Years ago I had a peer (I’ll call her Nancy) who complained constantly about her team. We were both managers of large sales teams, worked for the same overly demanding boss, and had to manage in a period of never-ending restructuring and downsizing. I’ll admit, it certainly was trying and stressful most days, and there were definitely times when I was frustrated with my team. However, I knew that they were doing the best they could in a difficult situation – and I was also doing my best to be the leader that I wanted to be. When Nancy would talk about her terrible team during our lunches together, I would feel grateful for getting my Sales area and not hers. That could easily have been me with the dysfunctional team, I thought.
Then the day came when I was told that one of her supervisors would be joining my team, and I was not happy. My group was working well together and the last thing I wanted was a toxic employee coming on board to mess things up. After whining a bit, I decided it was best to give this person the benefit of the doubt and pretend I knew nothing about him – the clean slate approach.
In our first meeting, he seemed fairly competent but I did notice a bit of an attitude. He was going to need some work, I thought. After a few weeks, I noticed he was blending in nicely with my team and he was opening up more in our weekly one-on-ones. He really seemed to be blossoming, so I asked him how he was doing and what his assessment was of his first month. He said, “I’ve learned more in one month on this job, than I did in over a year where I just came from.” As he explained further, it became clear that Nancy did little to develop her team members and, as a result, they were unhappy, disengaged, and fighting amongst themselves. The things she had been complaining about to me were actually caused by her.
There are several ways that leaders jeopardize and undercut their team’s development. Here’s how to avoid those barriers:
- Let go – You can’t do everything and your team won’t learn if you don’t delegate and share decision making as much as possible.
- Get out of the weeds – Operate at your level – set a vision, be strategic, understand and articulate the big picture. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself doing the work of someone a level below you, focusing on minutiae, and micromanaging.
- Teach and coach – Development is an active job. You have to spend time with your team members, be accessible, share your knowledge and experience, and offer guidance and feedback. You can’t do that if you are constantly in meetings or behind closed doors. Consistent teaching and coaching is essential for team development.
- Trust and empower – You don’t have all the answers and no one expects you to. Trust that your team can come up with some pretty good solutions too and encourage them to give input, take risks, and share their opinions regularly.
- Acknowledge – Part of your job is being a great advocate for your team. If you’re not willing to share the spotlight when things go well or take the blame when things go wrong, then team development will suffer.
If you’re frustrated by your poor-performing team, it may be time to stop focusing on what they’re doing wrong and think about what you may be doing wrong. Chances are you’ll discover that one barrier to their success is you.