Negotiating the Balance of Power Between the Team Leader and the Team

Power struggles in team performance

One of the biggest impediments to team performance occurs when there is a mismatch between the leadership style and behaviours the team needs and those that the leader and the team default to. The word “default” is appropriate because there is usually an unconscious process of adaptation, which may be driven by:

  • The organisational climate and the expectations of the organisational culture with regard to the respective roles and behaviours of leaders and followers
  • The leader’s personality, competence and sense of security — for example, the balance between having the curiosity to experiment and unwillingness to take risks
  • The willingness and ability of the team members to share responsibility and accountability for leadership functions.

A spectrum of leadership styles

Having a language to address these issues – as in the framework below — is a good starting point for a dialogue that explores the kind of leadership and followership that will best deliver the team’s purpose.

  • Dictate – the ultimate in command and control. A dictatorial style draws all power and decision making to the top
  • Control – demands fixed processes and severely limits the ability of team members to take initiative
  • Superficially delegate – gives team members accountability/responsibility, but not authority
  • Influence – permits autonomy only when team members do what the leader would have done in the same position
  • Delegate – accountability/responsibility with authority
  • Empower – authority to redefine the task, as long as it fits within the team purpose
  • Abdicate – ceding authority and responsibility entirely to the team; not even monitoring in a meaningful sense

The leader and the team may have different perceptions about the predominant style – exploring these can provide a lively dialogue! Even if there is a consensus on the style of leadership needed, this may be so far away from what exists that an immediate shift appears impossible, so the team and the leader may need to agree to intermediate, small steps. If there is no consensus, then the small step approach may still be the best option for achieving progress.

What does the leader actually do? 

Another option is to clarify what the leadership tasks are for this team and explore how some of these may be redistributed to improve team performance. The process begins with the question “What does the leader actually do?” To take away some of the threat from this question, it can be put in the context of “What do we need to know about your role in order to understand your priorities and support you in making things happen?”

Some examples of responses include:

  • Co-ordinate the work between individuals
  • Ensure everyone understands goals, roles and priorities
  • Represent the team to the outside world
  • Manage the team’s reputation
  • Motivate and energise
  • Make the tough decisions
  • Decide on new hires
  • Evaluate and manage individual performance
  • Support the development and learning of team members
  • Find solutions to problems that have both an internal and external dimension
  • Align the goals of the team with the goals of the organisation
  • Find resources
  • Manage conflict
  • Be a role model

Having identified these tasks, the team and the leader can explore together:

  • How much of each does the leader really need to do?
  • How much could be shared or delegated with the team now?
  • How much could be shared or delegated, with time and some training?
  • What would be the benefit to the leader of freeing up time from doing some of these tasks?
  • What would be the benefit in building a reputation as a team, where people have lots of opportunities to grow and be stretched?
  • What experiments could we safely attempt?

The role of the team coach

A team coach can support this tricky conversation by making it as safe as possible for both the leader and the team. Part of this may be to bring into the open hidden fears, so that the team and the leader can re-assure each other. For example, the leader may secretly fear that “giving away” parts of his or her job will make it appear that they have too little to do, putting their role under threat. Focusing instead on hitherto neglected projects and tasks, to which they can now apply their attention, relieves that anxiety and allows them to become excited about the new tasks.

What’s more, simply going through this dialogue sets up the team for further team coaching sessions. After all, few other conversations are likely to address such emotion-laden issues with so much at stake for everyone. And conversely, not addressing this issue early on in a team coaching assignment may mean that the power issues between the leader and the team remain silent disruptors of the honest conversations needed to make significant, lasting improvements in team performance.

Professor David Clutterbuck is a regular guest of our free webinar series The Art of Best Practice Mentoring

© David Clutterbuck, 2018

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negotiating balance of power


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