Team leaders: Dare change your style to stay in business

06 December 2017
author picture Article written by Vincent Halluent

Being a team leader in a context of uncertainty is an issue of our times. More and more changes are taking place at a dizzying pace. They range from global market volatility to high employee turnover rates to digital challenges … the list goes on. How do you prepare for these roller-coaster rides while striking a balance between the well-being of people and performances? Team-based employee empowerment is a key part of the answer.

Scandinavian countries are often referred to as exemplary models of managerial cultures that grant organizational latitude to teams. Belgium and France are not quite there yet, albeit for different reasons. Empowering autonomous teams in the face of both internal and external clients takes a gradual shift at the management level from a broad focus on operational functioning to managing social dynamics. Transforming managerial cultures may seem a daunting task, but a rigorous and systematic approach to change can bring effective and long-lasting results.

Managerial model: where do you stand?

In her landmark research, Erin Meyer (2017) highlights two significant dimensions of leadership culture: authority and decision-making. Attitudes toward one or the other differ across the globe[1]. The resulting combination forms the basis of four management styles impacting teamwork in very different ways, from New-York to Stockholm, Paris to Brussels.


Even though flat structures and informal relationships typify the US culture (egalitarian style), the leader still remains the final decision-maker (top-down style). Scandinavian countries are another case in point of cultures being more egalitarian than hierarchical, but more consensual than top-down. Decisions go through a process involving team members with the “boss” acting as facilitator (down position). By contrast, France displays a top-down hierarchical management style that pushes decisions down and leaves little space for impromptu discussions or rejection. In Belgium, the situation is more nuanced with people speaking up to assist the decision-making process but following in the steps of the leader ever after. The question that follows from the above is “how to create a relationship of equals and foster a co-responsibility and consensus-based decision-making process as a management culture”?

Managers are there to help the team thrive.

The whole challenge is to give teams more leeway in performing operational activities (i.e, internal and external customer relationships, products and workflow). In this alternative scenario, managers are expected to focus on group dynamics, on systemic team work - that is to say the relationships between team members (i.e conflicts, triangulations, ...) - and overall compliance with the working framework (methods and tools, assessments and reporting, regulatory constraints…). It basically means shifting the locus of decision-making authority from managers to team members (and more specifically to co-responsible team members) for everything that comes under the category “business as usual” (BAU). For instance, does the workload have to be redistributed among members, for whatever reason? It is up to the team to fix the “how”. Is a new initiative triggering resistance? It is up to the manager to find the root causes of the problem and provide guidance. In a nutshell, managers should adopt a “down position” with respect to daily operations and focus on “the people side” to help the team thrive, even more so in periods of transition.  

Made of hundreds of interactions each day, teams are in a constant state of flux. Managers or better said, team leaders, will benefit from a sound understanding of these complex systems and their governing principles. Systems theory may greatly assist them in identifying processes and actions that hinder team effectiveness.

Slowly but steadily.

Obviously, managers will not change their working routines overnight. Nor will teams become autonomous because they are told to. According to Lencioni[2], building cohesive and effective teams requires an explicit effort to sort out five prevalent dysfunctions plaguing group dynamics. By focusing on trust issues, managers may help members open up and engage in fruitful discussions. That is the only way to prevent withdrawal attitudes leading to conflict avoidance and artificial harmony. Confrontation and debate help clarify and set collective goals, driving commitment. When members hold each other accountable for outcomes, performance standards rise. And where egos do not supersede teamwork, spirit and success, there is a genuine possibility for a more egalitarian and consensual management culture to flourish.

Transforming management cultures is no walk in the park. It takes a structured approach to change management such as the ADKAR methodology of PROSCI to mitigate risks and consolidate results in the long run. Nothing could be more counterproductive than to declare the change and “take the big leap”.

For the new culture to take root - paradoxical as it may seem -, it is crucial to help managers to play their role of “transformers” while they go through their own cultural change. With Change Management, managers give meaning to the new culture and advocate it. They play a liaising role that helps relay difficulties experienced in the field to higher levels. They manage resistances and take their coaching role “from a down position” by the onset of the process of transformation.

See the full Change Management for Managers Program. 

[1] Meyer, E. (2017) Being the boss in Brussels, Boston or Beijing in: Harvard Business Review, July-August.

[2] Lencioni, M. (2002) The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. San Francisco: Jossey Bass. The five dysfunctions have originally been expressed as followed: lack of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, inattention to results. 

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