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How to lead a team (through thick and thin)

Here’s how to lead a team and bridge the “leadership gap” that plagues many organizations

As a leader, you may feel like the weight of your team rests on your shoulders. Their failures and achievements feel like your own, and perhaps you wonder if you’re doing the best you can to nurture their growth and help them succeed.

If you’re itching to learn more about how to lead a team, below, we’ll detail eight solid tips based on research that can help you lead your team to excellence.

1. Ask for feedback. 

What better way to show that you’re trying to improve and you care about what your team has to say? Feedback can also go a long way in cultivating psychological safety. In a research paper published in 1999, Harvard professor Amy Edmondson defines team psychological safety as “a shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” She goes on to point out that it is linked to learning behaviors.

“Examples of learning behavior include seeking feedback, sharing information, asking for help, talking about errors, and experimenting,” Edmondson writes.

So if feedback is a key element of a psychologically safe work environment, then managers can support their team by modeling this learning behavior.

Another benefit of asking for feedback is that not only will it make you a stronger manager, but it’ll also increase your company’s profitability. In one Gallup study of 469 business units, the units with managers who received strengths feedback had 8.9% higher profitability.

2. Admit when you’re wrong.

Connected to another learning behavior Edmonson wrote about (“talking about errors”), good leaders admit when they’re wrong.

A Dale Carnegie Training survey of 3,100 workers in 13 countries found a “leadership gap,” where supervisors’ behaviors fell short of employees’ expectations. The biggest deficit? Eighty-four percent of employees said that it’s important for supervisors to admit when they’re wrong but only 51% of them do so regularly. That’s a difference of 33%! Clearly, leaders have a lot of catching up to do.

It takes humility to admit mistakes, and many managers fear it will make them look weak. But as the research above shows, employees appreciate your willingness to be vulnerable.

3. Communicate effectively.

Do you cringe every time you have to do a performance review? Do you dread having to give someone critical feedback? You’re not alone. A Harris Poll survey found that when it comes to communicating with employees, 69% of leaders are often uncomfortable doing so.

And this is a big problem, considering that companies highly value communication skills and employees crave one-on-ones with their managers. In fact, according to Gallup, employees who regularly meet with their managers are nearly three times as likely to be engaged!

So how can you communicate effectively? These three skills are crucial:

  • Awareness - The foundation of effective communication in the workplace is an awareness of yourself and your team. By knowing your team’s strengths and weaknesses and communication preferences, you’re much more likely to relay the right message. The fastest way to gain awareness? Use our free people analytics tool for evidence-based insights into your team’s work motivations.
  • Listening - When we talk about becoming better communicators, we tend to focus on how we can speak or write more effectively. But many miscommunications arise from our failure to listen.
  • Empathy - Empathy is a crucial component of listening because it compels you to consider the other person’s point of view. By doing this, you’re less likely to get defensive, talk over them or cut them off. You’ll want to listen to understand them better.

Empathy is also proven to be healthy for organizations. For example, the Center for Creative Leadership found a positive correlation between empathy in the workplace and job performance. Further, managers who were seen as empathetic by their subordinates were also seen as high performers by their bosses.

4. Regularly give praise.

You know that sinking feeling when you’ve worked really hard on something—and no one notices? Yeah, your employees don’t like it either. While humility is certainly a virtue to strive for, never being thanked for your efforts is demotivating.

The O.C. Tanner 2019 Global Culture Report found that employees experience a 71% decrease in feelings of appreciation when they put forth extra effort or achieve something great but receive no recognition for it.

To ensure that your team feels appreciated, consider instituting a formal recognition program like Bayer Canada’s “You Make Life Better.” In collaboration with O.C. Tanner, Bayer Canada tried a multi-pronged approach consisting of:

  • On-the-spot awards
  • Highest achievement 
  • Career achievement 
  • Retirement
  • And shoutouts of thanks

By celebrating multiple areas of their employees’ careers, Bayer Canada was able to create a culture of appreciation. It’s no wonder they have a 92% employee engagement rate!

But helping your team feel appreciated doesn’t have to be that elaborate. The 2019 Global Culture Report also found that simply saying “thank you” helps employees feel 116% more appreciated! So if you haven’t thanked someone on your team today, start there.

5. Offer career development opportunities.

Of course, it’s not about doling out praise and turning a blind eye to weak spots. Interestingly enough, your team wants you to challenge them; they want to grow. Talent development is among the most desired parts of a job, and without it, employees will be tempted to leave your organization.

To underscore just how important career development is, for 10 straight years, the Work Institute’s Retention Report has ranked it as the number one reason employees leave their jobs.

Here are some examples of how top companies create career development opportunities for their employees:

  • Continuing education: Etsy School
    At Etsy, they decided to tap into the talent within their own organization to teach each other new skills. At Etsy School, employees can take classes on a variety of topics ranging from juggling to Python programming to mindfulness—all taught by their peers.
  • Tuition assistance: Boeing’s Learning Together Program
    When a team member wants to pursue a degree or professional certificate, Boeing helps foot the bill. Both full-time and part-time employees become eligible for the Learning Together Program after one year of working at the company. To date, Boeing has spent more than $1 billion through its tuition assistance program.
  • Mentorship programs: General Electric
    GE hosts a plethora of mentorship and leadership programs for entry-level employees and beyond in areas such as finance, IT and sales. Program participants gain exposure to new technologies and receive mentorship from senior professionals.

Use these top companies’ programs to inspire the career development offerings at your own organization.

6. Show empathy.

How empathetic is your company? Probably not as much as you think. In Businessolver’s 2020 State of Workplace Empathy Study, 91% of CEOs said their organization is empathetic, while 68% of employees said the same. Businessolver calls this discrepancy the “empathy gap.” 

As a leader, how can you help close that gap? Below are a couple of suggestions from the Businessolver study:

  • Align your employer benefits with your employees’ values. In the report, respondents named flexibility as the top benefit that shows empathy. Consider offering flexible schedules so that your team members can better accommodate their personal needs and work at a time when they’re most alert.
  • Show you care about your team’s physical and mental health. Ninety-six percent of employees said mental health and physical health are equally important. Yet many avoid discussing mental health with their employers for fear of the stigma surrounding it. Additionally, 97% of CEOs said their organizations were empathetic toward mental health, but only 69% of employees agreed.

    How can you help improve the well-being of your employees? Businessolver recommends regular virtual check-ins and all-company updates while working remotely. Additionally, some companies offer their employees free mental health support through online services like Talkspace.

7. Know your leadership style.

Servant, autocratic, charismatic and more—there’s no shortage of leadership styles. And while every manager brings their own unique twist to how they lead, knowing your general leadership style can help you identify which situations you operate best in, and which ones you might struggle with.

If you’re unsure where you fall among these types, try a people analytics tool to quickly identify your work motivations. You can use F4S to get evidence-based insights—for free!

8. Identify each team member’s strengths and weaknesses.

One of the great things about having a diverse team is that each member brings something special to the table, strengthening the unit as a whole. But if you fail to see their strengths and weaknesses, you won’t know the best ways to communicate with them or their ideal circumstances for doing their best work.

Lead your team in even better ways starting today

Leading a team is tough—but there’s a reason your organization chose you to do it. Even when you falter or feel like you aren’t measuring up, you have strengths that you can lean on to lead your team to excellence. 

By using the eight tips described above, you’ll further strengthen your leadership, support your team and cultivate a culture of excellence in your workplace.


Measure your leadership strengths and discover your team’s work style — get started with F4S for free today.

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