Leading teams: Find the right balance

You want to encourage flexibility and accomplishment. Here's how.

"My team did this."

"My team accomplished that."

Today, the team perspective is dominant. Not too long ago, the point of reference was usually the organization--"We at GE," or "We at Monsanto." Today teams instead have become the social, economic, and psychological fulcrum of organizational life. Therefore, at all levels of the company--from the "c"-suite to the shop floor--how leaders engage a team is essential to success.

In engaging your team the first question you must ask yourself is what you want your team to accomplish. Sometimes making a simple academic distinction helps to focus this issue. Do you want your team to be primarily concerned with implementation? Or, do you want your team to be creative and innovative?

Implementation is often most successful with tightly-led teams. These are teams in which expectations are clear and where there is a strong interconnectedness and cohesion among team members. Tightly-led teams aspire to the order and coordination necessary for implementation.

In contrast, creativity and innovation are best served by loosely-led teams. Members have a high degree of autonomy and more individual freedom, and as a result, the teams are less cohesive. Loosely-led teams have the energy and dynamics necessary for innovation.

The challenge is to find the balance point. If you lead your team too tightly, you run the risk of creating insularity and inflexibility. If you lead your team too loosely, the team can fall into the trap of perpetual creativity, but accomplish nothing. Your objective as the team leader is not to swing too hard at either extreme.

To do this, team leaders should follow these four rules:

Encourage discussion, but not too much of it.
Discussion and the exchange of ideas allow for greater creativity and innovation. Through dialogue, your team can expand its problem-solving capability. But be warned: Meetings and discussions can spiral out of control. When you hear yourself repeating the same themes, when the same people drone on endlessly, and when people skip meetings, you've overdone the discussion and nothing gets implemented.

Give autonomy, but define parameters.
A good team leader lets the team know the general direction where its heading, and trusts everyone enough to carry on. That is not to say that the team leader is completely hands-off, but it means that she has confidence in the group to move forward without her micro-managing every detail. If the work is going too far off the rails, the team leader needs to step in and keep everyone on track and moving forward.

Celebrate the collective and recognize the individual.
Teams are wonderful things, but team leaders have to maintain a sense of who contributes what. The team can be celebrated for completing a major project, but the team members who made significant contributions should be hailed for their individual accomplishments. Hooray for the team, but don't forget to recognize the individual team members who slogged through to the end and made things happen.

Encourage opposing views but beware of obstructionists.
Opposing views are vital to energizing teams and stimulating creativity. However, there is a thin line between well-meaning criticism and obstructionist rhetoric. When the opposing view is no longer positive in spirit, it may spill over into sabotage and disrupt the possibility of getting things done. You may have to consider asking the individual espousing this view to leave.

By keeping these rules in mind, you can hit that balance point between loose and tight leadership. And, if you balance correctly, you can implement and innovate with the same team.

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