The Biggest Mistakes Team Leaders Make

Go into almost any company and ask employees what annoys them most about the leaders in charge, and the list is unlikely to vary all that much. I love this Harvard Business Review video,The Biggest Mistake a Leader Can Make. Watch it, and I guarantee you’ll be singing along. 

In fact, you may even think:

See that! I’m a great leadership thinker too. I would fit right in on that video.

Why yes you are. Which is why I’m inviting you to play along with our next crowd-sourced adventure: A look at the biggest mistakes team leaders make.

“If I had my life to live over again, I’d make the same mistakes, only sooner.”
~ Tallulah Bankhead (YouTube)

The team leader’s job is arguably the toughest job in most companies and organizations. Team leaders operate under constant pressure- up-down-and sideways- coupled with limited control. Just as the HBR crowd found remarkable consistency in the biggest mistakes leaders make at the top, I’ve found similar consistency with the mistakes team leaders make at the front line. It’s not the same struggles that happen in the leadership stratosphere, the pressures vary and so do the mistakes. Here’s a few that come to mind. What would you add?

The Biggest Mistakes Team Leaders Make

  1. Under-communicating the big picture – People don’t understand WHY they are being asked to do what they do. The team yearns for meaning to inspire their work.
  2. Failure to identify a galvanizing goal – Teams need to know that THEY can make a difference based on their actions. It’s a mistake to think that the company mission will be enough to rally the team at a local level.
  3. Over-telling – If leaders keep giving away the answers, they’ll keep asking, and you’ll have one brain at work instead of ten. Ask more questions. Leverage each team members’ strengths to cull-out their leadership. Encourage them to work together and support one another.
  4. Avoiding the tough Conversations – It’s easy to look the other way, or to let poor performance slide. Not telling people the truth will hurt your results, drag down the team, and stagnate growth.
  5. Lack of Connection – Too many team leaders get scared off by the HR warnings about not getting too close to their team. They manage them like employees instead of connecting as humans. Always err on getting to know your team and how they roll. Sure you should be careful of hanging out with them as traditional friends, but ensure your conversations are real and heartfelt. Your team will connect with customers and the work that they do, if they are first connecting with you and with one another.
  6. Succumbing to gravity – Team leaders can’t change everything but they can change some things. Your job is to remove road blocks. If something feels stupid, it probably is. Do what you can to manage up and sideways to make your team’s job easier.
  7.  Short-Term Focus – It’s always urgent, and there’s never time for the long-term investment in people and processes that will impact the business. This can work for a week or so, but beyond that you’re doing substantial long-term damage to your team. Ensure every day includes real work toward longer-term goals.
  8. Accepting What Is – Leaders see what’s possible. It’s easy to get caught up in the way we’ve always done things, particularly if you have a formula that works. If you’re creating break-through results and turning heads, slow down, look around and talk with your team about what you could be doing differently.
  9. Your Turn
  10. Your Friend’s Turn (please pass along and ask others to help)

Let’s Write A Crowd-Sourced EBook

We can leverage our collective experience, scar tissue, stories and wisdom to accelearate the learning for front-line leaders. Here’s my thought. We use this post to identify and rank the biggest mistakes team leaders make. Take my list, add, delete, or prioritize in your comments.

Then I’ll take the most popular topics and write posts on them in the coming weeks, again you weigh in with your insights and stories. Then, I turn the lessons into a free ebook available to all subscribers. We all have something we can use for ourselves and with our teams. Who’s in?

Leave Your Burdens At The Door

No one “forgets” their cancer diagnosis, their sick mother, their midterm exams, their custody battle, their abusive relationship. And yet, one of the most frequently uttered phrases in call centers is to instruct reps to “leave their home burdens at home, they won’t help you serve our customers.”

I get it, but I refuse to say it. The truth is, I don’t believe life works that way. Asking employees to “forget” that they’re a human being with burdens and fears does not help them to be more productive.

Sure, no one calls into a call center to hear someone else’s troubles, and we certainly don’t want suffering translating to bad moods and nasty service. But real connection between leaders and employees (burdens and all) creates richer relationships and yes, better productivity.
I don’t know anyone who’s successfully shoved their burdens down indefinitely and showed up brilliant, energized, and ready to connect full-on.

What If You Could See Their Burdens?

“Be kind, everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
~Plato

(maybe… see other options)

My sister, a Speech Pathologist and Director of Rehab in a hospital, uses this short video to reinforce empathy with staff, Empathy, The Human Connection to Patient Care. Anyone who’s ever walked down a hospital hallway with their burdens can relate.

The truth is, this story exists across every organization, in every hallway and in every meeting. If your team members wore their burdens on their sleeves what would they say?

  • What’s the cost of not knowing your team members burdens?
  • How can you understand your employees, without understanding what weighs most heavy in their hearts?
  • What opportunities do you have for a bit more connection and kindness?

Team members may push their concerns down for a minute, but human beings need connection. Sure there’s HR and great Employee Assistance Programs (EAP),” those are necessary, but not sufficient. I’m not suggesting creating co-dependency or assuming parenting roles, just a bit deeper level of listening, empathy, and connected-solutions.

The best opportunity for real connection starts at the team leader level. Begin with connection and understanding, then bring in reinforcements as needed.

How To Be A Better Team Leader: A Case Study

I used to be one of those disengaged reps, you’re talking about.” We were all a bit shocked by Mike’s response. After all this was a recognition focus group for the top reps in this enormous call center. Several of whom were on the short-list to become team leaders.

I smiled gently, my eyes pleading for this brave, young rep to continue. My team leader was just terrible. The rest of the high potential reps turned to him in a chorus of disgust:

  • “It shouldn’t matter what your team leader does.”
  • “You are in charge of your career.”
  • “You need to do great work and people will notice.”
  • “You should care about the customers no matter what.”
  • It’s about building a bigger network.”

Mike continued:

“It’s more complicated than that. When I first got here I was so optimistic. I worked my butt off, but my team leader didn’t notice. He never said “thank you”. I got ZERO feedback on what I was doing right or wrong. We never talked about my career. So I gradually did less and less and got the same response. So I figured, why bother?

Then they re-shuffled the shifts and I got moved to a different team leader. Everything changed. This guy cared about me. He gave me great feedback. He shared all the career options available and we made a plan to get me ready to lead a team. He helped me believe I could do it. And now I’m here being recognized.”

Silence. The others still weren’t convinced. And for some reason, a little mad. I asked softly, “How many of you want to be team leaders?” All but one raised their hand.

You End the Story

Instead of sharing what I said next, let’s play with this:

  • What would you say next?
  • What questions would you ask?
  • What teachable point of view would you go for?