When Smart and Fast Leaders Leave Their Teams BehindI recently ran a Moose-on-the-Table workshop for a major division of a large company going through the wrenching change of a wholesale restructuring and totally refocusing their business. Our session centered on fostering Courageous Conversations because their history of not addressing tough issues with each other was a major reason this division ran itself into a manufacturing quality and financial crisis. They were just too nice to each other.

Part of our discussion with this management group was how really bright people can come across as not wanting to hear other ideas. A participant sent me an e-mail after the session asking for advice on how to change that:

“I have often struggled because I tend to see things faster and more clearly than others. In projects where I am not the leader or where timing isn’t insane this isn’t insurmountable. I’ve learned to breathe, relax, and enjoy helping others to grasp what they don’t see. 

But when I’m leading a team with really tight timelines, I get stressed and feel like I don’t have time to go that slowly. I think I inadvertently send the message to my team that I don’t want to hear their input. I do, but I wish they were able to grasp things faster.

Any advice on how to keep making progress, but not make the team feel that they’re left behind?”

He’s asked an important leadership question. Unfortunately, there’s no easy or clear answer without some type of diagnosis. The company will be running a feedback survey around their values later this month. That should provide some input from his team on this issue.

The really key point here is that this leader has recognized his tendency under pressure. Awareness is a key first step in making any sort of behavior change.

He’s articulated a very common challenge for many team and project leaders. The reason people like him were promoted or put in charge of teams or projects is because of technical skills, experience, and/or ability to get things done. Many project and team leaders are bright and quick with good intuition and a fast understanding of what needs to be done.

But if the leader comes up with strong solutions that aren’t well supported by his or her team, implementation will sputter and often fail. The leader is also building co-dependence on himself or herself as the chief problem solver and crisis manager. Increasingly, the team will back off, looking to the bright leader for solutions. This weakens their own crisis/problem solving competence and confidence.

A Menu of Leadership Approaches

Each situation and leader is different and needs a specific development or action plan. Here are a few approaches and resources I offered to this team/project leader:

  • You might look for someone on your team who you’d feel comfortable asking for their coaching or support of your leadership. Discuss this issue with him or her and ask for feedback on how you’re coming across and the effect it’s having on the team.
  • You may have fallen into “the big speed trap.” Managers under stress who “feel like I don’t have time to do that slowly” often compound their problems by speeding up. Read my past blog “Another Study on Slowing Down to Speed Up” for research on this huge problem and links to articles and blogs.
  • You may need to be clearer with your team about decision making. Many groups trip over confusion around whether and how decisions are made. There are three basic ways along the “3 C continuum” for a team or group to make a decision:
    1. Command – made by the manager, project or team leader with little input from other team members
    2. Consultative – made by a smaller group, the manager, project or team leader after consulting others who have knowledge or who must be committed to the decision; and
    3. Consensus – made by the entire team as a group either through “majority rules” or unanimous agreement.

The further the team moves toward the consensus end of the continuum, the more buy-in or commitment there is to the decision. Decision-making time is longer. But implementation time and effectiveness dramatically improves. A common source of frustration and conflict in teams is when the type of decision-making method being used is not clear to everyone at the outset of the discussion.

Project or team leaders will often add to the problem by leading what seems to be a consultative or even consensus discussion when he or she has already made up his or her mind. This comes across as a “guess what I am thinking” exercise. Or it can look like the leader is trying to manipulate the team into the “right decision.” Some less effective managers, project or team leaders with weak leadership skills will intimidate team members into “forced consensus” (an oxymoron) and leave the discussion genuinely believing that the team is united in the decision.

Some agenda items are for information and some are updates. But whenever decisions are needed, avoid confusion — and lots of frustration — by ensuring everyone is clear about the type of decision-making process you’re using.

Too often smart and fast team leaders dumb down and slow down their teams. Strong project and team leaders know that working on the team — its dynamics and effectiveness — is as vital as working in the team.