Why Teams Are the Key to Leadership and Leadership the Key to Teams

It shouldn’t surprise us that leaders often talk about the best moments in their careers as when their teams really clicked; or that high performing teams often credit their leaders. The complex relationship between leadership and teams is one of the most discussed areas of organisational performance, yet it is surprisingly difficult to pin down a winning ‘formula’.

Here we look at this relationship a little closer and, using the findings of neuroscience, suggest how progressive organisations should approach it so that teams are the solution, not the problem.

Traditional Approaches to Teams

The old industrial systems of mass production formed the basis of the traditional approach to leading teams. Essentially they were built on top-down management and often a micro-management system. However, as Lawrence Miller notes in his book Lean Teams: Developing the Team-Based Organization: they couldn’t last because essentially they were a ‘violation of the natural human social and psychological system.’

Such traditional approaches provided a system of management aimed at getting a team to perform (often based on fear and threat, military style) but not a social system that addressed the needs of the people in the team. This arrived with the Toyota Production System that began to be more people-focused.

It is not surprising in this day and age, when social needs are catered for in every walk of life (just consider social media) that a leadership approach that addresses these in the workplace is a necessity.

The Influence of Neuroscience

At the same time that the real needs of people were starting to be considered in team models for the workplace, neuroscience was starting to discover more and more about human behaviour. The advances in technology in the past 15-20 years sparked this.

Many of the findings confirmed and consolidated what was suspected before and others shed new light on how the brain works, why people behave the way they do, and what they need to function at a high level.

Importantly, neuroscience showed that our fundamental desire to feel part of a team is hard-wired into our primitive brains, contributing to our sense of belonging and self-value. Thus the team is directly connected to our sense of personal fulfillment and our overall level of happiness – and always was.

Understandably, this was soon applied to the workplace. Most of the previous models suffered from the fact that, once applied in the fast-paced, high pressure, stressful workplace conditions they often fell short. Conflicts would arise and performance would suffer – but neuroscience could help with combating this too.

Needs, Conflict and Leadership

The best approaches not only recognise team members’ needs, like in the RELISH model that identifies the six needs of all high performance teams, but they consider workplace environment too; they address conflict and show how, in any given team, there will be a number of different strategic mindsets present. Understanding this, expecting it and countering it can have incredibly positive effects and turn around potentially destructive conflict into positive creative energy.

The most successful teams are planned and deliberate, not simply put together by chance. And the most successful organisations are able to replicate the success of teams in one department or level, across the whole organisation. This is a real challenge as, even though the fundamental needs of the team remain the same at any level, the organisation needs to have the right leaders with the right capabilities working on the right level.

Often we see leaders working on the ‘wrong level’, because they have been promoted too quickly or not enough thought has gone into the appointment: the right ‘leadership pipeline’ is not in place. This affects the performance of the whole organisation.

High performing teams do not simply aim to get a problem solved quickly or a project completed on time; they are structured by leaders working at the right level, with a good knowledge of the needs of team members and an understanding of the potential conflicts that can arise. The behavioural adjustments necessary then become part of a more natural process of inside-out change. This directly affects the success and satisfaction levels of a leader, as well as that of the team and the organisation as a whole.

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