Five good practices to improve teamwork as a Team Lead
By Marta Alegria, Talent Engagement Lead @ Xpand IT
Leading teams is a huge challenge. And perhaps the beginning of the novel is the sense of responsibility. In a technical position, without any team management position, I often had an influential role and occupied an informal leadership space. It often happened that other colleagues in the group chose me as a representative, spokesperson, or simply relied on my help in their projects because they valued my knowledge. But above all, I think they recognised a balance between humility, dedication to the team and integrity.
When it seems that the most natural step is to take on formal leadership, the lived experience may not be as simple as one might expect. Everything that seemed effortless becomes a job requirement:
- Responsibility for the health of the team and the well-being and development of each person
- Consistency between what we preach and what we do, on a day-to-day basis
- The practice of collaborative spirit and the availability to help and guide at any time
- The demand we place on the results we present (even if we no longer produce them ourselves)
After this initial shock, and now that I have gained some distance to analyse this experience, I want to share some suggestions so that you keep track of what’s most important about being a leader, so that you can improve your teamwork as a Team Lead.
1 — Learn to know, respect and take care of yourself before you take care of others
The first and most important step to take is that of self-knowledge! Only by making a true introspection about what we value, what we fear, what inspires us and what makes us jump the gun, can we understand the way we impact the lives of the people around us and plan our development with them.
There is a commonly reinforced message in coaching, leadership and even parenting contexts that refer to oxygen masks on aeroplanes. The best practice is always to put the oxygen mask on yourself first, so that you can then effectively help others. Brought into a practical context, this means that to improve collaboration as a team lead we should:
- know ourselves before we try to know anyone else
- invest in our internal structure and integrity before demanding anything from other people
- have the humility to learn something new every day, before we pass on teaching
What comes from this inward-looking process is a more positive and easier ability to influence. In a genuine way, you naturally become more certain of the path you want to take — which in itself is inspiring to those around you. You also become more confident — which translates into assertiveness and more positive relationships, because you no longer play to protect your ego but to achieve results collaboratively.
Maybe it seems like a basic thought… Therefore, I challenge you to think about how many people in your day-to-day life use conversations and meetings as an arena to override others or destructively criticise other people’s efforts without helping with any viable alternative.
Something powerful we can do with self-awareness and self-confidence is to proactively develop our vulnerability and accelerate trusting relationships within the team. When we have the courage to show our weaknesses, ask for help and admit our mistakes or uncertainties, we make room for humility and collaboration — key ingredients for healthy leadership and teamwork.
2 — Continuously set the vision for the journey
What characterises a team and differentiates it from a group of people in the joint purpose and sense of mission. But this does not appear out of anywhere, without the Team Lead’s interference. On the contrary, if nobody clarifies the team’s mission, it is likely that its members will fill that void, each one in his own way, even running the risk of following divergent paths.
The role of the team lead is, among others, to help the team to think about, feel and give answers to these questions:
- Why do we exist as a team?
- What will we achieve together that we could never achieve apart?
- Where will we get to if we stay together and contribute collaboratively?
It is from this reflection that a sense of purpose, cohesion, motivation and resilience emerges.
A funny way to think about this topic is with a storytelling analogy. The leader should be able to explain in which story the team plays the hero and make their members connect to that role and from there, also to know what to do to get to the end of the story and how to value the journey together. A simple but very useful concept that has helped me to inspire my team and balance their effort and motivation more effectively.
Primarily, because the team only starts the journey with those who want to contribute their efforts and play a hero’s role in the story. Then because it becomes easier to renew the motivation in dealing with difficulties and obstacles. After all, we all expect a hero’s journey to have some setbacks. Otherwise, he wouldn’t even be considered a hero! And finally, because a very interesting self-regulation process emerges, through which everyone maintains an active role in the health and effectiveness of the team. The leader’s role is no longer to manage work, but to maintain focus on the final destination, clearing the way for the team to pass through and creating the best conditions for its elements to be the best they can be in their role.
All team members become leaders, regardless of their hierarchical position. And they all develop a will to conquer and leave a legacy! Everyone brings their commitment and dedication to the team’s mission, which is also theirs!
3 — Learn to be a leader coach
People only grow if they discover the path themselves. For this, it is fundamental that the Team Lead gives space to learning, experimentation and error. It is fundamental that they guide without giving all the answers and it is also crucial that they promote joint discovery, co-creating the team’s path with each person.
It sounds easy, but in practice, this implies asking more questions than giving answers and allowing the silence to be occupied by the other person’s reflection, even when the solutions seem obvious. Only in this way do we help people to think and decide on the basis of principles, which will make them able to make decisions on their own with confidence and to best represent the team, with pride.
In addition, they will feel they have a voice, significance in the team, decision-making autonomy and the ability to walk the path ahead of them. Each time they feel more capable, it leads to a growing sense of responsibility for the results they bring to the team. We are facing what is called a virtuous cycle!
4 — Continuously invest in the team by providing moments of joint reflection
Once we are clear about the team’s mission and the role of each element in achieving that mission, it is also important to define the rules of the game. In other words, how are we going to achieve that mission? What is the desirable way of making things happen? What is acceptable, what is reprehensible and how do we want to be perceived as a team?
By answering these questions, we are basically defining the team’s values and guidelines. And, as I have said so far, the secret to success is that this reflection and definition work is done in collaboration by the team as a whole. In this way, we create space for the sharing of expectations and difficulties. We get to know better what each member values and how he or she draws motivation from their work and, above all, we establish the basis for self-regulation in the group itself.
In practice, all team members become committed to what is decided and, again, emerge as leaders:
- continuously set an example to each other;
- guide the attitudes of colleagues by giving spontaneous feedback to one another;
- help each other on a daily basis;
- invest in protecting the identity and culture that is lived in the team;
- monitor and correct any threats that may arise.
The role of the formal Team Lead becomes one of maintaining the integrity and performance of the team and of monitoring the development and motivation of each member, rather than controlling actions or forcing compliance with the rules.
In my team, I have made a habit of having a moment of deeper reflection every 2 months, which turns out to be team coaching sessions where we share a little more vulnerability and fine-tune the way we work together. They are not working meetings where we discuss the status of projects, but rather where we think about the way we work and live day to day.
These are moments that leverage the maturity of the team and rekindle intrinsic motivation by giving voice and involving everyone in the discussion. These conversations always have a guiding thread that I as a formal Team Lead bring prepared, but there is also the opportunity to rotate the responsibility for the format of the session among ourselves. It is absolutely refreshing and inspiring when you entrust someone else with the responsibility and are surprised by how they have used that opportunity to take us to something new and further ahead than where we were.
5 — Inspire others by example
A Leader is only one because he clears the way for others, facing dangers head-on, and, inspiring others to follow him because he gives a good example of what to do and who to be. Without “walking the talk” we will never have anyone willing to follow us and contributing to the success of the group at the expense of their own personal interests.
Firstly, it is fundamental to be genuine so that the trust that others place in us is nurtured and so that in and around our team, other people do the same.
Secondly, to have integrity — which means being whole and not fragmented. It means keeping our word, applying our own ideologies and also being honest with ourselves and those around us about what we think and feel. The more conscious and proactive (rather than reactive) the process of reflection and argumentation is, the stronger the collaborative spirit becomes in the way the team comes to solutions together.
And thirdly, deliberately investing in the impact we make. From my perspective, there are two complementary strands.
On the one hand, I think it is critical that we regularly ask ourselves this question, “How do people feel after interacting with me? Inspired, excited, energised, more mature and motivated or exhausted, frustrated, discouraged and reactive?”. That way we will be able to be more conscientious and inevitably have a more positive influence on the people we work and socialise with. As well as being an inspiring example for others to do the same and perpetuate this attitude.
On the other hand, we can have (and exercise) the will to want to be better every day in order to effectively improve teamwork as a team lead. Better, comparing ourselves to the person we were yesterday, so that today we can think about how to be 1% greater. If we do this reflection every day, we will have the attitude of exceeding ourselves and continuously evolving. Not only will this attitude materialise at various levels, but it will also serve as an example to our team. And it may even be something explicitly instilled during team debriefs or individual follow-up and feedback moments — what are you going to do today to be 1% better than yesterday?
The most interesting thing is that this daily thought leads to taking care of ourselves in different areas of life and achieving better balance. For example, I can be better today than yesterday just by drinking two extra glasses of water, or by calling a friend to whom I haven’t spoken in a long time, or by walking to my son’s school instead of driving.
Some food for thought… or at least this is how I hope these ideas will be useful to you, to improve teamwork as a team lead and thus have a positive impact on your reality, helping you as much (or even more) than they have helped me.
These are not new ideas and certainly, there are those who have prepared a denser and more structured path to support your process of development in self-leadership. But they come as a testimony of the real experience I have had and with some practical suggestions so that you can try them out for yourself.
Essentially, leadership emerges not by the artificial status that a position in a company or in a team gives us, but by the example we set and the influence we exert. Every day.