Recently, I’ve stressed how important engagement is as a team competency and discussed how this competency can be developed. Equally important is not to behave in a way which destroys engagement — something leaders do all to often.
Interestingly, the source of these damaging behaviors comes from a leading expert in marriage therapy rather than from leadership literature. The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work (Gottman and Silver, Three Rivers Press 1999) identifies the behaviors that team leaders need to avoid. Here they are:
Harsh start ups — It’s very important for a leader to be aware of how he is beginning a conversation with team members. An aggressive tone of voice, inflammatory words or even negative body language can set the wrong tone. Once this happens, it is a sure thing that the team will not be engaged. At worst, they’ll feel attacked and quickly withdraw or fight back. At best, they’ll resist engagement, sensing that the leader is in a bad mood.
Criticism — When a leader criticizes a team member in front of other members, the whole team can become intimidated, jeopardizing engagement. Or, as often happens, other team members can seize the opportunity to gain comparative favor with the leader. This fosters unhealthy internal team competition. Not only will this endanger engagement, it also undermines collaboration and trust, two other key team competencies.
Contempt — We’ve all seen contempt in action. A leader decides that a team member’s opinions or work are not important and begins to treat the individual in a negative way in front of others. Perhaps the person is not recognized to speak or his opinions are summarily dismissed. Or, the leader looks at him in a disdainful or diminishing way. When other team members see this, they become sympathetic to the individual and resentful of the leader. This “unprofessional” behavior by the leader brings team attention to the interaction between the leader and the individual, destroying team engagement.
Defensiveness — Leaders need to approach their teams in an open and receptive fashion. All team members need to be able to contribute, bringing rich diversity to the team’s endeavors. When a team member brings forth ideas which differ from the leader’s preconceived thoughts, the leader needs to be open to hearing these ideas and accept the influence of his team members. Where, instead, the leader feels attacked and responds defensively, the resulting team dynamic will be stifling. This is fundamental stuff, but it happens pretty frequently, destroying engagement.
Stonewalling — Leaders need to make decisions and embrace progress. Where they are instead perceived as barriers, team members become extremely discouraged and stop bringing their best creative efforts to their work for the team.
It is critical for leaders to avoid these five destructive behaviors. There are several approaches for helping leaders learn to do this. It starts with awareness training. But if this is not successful, getting the leader some executive coaching is a very good idea. In some cases, using assessments and feedback will make the leader self-aware of these behaviors even without formal coaching. It is also very helpful to cover this subject in team-building workshops. This way all team members get to know what behaviors to avoid and can “call” each other out for any missteps.