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One Secret For Leading Teams: Sit Back More

Ever wonder why you struggle to lead great teamwork? Ever feel like you’d rather run and hide? This is how most of us feel when it comes to teams. Oh sure, we all know that nothing gets done unless it is with a group of people and we’ve all had some decent training on how to facilitate productive teams and we are all members of multiple teams. Yet our experiences either leading or participating on teams are inconsistent. In theory, teams unleash the power of your organization. In reality, they never quite live up to expectations.

There is a simple explanation for this. Very few of us are wired to be adept at working with more than a couple people at a time. We are best at one on one interactions because a natural give and take generally flows even if your interpersonal skills are limited. The more people there are in the room the more complicated the exchanges become and most of us can’t keep track of it all. Who is talking the most or least? How do I get everyone to chime in? Victor and Monica are practically hissing at each other. Sanjay looks like he thinks we are all idiots. Tamar wants to be anywhere but here right now. Raul has repeated the same plea five times already. And that is just for starters. Think of it as a math problem. If there are ten people in the room, the possible combinations of interactions is huge. Then layer on top of that emotional content. All of this comes before you figure out where everyone stands on the business at hand.

Just perceiving all these dynamics is a tall order. Managing them is harder. I spent multiple years as an undergrad and graduate student studying groups so, believe me, it really is a science. I’ve done hundreds of team training sessions over the decades and, no matter how fantastic the course was, there was only a slim chance that any of this new knowledge would translate into people’s work days. So you are not alone in your struggle and earnest effort to get it right.

I’ve struggled to come up with just one simple thing you can do that can make a big difference. There are other posts on this blog that will offer some great tips and explanations about effective teamwork. But if you, like most of us, are so out of your element when it comes to leading a team I have one piece of advice.

Do less. Sit back. Watch. Listen. And do very little.

You set the agenda, you open the meeting, you say a few words and then, “What do you folks think?” Our natural instinct is to formulate our response to each remark made while we are trying to listen. This means we are only half listening and having a private dialogue in our head. And we are getting anxious because a) we have a desired outcome that we are driving towards or b) we are trying to figure out how to cut someone off who is behaving badly or c) we are trying to get someone to speak up or d) we are trying to manage the time or e) we are feeling immensely responsible for the outputs of the group or f) all of the above. Again, most of us are not wired to do all that.

But what do you think would happen if you just sat back and let the team do it’s thing while you watched and listened? Chances are you would still be anxious. But if you weren’t figuring out what to say next you would see some interesting things. For one, there would be fewer interactions directly with you. If you are not interjecting at each turn it forces them to talk with each other. You will have disrupted the hub and spoke dynamic. You would also truly hear some great ideas because you are fully listening. You would see where the alliances are that you may have underestimated. You would see the conflicts more clearly and the impact they are having on the whole team. This could be something you ponder away from the team and address privately. You would rely more on their self monitoring and competence which would take some pressure off of you.

In short, rather than feeling like you have to master something that even your best attempts may not produce, sitting back is doable. Please don’t confuse doing less with not being responsible or being a crappy leader. You still need to set expectations and monitor the work and make sure everyone plays nicely together. Deal with the knottier interpersonal issues privately outside of the team setting. Even removing that stress will help you relax.

Don’t be surprised if team members compliment you on your new and improved leadership skills. They will assume you got some fancy coaching from your boss or a consultant and that you are taking their advice….finally!! It’s been an open secret that, although you have many talents, leading team meetings is not your forte. Not that you meant to be the center of attention, but you have been. And that has generated a ton of bad team behaviors; vying for your approval, trying to be seen as the smartest one in the room, dismissing others’ ideas. Sitting back won’t eliminate all of that but it will be less crazy.

Finally a bit of advice that you can actually follow! Sit back. I don’t know about you but I am a friggin’ pro at that! In fact, I’m off to my favorite chair for watching and listening. I’ll report back to you on my findings.

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