If you have ever been the leader of a team, whether in a corporate setting, a non-profit or in even a sports setting, you know that the team seems to operate well in some cases whereas in others it either falls apart or defaults to more of an individual contribution rather than a team contribution. Heidi Gardner from the Harvard Business School states that performance pressure is a huge barrier to team effectiveness. The greater the pressure, the less effective the team. Tough news when the pressure seems to be greater in all arenas today.
The real problem is that, under pressure, teams do not seem to default to the individuals with the most experience or expertise. Instead, they default to the team members with the most status. That’s right. When under pressure, it seems that many teams go with seniority or position rather than with the leader that might be best suited to deal with the issue. Further, research has also shown that only when teams turn to those with the client or subject expertise do they become more successful in the eyes of their stakeholders.
Granted, this is a working paper only and there are limitations to the methodology as always. From an anecdotal view, however, it seems to have face validity. I have worked with a number of teams where, under pressure, they become powerless (by choice) and turn to “the boss” for decisions or action. How can you make sure that you are not contributing to the issue?
Stick to your delegation. Many times leaders undermine the process of team development in an effort to provide comfort to fearful team members who may not want to take risks. “If you need me, I’ll step in” can be a great sign of support, but it can also provide an easy way out just as the team begins to deliver what it’s chartered to deliver. If you have delegated a project to a team, don’t let them abdicate responsibility. This doesn’t mean you avoid supporting them…just that you don’t allow them to hand the responsibility back to you.
Provide training and support. One of the problems with operating under pressure is that we begin to doubt our abilities to be successful. This is human nature in people who want to perform well. It is even more of a problem if it’s true. In other words, if you have not provided the team with the tools they need before they are under the gun, it will be difficult for them to succeed without you.
Make sure communication is open and free-flowing. When teams are working on crucial projects, formality and bureaucracy can kill their momentum and add to the frustration of the fires they are fighting. If you see that the pressure is mounting, make yourself more available for coaching and support. Give the team free rein to hold meetings and discussions with whomever they need to in order to solve their problems. Often, if you look closely at the situation, you will find that you are the bottleneck. This is an issue only you can solve.
I am not suggesting that these actions will take a dysfunctional team to high-impact, but I am suggesting that these are ways that can help. As leaders yourselves, I’m sure you have been in similar situations. What experiences have you had that would help leaders of teams that are buckling under pressure?