Team discipline is an essential element of any high performance team and the leader cannot direct it alone.
Sure, a team leader’s responsibility is to lay out clear expectations and a compelling purpose for the team mission but a huge part of team discipline has to come from within the team.
If a leader spends his or her time preaching discipline and wagging fingers, their efforts to control the discipline within the team will soon fall on deaf ears.
There is a reason people have a harder time speaking in front of their peer group. Their reason is that they care how they will be viewed amongst their cohort more than a group of strangers they will probably never see or hear from again.
To quote an example of this from my experience, when leading expedition teams that I had no hand in selecting, friends would often ask me, “what do you do if you have a bad team?” and “what keeps them from going all Lord of the Flies (a classic novel where a well-behaved party of schoolboys trapped in the wilderness has turned into a tribe of faceless, murderous savages) out there in the mountains?”
Quality Teams Self Police
You may ask that if effective team discipline comes from within the team, is it out of the leader’s hands entirely? No, not at all. In every team, there are people who naturally emerge as leaders in their own right. There may be a vocal leader, a silent leader, the one with the most experience, one who has the highest level of a specific talent, oozes the most confidence, or commands the most respect for whatever reason. These people exist in every team and as the team’s leader, it is critical you identify these people early on in the team development process.
Get Them on Your Side
As you identify these natural leaders within the team, you need to make extra effort to connect with them and get them on your side. These internal leaders will have as much or more impact on the team discipline as you, the overall team leader. This is the reason why sports teams have captains and assistant captains despite having a plethora of coaches.
Reasons to keep a close relationship with your natural leaders:
- They are your eyes and ears within the team. Leaders are often oblivious to internal conflicts and disputes within a team.
- They maintain the team accountability bar, which can be raised and lowered based on your relationship with them.
- They handle team discipline issues before they blow up and you the leader have to step in and manage.
For these reasons, it is critical you maintain a close relationship with these leaders. You need to have a high level of communication with them and continually plant seeds in their head for the way you want things done within the team.
Before any major change, you need to get them on board.
On a canoeing expedition in the arctic of Alaska, my co-leader and I decided we wanted to change things up a little and actually paddle a more exciting river that would eventually lead to the same destination. We thought the move would greatly add to the learning experience of the students on the expedition.
But, for this to happen, there would be significant challenges to the team, namely a 2-mile portage through dense Alaskan brush and mosquito infested bogs. If I presented that idea to the group, I expected they wouldn’t really be into it and if they did agree to the move, they would end up complaining and/or hating me the whole way through it.
That’s when I decided to ask two of the more well liked and influential leaders in the group if they were into the idea and if they wanted to present it to the team. Fortunately, they were pumped about the idea and enthusiastically presented it to the rest of the group to see if they were as committed to this seemingly off the wall idea. They were into it and were excited to ramp up the adventure level a few more notches. From then on, the internal leaders took ownership of the plan and handled any internal squabbling over the move before we could ever hear about it.
The influence of these internal leaders should never be underestimated. When management loses touch with the internal leader, these are types of people who create unions out of seemingly thin air and in some situations, bring down organizations or at least their management.
Action: Identify the natural leaders on your team and meet with them to ask their perspective on the team’s performance and how it can be improved (if need be). You may be surprised by the answers you receive.
Until next week…
Shawn Stratton is an international leadership and team building consultant, professional speaker, bestselling author, Ironman competitor, and expedition guide.
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