We consider the ability to manage a team so important that, in a recent book, we made it one of the "3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader:" Manage Your Team — the first imperative — is about creating a real team and managing through it. For the record, the other two imperatives are Manage Yourself — which is about building relationships based on trust, not authority — and Manage Your Network, which is about connecting and collaborating with those you don't control.
"Manage your team" might seem clear and straightforward. Yet when we talk about it, we often find it's not an intuitive concept for many managers and for some it even cuts against the grain of what they think they should do as bosses.
Perhaps the easiest way to explain the problem, as we've come to understand it, is through the phrase we used above — manage "through the team." By that we mean you should use the social dynamics of the team to manage individual members, rather than managing members primarily one-by-one. This is a critical distinction that many managers miss. Though they extol the benefits of teamwork, they insist on managing their teams individual-by-individual. Thus, they virtually ensure that their groups will never become true teams.
Every group is not a team. Most are not, in fact, and so it's good to start with a definition.
A team is a group of people who do collective work and are mutually committed to a common team purpose and challenging goals related to that purpose.
Teams are more productive and innovative than mere work groups. They produce results that exceed what groups of individuals can do through simple cooperation and coordination. Such results reflect a "team effect:" members perform better when they feel they're part of a team. The root of this benefit is members' strong mutual commitment to their joint work. This commitment creates compelling social and emotional bonds among members, who come to believe that "we" will all succeed or fail together and that no one can succeed if the team fails. In every team, "we" trumps "I." Unless you've been part of a team yourself, it's hard to understand the exhilaration produced by this sense of what "we" can accomplish together.
This mutual commitment, this "we," the potent interpersonal bonds among team members, spring from two related sources:
- A mutual sense of purpose. Every high-performing team believes it exists for a compelling reason and that the world will be better for what it does. Its purpose is not the task or work it does but the benefit it delivers. It's the difference between "We scrub hospital floors" and "We prevent the spread of deadly infections." This is what pulls people together and makes them feel part of something bigger than themselves.
- Tangible goals based on that purpose. Purpose must be made concrete or it will quickly wither. To sustain its sense of purpose, every team needs to strive toward specific, real achievements that will fulfill that purpose.
In short, purpose and related goals are the glue that holds a team together. Purpose without concrete goals is just a dream. Goals without purpose are aimless activity. But although they are critical, purpose and goals are not enough. A team also needs clarity. In particular, team members need clarity about:
- Members' roles and responsibilities — not everyone can do everything
- Important work processes — the way the team does its work, such as making decisions
- Values, norms, and standards that define what members expect of each other — how conflict, for example, may and may not be expressed
- The kinds of feedback and metrics needed to measure progress.
These may be the more nitty-gritty aspects of team infrastructure but they're needed to keep the team's work flowing smoothly and to minimize destructive conflict. And when all these conditions are present and a group becomes a true team, members perform at a high level not because the boss demands it but because their team colleagues expect it. Members work hard so as to support each other and not let the team down. In effect, then, the team manages itself. If a team member fails to perform, other members will let him know. In this way, performance is guided by the social and emotional bonds among members, not the expectations of the boss. When this occurs, the manager is managing through the team by using the social bonds among members to shape behavior.
It's a more effective way to manage because it elicits more commitment and effort from the individuals involved. But it's obviously not a comfortable approach for those bosses who need to be "in charge" and want to believe that their team will succeed because of their direct influence. They dislike, in particular, the fact that creating a team requires such an indirect approach, like a pool player making a bank shot off the side rather than straight into a pocket. They don't realize that the more direct approach they prefer will most likely prevent their group from becoming a real team. Real teams emerge spontaneously when the right conditions are present; a team can't be created by decree. The boss cannot dictate a compelling purpose; the team members must choose one, though it certainly can be one the boss has suggested and the team discussed.
Thus, instead of imposing and directing, you as group leader must suggest, support, define, focus on, talk about, expect, hire for, lead discussions about, and evaluate performance against the conditions that foster the spontaneous formation of a team. Your formal authority can be useful for directing people's time and attention to the right issues and conditions. That's far from nothing, but in the end only your group's members can make themselves into a team by freely committing themselves to a mutual purpose.
Your job as team leader is to foster and then sustain the conditions that help them do that. You may not feel completely comfortable with such an indirect approach, but that's how teams work.
This post is part of the HBR Insight Center on The Secrets of Great Teams.