Lead by Providing Bearing, Room, and Backup

How do you lead your team in today’s organization? The basic premise is: intrinsically motivated team members perform better because they come to work because they want to, not because they have to. So how does your function as leader change as you shift your focus towards this intrinsic motivation? Theunissen and Stubbé (2011) provide an excellent strategy: leading by providing bearing, room, and backup.

Bearing is about sketching the direction the team should move in.

A pure form of self-directed teams is a paradox, in that it would allow a team to go in a direction that doesn’t really fit with the organization. So even when dealing with self-directed teams, or with a network organization, you as leader will always have the responsibility to provide bearing. The most obvious way is to start by defining the Why of the organization (Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle) and in a dialog with your team members to determine what the team’s Why is. Obviously the Why of the team will need to serve the Why of the organization! Especially when you want to transform to a network organization (yet also in an “ordinary” organization), developing scenarios is a way to deepen the bearing a team should aspire to.

Bearing is also about standing before the troops, inspiring them! Does that mean you just tell your team members what direction to head into? No. You take joint responsibility for it. You engage in a meaningful dialog and co-create a meaningful direction all team members can identify with. You provide the general boundaries and strategic heading, team members provide the content, thereby supporting their needs for autonomy and mastery.

Room is about providing space for team members’ own expertise.

Which automatically goes hand in hand with the second aspect of providing room. Once the bearing is clear, one of your most important tasks as leader is to get out of the way so that team members can get on with it! Implementing stepped decision-making is an ideal way to support this. Making room is all about supporting team members’ need for autonomy and trusting their expertise.

It definitely doesn’t mean you sit back and do nothing; you use regular contact moments (including a daily huddle and a weekly meeting, for example) to monitor how things are going and to find out who needs what kind of support, what connections need to be made to other people within the organization, what challenges need to be overcome, and what other resources are required. Room isn’t only about stepping back, it’s also about facilitating team members in their efforts to provide team products and services fitting with the bearing the team is headed into.

Backup is about being there and facilitating the taking of risks.

Providing backup is also about facilitation, yet is more than merely providing resources. Backup starts with a team member’s need for connection by providing them a safe environment. A team member in an innovative environment will by the very nature of the task need to take calculated risks. Sometimes an action will pan out and sometimes it won’t. Especially when a team member takes a risk and it doesn’t pan out, the way you deal with this is crucial. If you choose to dress-down the team member, you are teaching them not to take risks. That may have a short-term benefit, but nips innovation in the bud. So proper feedback loops need to be implemented in a safe environment which together stimulate taking risks and learning from the experience! Learning, in turn, stimulates mastery. And as you are the leader, be sure to defend your team in the rest of the organization.

Yet another aspect of providing backup is to ensure team members keep developing themselves, excellently supported using transformational leadership. And backup is also about supporting a team member’s need for autonomy: you provide the backup, they do their work in a way which fits them and in line with their expertise.

In summary, by providing bearing, room, and backup you tap into your team member’s intrinsic motivation, they come to work because they want to, are excellent co-workers, and make your organization excellent too!

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