Stanford Professor: How Great Leaders Give Their Teams ‘Hierarchical Agility’
More diversity. Less hierarchy. Tackle problems quickly.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Whether you're a coder or marketer at a five-person startup or you're one of tens of thousands of employees at a sprawling multinational company, the one thing you can be certain of is that you'll be working in one or more teams.
Teams are the most fundamental unit around which every company is organized. When teams work well, companies design, produce, and ship great products and services. And the most successful leaders in any organization tend to be the ones who can build and motivate teams to achieve common goals.
"One of the clearest signs of an experienced leader is the attention she pays to her people and her teams," notes Lindred Greer, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. "Everything in a company is determined by the quality of team dynamics, and the ability to effectively lead teams is at the heart of managerial success."
Greer has spent her career studying teams, which she defines as "groups of three to ten people who work together interdependently toward a common task." And from her research she has developed a deep understanding of what makes teams effective. In a recent article on Stanford's website, Greer shared three suggestions for building and managing effective teams.
1. Build diverse teams.
Greer is mystified by the lack of planning behind many of the teams that are formed at companies, particularly startups, which has been a recent focus of her research. Companies that put some thought into the composition of their teams are likely to build ones that are more successful. And successful teams, as research demonstrates, are diverse teams.
"Members should have different ways of thinking, different backgrounds and styles of work, different expertise. Bring optimists and pessimists together; pair risk-takers with risk-avoiders; balance genders. In other words, design a team around complementary but distinct attitudes and strengths."
While encouraging diversity, Greer also cautions against the possibility of a divergence in goals among team members. That's why she suggests laying down clear goals and ground rules in advance. "Every team should take part in an orientation in which goals are stated explicitly, benchmarks are established, and responsibilities of each team member are made clear."
2. Introduce "hierarchical agility."
Every team has a leader, but bringing power dynamics into team meetings, Greer has shown, "often corrupts team interactions, stifles creativity and honesty, and ultimately diminishes outcomes." To address this issue, Greer recommends "hierarchical agility--the ability of a team to flex its hierarchy throughout the day so that sometimes the group is flat and sometimes it follows the line."
And how to make a team flat? Greer offers a few practical ideas, like passing an object around to give everyone at the meeting a chance to say something. Body language is also important, and she suggests leaders consider leaning back from a table to signal they are handing over the supervision of the meeting to someone else on the team, at least temporarily.
And make sure conversations are rooted in data, she urges. "This helps enormously because data is a currency that everyone has access to," Greer says.
3. Spot (and fix) problems early.
Spotting and fixing problems as they arise within a team is another recommendation Greer offers. Left alone, small issues become bigger ones, and can disrupt team dynamics.
In her experience, Greer has noticed that even seemingly trivial struggles between team members could signal more serious underlying problems on the team. Team members who believe they've been passed over for a promotion or lack certain responsibilities might express their frustration in other areas. To tackle this, "stop the meeting short and go offline" with the person, Greer says. "Find what's driving the conflict and resolve that issue."
If team members aren't speaking up in meetings, managers should proactively try to address this. "Pay attention to small details, like where they (and others) sit in meetings and how this effects conversation, or how their responses to ideas influence whether people speak up," suggests Greer.
BY Amanda Pressner Kreuser