Effective team leaders have a blend of interpersonal skills that secure respect, trust and authority.
- Team leader skills are not inherent and you can easily pick them up
- There are a number of leadership skills and qualities that will help you navigate a team leader role. You dial them up and down depending on the situation, but you need them all just bubbling under the surface, ready to use
- Emotional intelligence (EI), does have its role, but you must also be brave enough to have difficult conversations, be challenging and drive change
"A successful team leader has a set of skills to help them not just to survive, but thrive," explains our Head of Leadership and Management, Andrew Wallbridge.
"Survival is for the ‘yes men and women’, whereas thriving is all about high performance."
You don't have the same authority as a manager, so you can't thrive by controlling your team. However, you can use your influence to encourage their output. That means continuously working on your interpersonal skills to get the best out of your people.
"If you can create an outstanding team with outstanding performance and you’ll look like an outstanding leader."
"Nobody can apply a one-size-fits-all model," explains Andrew "we can give you the map to leadership, but you have to walk the path and find the style that suits you - but these skills are learnable."
"The leadership and management team at TSW have developed a learning method to help embed these qualities, called 'the Labyrinth'.
"The principle of the labyrinth is a complicated irregular network of passages or paths in which it is difficult to find one's way, just like learning to lead.
"Learning to lead can be a complicated network of tests and experiences that help you learn, step-by-step. You pick up your style of leadership as you develop your career.
"There are no rules of how to navigate the labyrinth, the only rule is that every individual has their entrance and that they should leave the same way they came in. Your journey through it shapes your strengths as a leader and defines the areas you need to double to and visit again.
"You leave the labyrinth as you, just as a stronger team leader!"
There are some unavoidably important attributes you must have to be a successful team leader, but it's all about getting the balance right.
You won't use all of them at once but you need all of them at a moment's notice.
It's useful to practise the one's you're uncomfortable with and refine your inherent skills, but all these attributes can be learned.
"No one is a born leader. You have to make a choice to work hard and develop your gifts to the fullest potential"
Some of your natural qualities will help you to navigate the responsibilities of your job, but others you will need to build on or refine, and some you will need to learn from scratch.
A self-aware team leader understands who they are and the context of their role within an organisation.
We've all worked with someone who lacked self-awareness. They might:
- Only acknowledge their priorities
- Broadcast their point of view and ignore input from others
- Claim team successes as their own
- Overstate their role in the team
- Don't connect or can't empathise with their colleagues
It's an energy drain to be a bit part in someone else's show. If you're forced to work under a self-inflated ego, it has a way of getting under the skin. It's distracting, diminishes morale and affects performance.
As a team leader, you need to be self-aware to succeed and win the respect of your peers.
It'll mean facing your shortcomings, but you must appraise yourself and consistently ask for feedback to avoid alienating your team.
For example, if you're sensitive and well-liked, but struggle with problem-solving, or having difficult conversations, you won't see results as quickly or as efficiently as someone who can be assertive.
"Your ability to tune-in to your emotions, the situation and your team's state of mind gives you an edge in intuitiveness," explains Andrew. "Your people will be more likely to trust your point of view if you are observant and open to feedback.
"Be on constant alert for your biases and listen carefully to those around you before you make decisions.
"Blame culture thrives when employees are scared to speak to their managers about problem-solving. If your self-awareness only achieves one thing - opening a dialogue with your team - it will help you to work towards a common goal and fix problems before they have a wider impact."
You need self-control to perform at work, whether you're a team leader or in another role.
A team leader that demonstrates self-control is focused, polite, thorough, attentive, driven and honest.
For example, studies show that if you exercise self-control exclusively for customers and mask frustration (surface acting), you're more likely to be rude to an employee in private later (supervision abuse). Likewise, if you're feeling tired, or you're feeling depressed or anxious it could impact how polite you are, or how thoroughly you tackle your work.
Corner cutting, abruptness, taking credit for the work of others, dismissiveness or any other forms of supervision abuse will alienate the people around you.
We're all human and everyone has an off day, but it's all about how you handle it.
Showing self-control as a tool to gain trust means sense checking your emotions and thinking before you act:
- Are my feelings relevant in this situation?
- Is my reaction reasonable?
- Are my requests fair?
- How would I feel if my manager behaved in this way?
You need to be agile, fearless and flexible to roll with the punches as a team leader.
You might need to do a bit of re-wiring and remind yourself to loosen your grip on what you think you know to nail this leadership quality.
If you're a new team leader, you'll be more used to adhering to a tried and tested process. You follow orders. But as a team leader, you're looking out for opportunities to shake things up to make the status quo more efficient and effective.
The need for adaptable team leaders is relevant in every industry.
For example, when the overriding business strategy changes, it will force your granular plans to morph. You must adjust your plans to meet the demands of the business because ploughing on as before will take the whole team off course. You must adapt to the situation for the greater good of the team.
These adjustments might happen every quarter, or even more regularly depending on your industry and area of expertise. You must be ready for them.
An adaptable team leader is happy to get out of their comfort zone, to test and experiment, have an open mind and explore new horizons.
But entrenched ways of working are difficult to shed, particularly if you're comfortable and the old ways seem to be working well.
Even if your reluctance to adapt is well-meaning, you have to think differently now to survive and thrive. To your seniors, rigidity may translate as unwilling, or a lack of vision. A lack of co-operation could frustrate your team, who might be keen for a bit of innovation and fresh thinking.
Being an empathetic team leader helps you to establish trust with your team members.
By consistently weaving empathy through your team leadership style, you'll foster strong relationships in the unit that promotes a good working culture and the results to match.
How can you apply empathy?
- Listen to their suggestions, problems and points of view
- Understand where they're coming from and take it seriously
- Plan what to do to improve their situation and include them in the discussion - are they happy with the plan?
- Act on it and show them they're valued and appreciated
That's not just in 1-2-1s, but on the floor too.
It's an all or nothing approach. If you switch it on and off flippantly, caring one moment but not the next, that doesn't inspire trust.
You could also apply active listening techniques, like nodding and maintaining eye contact to show you're giving them your full attention.
It's worthwhile pursuing because empathy gives you agility in difficult situations.
For example, you may have to investigate a seemingly random dip in results. If your team are used to having assertive but sensitive conversations with you, they'll trust you to handle their problem efficiently and discretely:
- Conflicts of interests
- Training gaps
- A broken process
- Cumbersome software
- An impractical or unsafe way of working
If you've worked hard to be an empathic team leader, they may volunteer the information openly, so you can fix the issues much faster.
If you're suddenly up to your eyes in your team's issues, you're doing something right. Blame culture relies on silence to survive. If your team leader technique is bringing an end to the silence and you're having more conversations albeit, to problem-solve, your team trusts you to help them.
When you're assertive, you clearly state what needs to happen. It's not an aggressive quality or a management-by-fear tool, it's just about being clear.
Being assertive is a logic-based team leader trait, rather than an emotional one. It takes rehearsal to switch off the emotional part of your brain and set aside guilty feelings.
"The biggest hurdle to assertiveness is self-doubt," explains Andrew. "You'll question yourself - 'I shouldn't have said that' - but with practice and experience, you'll see improvements in efficiency and communication if you can be direct."
"A good team leader keeps their emotions in check and is very matter of fact," Andrew says.
"If you have something to say, say it, quite clearly. How it comes out may be subject to question or challenge, but one thing is for sure, you are not being mean. You are just being clear about requirements and expectations."
Dial-up your assertive skills when you're:
- Setting expectations
- Pitching a project/idea to get investment and commitment
- Communicating targets
- Motivating your team
- Put under pressure to perform
- Facing aggressive or resistant team members
- Addressing problem behaviour
But, it's not a free pass to be rude. "You need to be sensitive about how and when you're assertive to retain the trust you've already built up," says Andrew.
Assertiveness, at its best, is considerate of other people's feelings. You take into account outside opinions and experiences but still drive everyone towards a goal. You can be empathetic and assertive at the same time, by making sure everyone has the chance to speak and contribute, welcoming their thoughts and feelings
But you must not be driven by emotion. For example, it's not appropriate to call out a conflict between team members in a public setting - it's humiliating and demotivating.
"Team leaders can also recognise the resistance and opinions of others and acknowledge them," explains Andrew. If someone undermines you in a public setting and you snap back, it devalues your authority, so take a second to think and respond appropriately.
If your team is resistant to positive assertiveness, maybe it prompts aggression, you need to find out why - it could be that there's a hidden issue your team are aware of, that hasn't hit your radar yet.
Not everyone is comfortable with being assertive, but it's in the interest of your teammates that they listen to your instruction.
"Show everyone you're not a pushover, that you do things your own way (while complying with systems and compliance) and you'll gain their respect," explains Andrew.
A bold team leader can be transformational to an organisation. We're not overstating what an important part you can play even in first-level management roles in changing workplace culture.
As a team leader, it's within your power to make small interpersonal communication changes. These are safe but pivotal moves in building an effective team.
You won't be penalised for taking unnecessary risks and you're not acting above and beyond your pay grade.
What it does prove is that you're actively looking for opportunities to grow and develop.
For example, if you're a kind and empathic team leader working within a blame culture, you're creating a safe environment where workers feel comfortable voicing concerns and issues.
You can be bold just by listening, admitting you don't have all the answers and asking for help to solve a problem. You're bold if you build an action plan based on the expertise and experience of your team.
You've been bold enough to step out of your lane and action change to benefit the wider business. And you can evidence it through meeting minutes and subsequent reporting.
As your skills develop and you become more well-known in your business, you might be able to be a bit braver. "The team leaders that are willing to challenge up get the support of their people," says Andrew.
Be bold and you'll boost morale.
We are all motivated differently. "Strong team leaders apply practical methods for motivating individuals and teams," explains Andrew, "and they demonstrate a personal commitment to achieving shared results."
What practical motivational methods could you use?
- Andrew suggests that you motivate your people by trusting them: "Create an environment by adopting a balance between delegation and empowerment," he explains, "and use a clear decision-making process"
- Praise, incentives and rewards could stimulate loyalty and focus, but you have to be careful how it's delivered - praise in a group setting is embarrassing for some
- Openness and transparency can be a powerful motivator. Regularly discuss goals and targets so they know what they're working towards
- Empathy can motivate teams too, listen to your team's ideas and work them into your plans
- Pursue happiness. A weekly Friday quiz, or openly request a budget for a monthly pizza are pleasant motivators if they're getting tired or burnt-out
Don't be tempted to use fear as a motivator, or contribute to a culture of punishing failure, that's only going to encourage them to hand their notices in, not work harder
You can inspire your team by developing their skills. Show them that the team only functions if they're working at the top of their game.
"Make the time to put in place uncomplicated yet, impactful development tools and techniques to improve their teams’ performance," explains Andrew.
"Developing others means motivating individuals to want to learn and grow.
"Monitoring progress, sharing responsibility and choosing appropriate learning methods will get everyone working together to meet expectations as effectively as possible."
At the start of a project, show your team that you understand what's ahead and what's expected of them.
Meticulous planning ahead of a project kick-off puts you in complete control from the word go.
You're able to:
- Plot the coming weeks and months
- Prepare to broadcast updates at key moments
- Schedule in 1-2-1s and team meetings to support the progression of the work
- Prepare individual and team key performance indicators (KPIs)
- Recite and rehearse objectives, goals and targets - you're ready if a manager drops in for an unexpected update
- Plan how to communicate about progress across multiple touchpoints
- Give a granular view to select employees, so they aren't overwhelmed
An organised team leader takes the pressure off individual employees, and by shouldering all the admin heavy lifting, you'll save them precious time too.
If your plan is transparent and accessible, and you have an open and honest approach about what's ahead (for example, acknowledging bottlenecks, or problems to overcome) it encourages them to trust you.
It also tells them that the only person worth speaking to about this project is you.
They can see you're keeping sight of their performance, to fulfil the team target. They know what their specific role is, what needs to be delivered and when, plus what it's expected to achieve. There are clear key performance indicators for them to meet.
Your 1-2-1 check-ins can be focused on their workload and what they need to do next, rather than the performance of the team.
Team catch-ups collate the information from 1-2-1s to show overall progress, rather than deep dive into individual performance.
You may not be able to influence the business strategy, yet, but as a team leader, you can influence the people in your team to achieve more.
We're not suggesting a bribe, like early finish Friday. This is again all to do with your attitude and leading by example through your approach, energy and enthusiasm.
Andrew reveals how this could work: "If leadership is fundamentally communicating through your own energy experience, every time you have a project or task you need to lead, ask yourself 'Why do I care about this project?' and share that.
"The successful team leaders are the ones that develop brilliant relationships with their team. Relationship building gets personal commitment from your team - they become more invested than doing it 'because they have to.'"
But likewise, you can influence people by outlining the consequences of a lack of care and bother: "If you don’t care, there may be consequences of not doing it and you can share those consequences," warns Andrew.
"Team leaders don't have to focus on the numbers, but the actions and behaviours that drive the numbers and that is what they manage," explains Andrew.
But if you're keen to evidence all your hard work with cold, hard data, you may have to do it in your own time because it's not typically part of your role.
It could be a great training opportunity. Ask your manager to talk you through the numbers and together, work out the tangible outcomes for your team.
If you can accurately translate the numbers into statements, or proof about what's going well and what could be improved, it will renew your team's energy.
With a real-time view of their impact to date, you can more clearly reset the clock, even if you're continuing work on the same project - we've already achieved this, now what's the next challenge/target?
"A good team leader instinctively knows achieving goals helps you to meet targets," Andrew says.
A goal is the company's overriding mission, so all the work you do must contribute to achieving the goal. Keep it at the heart of your project so you never lose sight of what you're trying to achieve.
- Put it as your desktop screen savers
- Write it on whiteboards
- Talk about it openly with your team and give it context - what obstacles do we need to overcome? What's happening in the marketplace and economy that will impact the work we do?
You could also incentivise it if you get approval from your HR team. For example, an award for the person who embodies our mission.
"Leadership is a conscious choice," explains Andrew. "When circumstances lend themselves, you make the choice to engage your Emotional Intelligence to engage with others, to inspire committed action, often in moments of change or crisis.
"Communication becomes critical and bringing your energy into motion.
"All the rest is management, measuring, controlling. Both work and in different situations, all you need is to get the balance right."
Your communication skills will become more sophisticated and considered as your experience deepens. In a team leader role, you won't always say the right thing - you're only human and we all have foot-in-mouth moments.
So long as you always try to be clear, your style of communication can grow from there.
Your manager retains accountability for your team's performance.
Because you're in the field, navigating the technicalities of team dynamics, debating and uniting ideas and challenging processes (all exceptional team leader qualities - well done!) you might feel more invested in how well they do than a manager.
You hold yourself personally accountable for delivering objectives and the success of individual team members.
Even if you hit a target, the team could experience burnout or feel negative about how you got there.
You were given one job - to lead the team. That means you had to propel them towards a goal and meet expectations. Now you've arrived, you need to put in a pin in the celebrations and apply self-awareness again.
Ask them 'what could we do better next time?'
You're holding yourself to account, trusting the opinions of your team, asserting yourself, showing empathy and exercising yourself control by not being self-congratulatory.
Your team doesn't have to like you, but they must respect you.
Your team might prefer to keep you at a distance. Now you have some authority and the manager's ear, guards and suspicions are up.
It's in our nature to want to be liked, to be part of a pack. But as a team leader, you have been separated from the safety of the mob as someone trustworthy to lead.
Some of your peers will resent and question your promotion and others will celebrate it. That's normal, we're competitive. It's an uneven playing field to start with, so being sociable and down-to-earth will make you approachable.
Being a sociable team leader doesn't mean you're always propping up the bar with the gang after work. It's more that you take an interest, give them time of day and listen.
If you can have an easy conversation about films, music, walks with the dog at the weekend, smile, nod and make a connection, you'll find once taxing conversations, become manageable.
If you encounter a lot of resistance, politeness and attentiveness will serve you well, but keep assertiveness in your back pocket. You need their respect to keep the team moving as one.
Whether it is a problem with the operation or those manning the operation, they know who to consult and inform to keep things working and take responsibility for a swift resolution.