Empowerment Leadership Model for Small Groups, Teams, & Families
Course Five, Lesson 5
Not Doing Anything the Team or its Members Can Do
By Giving Work to the Team
Copyright 2001 Dick Wulf
The cardinal rule for professional team leadership is: “Do not do anything that the team or any of its members can do.” Therefore the premier skill of a successful team leader is to give work to the team. Then the team can handle the problem or situation or task itself. Or the team can delegate it overtly or covertly to one or more team members. In almost every situation, the team can do far more than the team leader can. Leading and doing are two different things.
If the leader does significant things that the team or its members can do, he or she fosters crippling dependency upon leadership. The team and its members will unconsciously perceive that the leader thinks they are incapable. Then they will begin to believe that they are not able to lead, decide, answer questions, show concern and all of the other tasks required of a strong team and its members. This will create unproductive dependency that will keep much from getting done compared with what might have gotten done if the team had developed confidence by doing all it was capable of accomplishing.
The obedient team leader wants to develop the team and its members to be all they can be. It becomes that leader’s desire that the team become strong and capable, even of leading itself. It culminates in the joy that the team leader is helping build a super-capable team.
A truly skillful team leader is merely helping something much larger than himself or herself emerge; something akin to a butterfly emerging from a cocoon, a beautiful quilt coming from patches of cloth, or a skillful, well-executed, ninety-yard drive by a professional football team. The astute team leader is more than happy to not be in the limelight and to let the team have center stage and accomplish noteworthy goals.
It is a grave mistake for the team leader to dominate the action. That would be like the basketball coach running out onto the court to take most of the shots for the players who are more capable as a team of sinking the bucket. Whenever a team is limited by the capabilities of its team leader, it is immeasurably held back.
For example, the team leader should never encourage a team member if any team member or the team as a whole can do the encouraging, with or without his or her urging or instruction. Likewise, a team leader should never help a team member express himself. If he does, the team will never learn to reach out to its members, drawing them out and helping them successfully communicate.
Almost anything the team leader can do, he or she can teach the team and its members to do. Once learned, the leader can eventually back away from doing those things taught. In fact, this must be the team leader’s goal. As the team and its members learn how to do the work of the team, the team begins to experience synergy, that complex phenomenon where the whole becomes much more than the sum of its parts. When team members become interdependent and interactive, helping each member to do his or her part to the maximum (each member’s performance being helped by the others to grow, and each being spurred on by one another), then powerful synergy develops.
Let’s discuss an example. A good deal of the time when team members are together, all of them or some of them, they are complaining about upper management. This is detracting from work productivity and is damaging morale.
One of the first things a professional team leader must do is recognize what a team is working on. In our example, the team is working on the members’ disatisfaction with management. At any given time a team, whether that be only a few of the team or the whole team, is working on something. With practice, a team leader can spot the various themes a team is working on as these themes shift in and out of focus. At the end of the day, when the team is standing around before everyone gets in their cars to go home, they may be working on (a) dealing with their tiredness so they can gain energy before they go home to family interaction, (b) maintaining friendships to combat the tension between them during the normal operations of the job, (c) shaping up a team member they think is not doing the job right, (d) getting one another’s ideas about the next day’s assignment and how to do it best, and many other possible tasks.
A team leader concerns himself or herself with what the team is working on in order to evaluate (a) whether or not the team is dealing with the issue or task successfully, (b) whether they will soon be dealing with it successfully, or (c) whether they need leadership help. If the team is working successfully, the team leader leaves that internal analysis and analyzes the team’s need for help on something else it is working on. If the team seems that it likely will be successful, the team leader does not do anything, but continues to monitor progress. If the team is stuck, the team leader provides leadership, but only as little as necessary to avoid creating dependency and to allow the team to develop its confidence.
In our example, the team continues over time to complain about upper management and team members keep saying the same things over and over again. Thus, the team leader would need to help out. Since it is rare that the whole team is present while the complaining is going on, the help will have to be delivered at a meeting of the whole team.
One rule in focusing a team on a task is to take away as little of the work as possible. When a team leader is merely watching to see if the team will be successful, no work is being done by the leader and, thus, no work is being taken away from the team. But, when the team leader must give help, consideration must be given as to how to help and take away as little of the work as possible. The statement, “What is the team working on?” takes away only about ten percent of the team’s responsibility (to recognize what it is working on and that it is stuck) and still leaves 90 percent of the work for the team to do. If such a simple statement yields team focus and correct analysis of progress, the leader needs to do no more for the time being.
Related to our example, if the team members gather in the team meeting room and begin complaining about upper management, the simple statement, “What is the team working on?” will be sufficient. However, it is likely that the team members will not be complaining. In this case the team leader takes a little bit more responsibility and might state, “As I come around you on the job, your team seems to be working on your dissatisfaction with upper management. Since you keep saying the same things over and over again, it looks like your progress on dealing with your thoughts and feelings about management is stuck. Why don’t you use this time to identify the next step in working through this problem?”
Then the professional team leader would remain silent, expecting and allowing the team to stretch itself a little further on problem-solving. As discussion ensues, the team leader will see places to help out, but he or she should do so only when sure that the team will not necessarily get there on its own.
For a team without many skills yet, the team leader might have to follow up with a statement like, “Your morale seems to be going downhill and your discussions and remarks about upper management are making it take longer for you to get your job done. So it is important for the team to decide what to do about the problem. You either need to help each other accept upper management’s role and decisions or you need to figure some way of communicating with upper management to see if you can change things.”
When a leader says to his or her team, “How do you want to deal with this?”, or “What do you think you will have to do now?”, he or she is giving the work of the team to the team. The main skill is to determine what work to give. Often the work to give the team is that of thinking independently and assertively. Simple questions such as, “What is going on now?” are highly functional to get the team moving on the next thing to do to achieve the team’s purpose. Such questions help the leader to keep from doing any of the team’s thinking, which would make them lazy and dependent.
Much of the time the work the team needs to do is defined by those tasks a healthy and successful team must do, as we covered in the training you attended. The team’s previously set goals and action steps will also often be the pool from which the next team action is taken.
This is all complicated by the fact that at any one point in time, there is probably more than one thing that the team can work on. Sometimes it will matter which is done first, often it will not.
When giving work to the team, the challenge is to do as little as you can so that the team does as much as it can. For example, let’s imagine that the team has gotten off of its purpose for a considerable time, say fifteen minutes. If you say, “You’ve gotten off track”, the team will get back on track, but on your contribution, not theirs. This increases the likelihood that in the future they will depend on you to do their thinking for them. If, on the other hand, you say, “What is happening right now?”, the team will have to think and catch itself off-track. In the future, the team will be more prone to take this responsibility rather than depend upon you. The resultant increase in team output toward the goals and purpose will be surprising.
So, in closing, you can probably see that much of the hard work of a team leader goes on inside his or her own head. Much thinking and analyzing is necessary, but then it ultimately ends up in strategically helping the team when it gets bogged down or sidetracked. This help comes in giving work to the team, while at the same time doing as little of the team’s thinking as necessary.
Next: How to direct help toward the team rather than to individuals.