What is a leader? Many times, we assume that the people with the highest titles (both professionally and in civic organizations) are the leaders and that the other people in any given group are followers. However, in most circumstances, a true leader – a respected leader – is not defined by his or her title but rather by the positive experiences he or she creates in a group of people. Members of a team will be most thankful for a leader who fosters a solid team environment, helps the team to function at peak performance, and inspires other to take action.
In fact, you have probably experienced this yourself-think of a time when you enjoyed being part of a team. Most likely, there was someone who helped the group function well, who fostered camaraderie, who elicited conversation, who motivated people to perform. You probably didn’t respect this leader because of title or because you were told to do so, but rather because you enjoyed being a part of the team. It is very difficult to respect someone or to be respected as a leader without earning it. So what does it take to be a successful leader?
Patrick Lencioni in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team fleshes out five areas that are essential to effective teams and how they so often break down. In my opinion, Lencioni’s book is one of the clearest and most succinct explanations of what is required to have a functional team that is achieving desired results. What’s important as a leader is understanding the dynamics of these teams and how to lead through common dysfunctions in order to achieve team goals.
The short version of Lencioni’s book is that in order for a team to achieve any given result, there must be accountability-people must feel responsible for their part. In order for people to feel accountable, and for others to feel comfortable holding someone accountable, there must be commitment among team members. In order to have a sincere commitment, there must be constructive conflict. This isn’t always out-and-out arguing (though it may be), but people need to feel heard before making a commitment. The only way team members will have constructive conflict is if they trust each other.
Trust -> Constructive Conflict -> Commitment -> Accountability -> Results
As a leader, you are responsible for helping your team overcome the struggles it faces. What makes a team? A team is a group of people who are striving toward the same result-moving toward the top of the triangle. Sometimes this is obvious and defined-like winning a soccer game, hosting an event, achieving a sales goal. A major challenge is when there are members of a team who are not really interested in the desired result. This lack of unified direction stems from a few different areas, and as a leader, identifying the source and knowing how to lead through the challenge is critical:
The Result Itself
Ultimately, it is nearly impossible to force someone into a goal-it must be important to them. As a leader, it is critical to have this discussion with your team-why do you care about accomplishing this? What does this mean to you? Without a desire to achieve, people are left without motivation.
Lack of Constructive Conflict
In my observations, most teams have the majority of their breakdowns due to conflict (or lack there of). Either conflict is not “constructive,” i.e. conflict is destructive, or there is no conflict. Period. No one dares to speak up, so conflict is simply avoided. If this is the case, we must ask ourselves why? Why are we so terrified of conflict? And why is it important as a leader to solve this challenge? What good comes from conflict anyway?
When I ask people to tell me the words that come to mind when I say “conflict,” I usually hear things like “uncomfortable,” “negative,” “arguing,” “tense.” Obviously, these are feelings that most people would like to avoid. Yet, when I ask people how they feel when they have worked through conflict and found a solution, they say words like “strong,” “closer,” “understood,” “peaceful.” Funny, isn’t it? What leader wouldn’t want their team to be stronger, closer, understood, and peaceful? I’m yet to find him or her.
Conflict not only brings a team together, but also is a prerequisite for true commitments. Obviously, everyone can not always have their way-sometimes your team members will need to work toward results that were not originally their priority. They will only be able to let go of their original desires and excitedly commit to the team’s goals if they feel heard and understood. If there aren’t real commitments, there is little to hold someone accountable to. If there is no accountability, there is often no result. Therefore, as a leader, we have a deep responsibility to foster an environment that brings necessary conflict to the surface but keeps it constructive. And that’s not easy!
I’ve found five guidelines to help leaders facilitate open communication and constructive conflict:
1. Ask Questions
Especially as a group is getting started, it is critical for the leader to ask lots of questions to show sincere interest in others’ opinions. Your team is much more likely to share their thoughts when they know you really want to hear it. Also, asking questions and openly communicating is easier before there is conflict. If you have fostered an environment of open communication where people feel confident that they will be listened to, when conflict needs to be discussed, people will already have a level of comfort of communication.
2. Provide Only Necessary Directives
As a leader, people feel they should follow you. The challenge is, if you consistently are telling them to do something that they don’t really care about, eventually you will have a breakdown. Try to coach people to determine what they need to be doing instead of just telling them what to do. Of course, there are times when you will need to give directives, but the more you can help your team members to establish their own responsibilities, the more equipped they will be to handle conflict.
3. Involve Everyone
On most teams, there is the outspoken member, and the shy member. Even though it may seem like the shy people don’t want to share their opinion, that perception is often false. Remember, a person needs to weigh in to buy in. So getting everyone involved is critical to having thorough communication. If a person isn’t speaking up, directly ask their opinion.
4. Don’t Allow Insults
Don’t insult people on your team and do not allow team members to insult each other. The fastest way to get a person to stop sharing their thoughts is by insulting them. The challenge is, the insulted people still have opinions, and if they are not discussed, a person will stew with frustration, never really buy in to the team’s plan, and hurt the camaraderie.
5. Admit Faults
People love to know that their leader screws up, too. As a leader, you probably think it’s funny that your team members believe you have it all together, but they probably do! Allowing yourself to be human helps your team identify with you, helps people not to feel terrible for making mistakes, and models taking ownership of mistakes. If people know that they can make mistakes, they are more likely to take risks, which not only ensures better results, but also ensures a greater sense of satisfaction for a tough job well done. In terms of communication and conflict, you are serving as a role model for admitting mistakes rather than getting defensive, which is critical to constructive conflict.
Leadership is tricky-obviously each group of people you lead will be different because every person is unique. However, regardless of the makeup of your group, following a few guidelines will help you to consistently facilitate an effective team. When your team is functioning well, when they are comfortable with constructive conflict, you’ll find that your job is easier-your team will really be discussing and debating about the critical challenges you face in trying to achieve fantastic results. And of course, any leader would rather have her whole team wrestling with and overcoming those challenges than doing it alone.