Just because you own a company and are the boss, that doesn’t mean you know how to lead a team.
That may sound harsh, but chances are, you probably agree. After all, leading anyone is often difficult, and some employees don’t want to be led.
Maybe you have workers who are super independent and aren’t excited about following somebody else’s directions. You may have employees who—yikes—aren’t confident in your leadership abilities. And you may have some staffers who simply aren’t ambitious or eager to change direction. So while the problem may be with you, it also may be with them.
Still, whoever and whatever’s to blame, many business owners and experts will tell you that when it comes to how to lead a team, there’s a right way and a wrong way. Obviously, you’ll want to focus on the right way.
“If a leader can make members of an organization or business feel like it mattered that you showed up every day, or at least most days, then anything is possible.”
—Alexander Lowry, finance professor, Gordon College
1. Avoid blame.
This one’s important. As noted in the last paragraph, maybe someone is to blame. But it won’t help you or your employees to assign fault.
If you start getting personal and call out one of your employees—even behind their back, even if you just do it inside your own mind—you’re not helping.
“Name calling closes down thinking,” says Nancy Cramer, a leadership consultant and the founder of Correct Course Consulting, a leadership consultancy in Dallas.
By thinking of someone as a jerk, Cramer explains, you’ve just pigeonholed that person. And that makes it hard to think of them as, say, a competent employee who simply has an issue with the direction you want them to take.
Often, Cramer says, “the person has a legitimate reason they’re reticent to follow. The leader’s job is to uncover it.”
One way is to think about why the employee isn’t following your lead. What’s in it for them if they don’t?
To go with an incredibly basic scenario, let’s say that you ask a team of employees to train some new staff members. If your established crew believes that these new people are taking over, they won’t have much incentive to follow orders. But if you knew that was an unfounded fear, you could quickly fix things and put their minds at rest.
“Once a leader can determine the purpose of the insubordination and meet it in a more collaborative way, they can break down resistance and increase cooperation,” Cramer says. “This requires clear thinking and controlled responses in the heat of battle. Often times, pulling the person aside and discussing things privately will help win their support.”
But you have to remember to stay professional. Cramer recently worked with a company where an employee made a mistake.
“The manager lost his temper and publicly humiliated the employee,” Cramer recalls. “While the employee was wrong, the manager’s response escalated the situation leading to irreparable damage on both sides.”
However you respond to people not wanting to be led, try to stay cool instead of losing your cool.
2. Make sure your employees have ownership in the company’s goals.
Sean Hampton is a managing partner of Crash Site Films, a Los Angeles-based production company.
“As a producer, the teams I lead are constantly changing. Every project has different members doing different jobs, and strong personalities abound,” Hampton says.
And how does he handle leading people who don’t want to be led?
“I’ve found that giving ownership of the process helps create common ground,” Hampton says. “The process starts by talking with them and explaining that my chief concern is hitting the goal accurately and on time.
“Then,” he continues, “I explain that they were brought on for their expertise and talent, and I’d like for them to take ownership in getting the job done. We confer on their plan to hit the target and decide together if the plan is solid.”
So if you can, try figuring out your strategy for victory together. Your employee presumably wants the same thing you do—to be successful. (If not, then you might want to start thinking about getting out those walking papers.)
“Typically, employees who don’t want to be led feel resentment at the idea of being told what to do,” Hampton says. “By acknowledging their skill and empowering them to make decisions about their work, they feel truly invested in the results.”
3. Show that you trust employees to work independently.
If you don’t trust your employees to work on their own and come up with their own ideas for reaching a goal, that could be the problem.
“Most folks want to be part of something bigger than themselves and also [to] have a level of autonomy,” says Lisa Guida, a leadership coach and owner of Why Leap Alliance, a women’s leadership coaching company based in Branford, Connecticut. “It’s up to the leaders to build an environment of trust where innovation continues to thrive.”
A part of figuring out how how to lead a team successfully means not micromanaging.
“Lots of times, new leaders can come in thinking they have all the answers,” Guido says. “I once saw a new CEO come in and say, ‘I’m going to do this with you or without you.'”
But he never fully explained the company’s mission or suggested that he valued the employees, and he failed miserably, Guido says.
“Build trust, ask for help, respect everyone and enroll folks in the journey,” she advises.
4. Demonstrate that you value your employees.
Offering autonomy is smart, but coupling that with a company culture that makes it clear employees are appreciated doesn’t hurt either.
Few people will follow you if they believe you don’t have their best interests at heart, according to Alexander Lowry, a finance professor at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. (And if you think about the jobs you’ve had where you felt that you weren’t respected, and how you felt about management, you’ll know Lowry is right.)
When it comes to learning how to lead a team that doesn’t want to be led, it starts with having a company where people are excited to work.
“If a leader can make members of an organization or business feel like it mattered that you showed up every day, or at least most days, then anything is possible,” Lowry says.
“The majority of people leaving a position say one of the reasons was not feeling appreciated and valued,” he continues. “If we as leaders can create a place where everyone feels their role matters, that what they spent their time away from their loved ones mattered, then we can generate incredible loyalty.”
And with loyalty comes great things, Lowry adds.
“Then their willingness to do more, give more and push harder is extraordinary,” he says. “On the flip side, if all they bought into is a paycheck, they might as well be walking around thinking, ‘How little can I do before I am in danger of getting fired?'”
So really the answer to how to lead a team comes down to the golden rule. Be the type of employer you would want if you were still working for someone else. You do that, and you won’t need to look back and wonder if people are following you. You may have to run to catch up with them.
Author: Geoff Williams
Journalist, freelance writer