem-solving styles that differ from theirs. This challenging step turns ‘difficult people’ into trusted contributors with a speed and ease that has surprised my most sceptical clients.

Is it good enough to last?
Developing the awareness and skills needed to create diverse and pro-active teams is tiresome, and leaders hurry to get back to normal work. They shouldn’t. The world keeps changing. People regress to seeing their own character as the gold standard. That includes team members and the leader himself, but it is the leader’s job to pro-actively seek feedback and ideas for on-going improvement. Sadly, showing such vulnerability brushes against the leadership culture of many organisations. But leaders who neglect it may soon assume the status of a star politician in his senile years: once the solution, now a hushed-up hinderance.

Using team-role analysis, my client soon realised the natural division of talent in his management team: business developers and service providers. Fighters were bored with service and helpers were tired of fighting — the competitive culture imposed by the leader undermined everyone’s sense of purpose. Without personnel changes, a reshuffling of functions tuned people’s diverse vibes into an orchestra of goal-setters (red), visionaries (yellow), helpers (green) and evaluators (blue). At regular one-on-one feedback chats, managers thanked my client for letting them work according to their own style. Assuming the role of Braveheart with the business developers, he resumed seeking the glory he had always craved.

Even the smartest person occasionally finds himself adamantly pulling a door with a ‘Push’ sticker on it. Almost invariably, the hurried door-dragger’s desperate mind would echo with a judgemental grievance about poor manufacturing or the employee who carelessly locked an obvious passage. ‘What’s wrong with everybody?’ you wonder. Next time it happens, release, breathe and remember that ‘everybody’ includes you. Then start pushing.

Read next: Personality: The hidden link between passion and profession

Originally published at holch.biz

Gabor is a cross-cultural teamwork & leadership development consultant, coach, author and speaker who has served 100+ clients in in 25+ countries.

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