What I Learned (the hard way) About Respectful Team Leadership

Last week, I had a bad experience with a team leader that I interact with.  In this case, it's not a leader that I coach, but instead, a leader of a recreational team that I belong to.    Although I've been part of the team for a few years, the team leader is new this year.  I've been interacting with this person for a while now and have struggled with how he interacts with me and with my teammates.  Last week, his disrespectful tone finally got the better of me.  I told him (in front of the whole class) that he could not talk to us the way he had been.  His response was a common one among people who find themselves in power positions--he demanded that we respect him.  Well, you can imagine how that went...

I wanted to share the story with you because it's a really good reminder that team leaders need to earn the respect of their teams.  If you find yourself leading a team for the first time, keep these lessons from my experience in mind:

  • Honor what your team members know and have experienced before you arrived on the scene. Our leader took no time to ask about what had worked and not worked in the years the team had been together.  That was a lost opportunity.  Your team members have seen a lot of water go under the bridge.  Schedule a time just to hear some of what they have learned. Even if you decide to change course, your team will likely be more receptive to the change you're asking for if you first take the time to listen and learn.
  • Meet the team where they're at.  If the team is less capable than you would expect, think of it as your job to build their skills.  Our team left a little to be desired on a few counts, but making us feel badly about that was just discouraging.  If your team isn't as slick on the latest marketing best practices or the IT protocols you thought were table stakes, educate, don't judge.
  • Talk in a way that shows your confidence in your team.  Even if they seem like the Bad News Bears to you, there is a team full of people who will believe in themselves more if you believe in them first. I talked to a CEO last week about the difference between saying "we have got to do better" and "we can do better."  I think the latter is a much better, but no less motivating statement.  Just as respect begets respect, confidence begets confidence.

So if you find yourself in the role of team leader, particularly if you are younger or less experienced than the members of the team, don't make the mistake of demanding respect. Instead, pay it forward. 

I'll be back next week: Ready to offer respect to my team leader for as long as that respect is returned.  I wish it hadn't been our class that he had to learn on, but he realizes that respect is a two way street, his ability to lead teams in the future will be the better for it.