Effective Team Leadership
You’ve been assigned to a team, yet again. Almost instantly, feelings of dread and frustration resulting from past teamwork experiences start bubbling to the surface of your consciousness. Your stomach is in knots, and you’ve already convinced yourself it’s going to be a complete disaster.
Glancing at your calendar, you wonder how you’ll be able to fit in all the extra work that will be dumped on you because your team members aren’t going to pull their weight. With a big sigh, you decide that if you don’t step in and take over, nothing will get done and the team won’t meet its goals.
Most of us can easily recall a negative experience when working as part of a team. That doesn’t mean that all teams are bad or ineffective. Nor does it mean you should bring your past baggage (including your fears and attitudes) to every future team.
There’s no formula that will magically make you a great team leader and make teams run smoothly and efficiently all the time. But, of course, you have to start somewhere, so here are some basic, but important, steps you can take.
Step 1. Know yourself
Before you think about the needs of your team, think about what strengths and weaknesses you bring to the table. How do you like to receive information? How do you best communicate? Are you an introvert or an extrovert? What really motivates you? In answering these questions, you can start to get a better understanding of your team leadership style.
Professional and personal self-awareness is critical for effective leadership. By knowing what makes you “tick,” you can be more effective at understanding others and how best you can interact with them.
Step 2. Make time to lead
As a team leader, you already have a lot of responsibilities on your plate. It’s critical that you create time and opportunities for you to be visible to your team members, offering your support.
This might mean that you actually schedule some time on your calendar to visit team members in person, have virtual “office hours,” or do something else that allows you to invest time in the people you’re leading. Simply put, without that time investment, you’re just not going to develop the relationships and trust needed to effectively lead your team.
Step 3. Know your people
As you make the time to be engaged with your team, make sure you’re intentional about getting to know each one of them. In particular, try to determine what motivates each person, and where they have strengths or weaknesses.
Team leadership is a little bit like assembling a puzzle, pairing employees who make each other stronger or who make up for each other’s weaknesses. It also means knowing how to select the right person for any given role or project. All of this requires some real knowledge of the team, both individually and collectively.
Often, though, individuals are “assigned” to teams for reasons other than their relevant strengths, weaknesses, knowledge, and skills, and this is out of your control. When this happens, you simply have to be more intentional about understanding each person on the team and making it work.
Step 4. Communicate, communicate, communicate
It’s no secret that communication is one of the most important skills to have in your role as a team leader. This includes being intentional in the way you communicate.
Set expectations. Be clear about your team’s mission and purpose. Let others know how they can connect with you, and when. It’s always better to over-communicate than to under-communicate.
On the flip side, listen, and listen well. Not all of your team members will be comfortable speaking up in meetings, or even one-on-one. Pay attention to who dominates the floor during meetings, and ensure that everyone has a chance to be heard. Ask open-ended questions to engage others and solicit their ideas.
Step 5. Don’t do it all yourself
Don’t repeat the same mistakes of past teamwork experiences, and don’t assume you can do it all yourself. All leaders need to delegate. Trust the people around you to step up and to do great work, freeing some of your time to lead! Part of making this happen is to be clear with your team about expectations, goals, and deadlines—as well as the consequences of not meeting those expectations, goals, and deadlines.
If you don’t trust your team members to do good work, or if you’re anxious about delegating to them, that’s a problem. If you can’t trust the people on your team, then it’s hard to justify why they’re on your team at all. Learn to share your responsibilities with others, but also make sure you constantly surround yourself with good people!
But if you’re in a situation where your team is chosen without your input and you’re struggling with delegation, go back to steps one through three. Spend more time getting to know yourself and your team members upfront, so you can better plan how to reach your goals in the coming weeks or months.
Step 6. Be thoughtfully decisive
To be an effective team leader, you ultimately have to make some decisions. That doesn’t mean you should be reckless. On the contrary, it’s always important to review the available data, do some critical thinking, and make a wise decision.
What you shouldn’t do is agonize over every decision, to the point where you’re simply wasting time. Sooner or later, you have to move forward with a decision and all its related consequences.
Effective team leadership isn’t something you can achieve overnight. In fact, it’s something you can spend an entire lifetime mastering. The best team leaders know that providing vision and motivation to a team isn’t something you ever perfect, but rather is an area for continuous improvement. Sometimes you’ll get it right, and when you do, celebrate. Sometimes you’ll get it wrong, and when you do, be sure to learn from it.
American Society of Administrative Professionals. (2020, January). Self-awareness: The pathway to professional and personal success. https://www.asaporg.com/self-awareness-the-pathway-to-professional-and-personal-success
Goodman, R. (2019). The solutions oriented leader. Sound Wisdom: Shippensburg, PA.
Publication 3600 (POD-04-21)
By Marina Denny, EdD, Program and Staff Development Specialist.
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