How to Avoid Leading Your Team to Failure

People with a business degree understand the importance of leadership. Unfortunately, they may at times fail to see how they might be leading their teams into failure. There are many reasons why teams fail. Quality assurance experts, who focus on teamwork in companies, identify some common ones:

  • Inadequate preparation for team members and managers
  • Impatient and unsupportive top management
  • Poor management grasp of group dynamics
  • Inappropriate compensation plans that promote the wrong behavior

Those issues are well known to people with business administration degrees. But as debilitating as these errors can be to teams, there is an even more subtle and destructive possibility: managers may enable behavior that causes teams to veer off course, according to John Hamm, a leadership expert and author of Unusually Excellent: The Necessary Nine Skills Required for the Practice of Great Leadership. The problem, writes Hamm, is that teams often show signs of what he calls “failing elegantly.” People exhibit behavior that helps them cope with oncoming embarrassment from expected failure:

[T]here is that moment, and everyone can feel it, when a project or the commitment to the promised results enters the risk zone–when challenges arise and there are no clear answers or remedies. It is precisely at this fork in the road–when egos and reputations get shaky–that leaders must recognize the signs of an impending crisis of confidence and intervene with specific messages and actions aimed at getting everyone back into the winner’s mindset.

What drives elegant failure is too much focus on appearances: having a sophisticated explanation for the loss, and being sure to appear as though you’ve tried everything to avoid failure. Unfortunately, leaders often reinforce the negative behaviors through a number of mistakes:

  • Set impossible goals — Unlike goals created to make people stretch for what seems slightly out of reach, impossible goals doom the efforts before they start.
  • Let people lose focus — When talented people hit a hard problem, they often will switch to something easier so they can feel a sense of accomplishment. But the tough problems stand between the team and success. Smart managers listen for this and redirect efforts back to the critical problems.
  • Try to be too nice — Few people want to appear unpleasant and demanding. But it’s important to forbid sloppy work that can sink the project and insist on high quality effort.
  • Accept bad data — Effective management means dealing with reality. Review full data without any spin and don’t telegraph your bad news, unless you want the team to hide it from you. Similarly, only data measuring what you want to occur is useful.

To be an effective leader, develop the eye for not only the classic problems with teams, but where you can slip up and tell people that it’s OK to fail.

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