People & Performance – October 2001 issue     back to articles menu  

“Follow the Leader!  Well, maybe …”

Can you motivate a Team? ‘Course you can. We trainers do it all the time. If I said ‘no’, would you still respect me in the morning? But Seriously – teams are made up of individuals. A group of well-motivated individuals might choose to act cooperatively – the Team in action. Let’s look at the effect of training on Leader behaviour, and the effect of Leader behaviour on the motivation of individuals within a team.

First let’s agree something – a corporate CEO, and a Production Team Leader in a manufacturing enterprise, share one similarity (at least) – both get their results through other people – The Team. To that extent we can use the term ‘Team Leader’ for both of them. Obviously there are differences in complexity and range of tasks, not to mention salary. I thought I said don’t mention that!

Having agreed with me on terminology (I trust you did because its kind of fundamental), we can go on to refresh our memories of Leader-Follower theory and agree that followers will only continue to follow where they see that the leader appears to be either providing, or about to provide, what the followers want. Mercenary lot, aren’t we?  Followers have to be motivated to follow, and most of the input they receive comes in terms of visible and audible ‘behaviour’. ‘Style’ by itself only takes the Leader so far, as our politicians have demonstrated pretty exhaustively over the last few years; underpants, dark glasses and wine-boxes being the relevant symbols. People want visible, tangible results. It’s a tough world.

If we accept then, that Leader behaviour has a significant impact (positive and negative) on Follower motivation, then one must come to the inevitable conclusion that Leader behaviour should not be left to chance.  It is a fact that many of our supervisors and team leaders in the workplace are promoted to their positions through the requirements of the current situation (expedience, or ‘dead mans shoes’) rather than through a planned career development process.  The majority of these team leaders do not receive any prior formal training in leadership techniques and in many cases perform the duties of their position (with varying levels of success) without any formal training for -in some cases- 15 to 20 years. Many of the Team Leaders attending our Team Leader training courses are in their mid 40’s, have been in their positions in excess of 10 years and are attending their first formal training. One cannot but wonder how they have coped over the years and what opportunities they have missed to produce more from their teams.

An impression that I have built up over the last 11 years of observation of team leaders in many different workplaces is one of 'team leadership by default'; that is, team leaders who are promoted into their positions by virtue of their professional and vocational skill and knowledge (or in some cases purely on time served), given a minimum of direction and, with only their predecessors behaviour as a role model, go on to produce a result with varying levels of success or failure.

Why is it that so many organisations fail to recognise, that (for example) a B Com and a CA status is not going to help one iota in the running of the Team that makes up the Finance Department, or that your best technically qualified, most experienced engineer might be the very worst person to appoint as Manager, Engineering Department and that to do so might result in the simultaneous loss of a damn fine Engineer and the creation of an appalling Manager – with consequential damage to the Team thrown in for good measure?

It is only when the desired result does not materialise that management (who put them in this position in the first place) becomes attentive, aware, and involved, which usually means some kind of crisis management or intervention in a largely directive manner.  This brings with it implications of criticism, is not often instructional, constructive, or supportive and at the same time damages self-esteem and the ability to learn why something happened so as to avoid a similar mistake in the future.

 Let’s have a refresher-look at a couple of studies that we can examine for some thoughts:

1) Blanchard’s work – Situational Leadership, examines the link between an Autocratic style coupled with Directive behaviour, and a Democratic style coupled with Supportive behaviour. For this article, the part of Blanchard’s work I want to focus on (among lots of other considerations), is the suggestion that the Leaders’ behaviour needs to be tailored to the individual Follower, and to the situation. In order to do that, the Leader needs to be a chameleon, able to change behaviour at will, person-by-person, hour-by-hour, situation-by-situation. I’m sure I don’t need to labour the point that Leaders who tailor behaviour to meet the needs of individual Followers are going to have a better success rate at motivating those same Followers, than another Leader who has a ‘one size fits all’ set of behaviours.

“Ah, But!” I hear you say – “What about the need for Consistency, such that Followers will know what to expect”. Think about it. The team will learn that the Leader will change behaviour to suit the Follower and the situation – and will consistently do that.

 2) Blake-Mouton Managerial Grid:

Is there a temptation on the part of some Leaders (possibly me sometimes - if you prick me I do bleed), to become too task-focussed, even in some cases being too involved in the actual ‘doing’, because it is ‘easier’ to do that – you don’t have to wait around dealing with the uncertainty of waiting/working through others when you can ‘roll your sleeves up’, wade in at the deep end and do it all yourself, and/or fling terse orders around the place, perhaps because at least that way you know it is going to get done. Motivating, coaching, training, delegating – it all takes time. So much tidier to just employ people who already have the skills, direct them to produce and fire them if they don’t. But what then, of their motivational needs? Well, we pay them money, don’t we?

Robert Blake and Jane Mouton (1976) looked at the tension between concern for ‘People’ and concern for getting the job done – ‘Task’. From a motivational point of view, when a Leader focuses only (or mainly) on Task then all the factors such as communicating, coaching, mentoring, training, and career guidance that motivate staff may be neglected. There’s a self-survey we do that works with that model and shows the participant where they are positioned between those two tensions at the present moment, and makes the participant think about the appropriateness of that position relative to the current situation. The model uses a matrix of those two tensions to indicate (you guessed it) that a balanced application of effort is the ideal, since an over-focus on People issues may result in happy staff but also may cause missed deadlines and other undesirables to do with complacency, whereas an over-focus on Task issues may result in high production output but accompanied by poor quality, high staff turnover, industrial disharmony and other nasties.

 I have personally experienced the power of this ‘shift in focus’ when, after working as a manager in a service industry in the engineering sector (high Task focus), I moved into a management position with a sales-based organisation where my office was tiny – my PA’s office was bigger – simply because my role was that of a ‘people-manager’ not a ‘function-manager’, therefore I needed to be physically with my team, out in the field, working with them and their teams, training, coaching, listening, absorbing, suggesting, supporting. In my first days there I remember listening with some initial scepticism as my ‘boss’ exhorted me to “spend time with your team – they will look after the task”. After 5 years of doing just that, my team and I were able to look back on a track record of successes year on year - I reflect now that he was totally right. I have learnt something else over the years. The chair, the desk, the carpet, the computer – they’re cosmetic, cannot be motivated and will not produce a result. Results come from Humans. Motivate them individually then guide them to work in harmony. Ahhh, then you have a motivated team.

Carpe Diem

Steve Punter ANZIM, Dip Bus (PMER), FHRINZ
Staff Training Associates Ltd, Auckland, New Zealand.
© Steve Punter 2001 All rights reserved by the author.                                                                                                                       back to articles menu