Team management

THE PROBLEM WITH PEOPLE doing fieldwork on complicated issues they feel strongly about is that they’re not sitting behind desks doing simple tasks just for the money. In other words, they tend to be driven and individualistic and strong headed. The benefit is that this makes the people, and the work, interesting. The downside is that, as a manager, you’re in for herding cats. Now just try to get those wild things to ride bicycles in the same direction together.

When you form a team, or assume the leadership of one, your status changes in fundamental ways. Most importantly, you are now responsible, whatever happens. Don’t look around: if someone on your team is underperforming, you didn’t make the right hire or provide the right environment; if you’re not meeting your objectives, you didn’t manage the project optimally; if someone does something stupid, it’s still up to you to fix it; and so on and so forth. Don’t be the boss that shuns responsibility, invokes adverse circumstances, hides behind procedures and pins the blame on others. Taking responsibility relieves your staff and earns you respect.

You also have to give up on your own individualism. Managing a team of colleagues, in the challenging field of intellectual output, is a labor of love: if you’re not sincerely interested in other people’s problems, it’s not worth the raise! Most solutions will be found by getting to know staff better, building trust, and testing mutually agreed ideas. This entails, naturally, a huge investment in facetime – and that’s not the app. Managers don’t have to be best buddies with their team, but they must spend considerable time talking one-on-one, often about more personal views or issues that will inevitably be reflected in the workplace.

Of course, this also means that, to avoid working endless hours, you must be more productive than others, and learn to delegate and empower. In doing so, a few things are important to have in mind.

Constant clarity on your part is critical—and hard when you get overwhelmed, which is exactly when good communication is most needed. You must be precise and transparent on virtually all fronts: your goals, your contribution, the input you expect from others, who’s taking the lead on what, the difficulties the organization or the team may face, and the problems raised by individuals to the extent they affect the group. You want to be as thoughtful and tactful as possible, especially on delicate issues. But as a rule of thumb, nothing should ever come as an unpleasant surprise to your team. In other words, share and explain, explain, explain. It’s a frequent mistake to assume that, because something has been uttered once, it’s been heard, understood and acted upon.

That said, there is no point in trying to lead like a sergeant, a schoolmaster or a guru. You can’t drill your team into doing things right; you shouldn’t patronize staff as pupils; and it’s naïve to aspire to become an inspirational figure. (That may happen nonetheless, but only if you stop trying to look and speak like one.) Rather, delegation and empowerment is a process in which staff come to take ownership, grasp what needs to be done, and feel confident enough to become proactive. The clarity described above only sets the scene for this to happen.

Another crucial component is listening. To succeed you must create a situation whereby staff articulate their own vision for accomplishing their assignments, flag potential problems and share concerns, seek advice and additional information, set or request deadlines, etc. That’s when you switch to helping staff do more for and by themselves, instead of telling them exactly what to do or, worse, doing it for them.

To transition from a prescriptive leadership to a supportive one, you need two more things. One is staff motivation. This is something a manager can encourage and harness, but shouldn’t seek to create ex nihilo: if you end up having to constantly nudge your team to keep momentum, you’re compensating for what should be there in the first place and exhausting yourself pointlessly. That means the scene must be set from the moment of hiring, investing the time needed to find team members with not just the right qualifications, but also the right outlook and temperament to play the role required of them.

The other is to create the right “structure”. Staff will emancipate and take the initiative within a certain framework, which must be reassuring but not oppressive. Countless formal procedures may be effective on a factory shop floor; not so when it comes to intellectual output. Conversely, a totally unstructured environment will quickly prove overwhelming. The correct balance of regular reporting, scheduled meetings and individual evaluations must be found, iteratively and collectively. The use of project management tools and applications likely will be part of the mix, again based on trial and error.

None of the above guarantees success of course. Some work relationships are just not meant to pay off. Every one of them, however, is a considerable investment in time and resources. From a recruit’s perspective, it also amounts to taking a personal risk and accepting an emotional engagement. For all these reasons, it is vital to face emerging issues as they surface. Typically, a relationship that will not work gives early signs of malfunctioning. Problems left unaddressed often become more vicious and entrenched. Meanwhile, it’s all too easy, as a manager, to lose oneself in the latest emergency, which day after day keeps us from tackling thorny personnel matters that put everyone ill at ease and undermine efficient functioning.

But that’s precisely the point: poor work relationships are destructive to all. They sap an employee’s self-confidence; they drag the team down; they torment the manager; and they hurt the organization. They are, in fact, a collective failure and must be managed as such. Again, no need to blame the employee: as a manager, you hired, you trained, you assigned and you assisted. And it is your duty to bring such relationships, responsibly, to an end. This can only be done by discussing problems as they arise and reaching, whenever possible, a mutual understanding on what’s going wrong and why it can’t be solved otherwise. Here more than anywhere else, there should be no unpleasant surprise for anyone.

Such straightforwardness is indispensable to building and maintaining trust. Managers and staff alike tend to be far more paranoid than is warranted. Despite exceptions we’ve all had to endure, at one point or another, most people are naturally hardworking and well-meaning when placed in the right work environment. And the great thing with being a manager is that you have full latitude to create the structure and atmosphere that gets the best out of people. Give it the best of yourself!

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Illustration credit: Louis William Wain A group of cats engaged in a cycle-race in Hyde Park by Wikipedia / licensed by CC. 

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