What's Really Going On? Understanding Team Dynamics Without Undermining Leaders

Imagine this scenario: You’ve recently promoted a leader in your organization to bring some new energy to an important area of the business. Things seemed to be going well at first, however recently you’ve noticed a few signs that indicate not everything is going as smoothly as you had hoped. You’ve overheard a few grumblings from some of the junior members of the team, and you’ve detected a bit of frustration from one of your rising stars who reports to the new leader.


What should you do? Of course, you’ll want to speak directly with your new leader – that’s an obvious. However, it might be helpful to get a broader understanding of the situation by talking with others in the organization, perhaps even with some of the junior team members. Or an informal conversation with one or more of them might happen anyway.


The catch, of course, is that you must be careful not to step on the toes of the leader you've put in place while you seek to understand what might be going on. Breaking the chain of command could potentially undermine your leaders and the authority you have given to them, if your interactions are not handled with care.


You’ll want to ensure every individual, regardless of their rank, feels supported in their role, sees opportunities to grow, and is committed to being on the learning journey.


Team dynamics is a multifaceted -- and sometimes confusing – issue leaders must continually monitor. There are many challenges and strategies to consider. Let’s think first about the challenges you might face as you look for the best way to handle this nuanced situation. 


Challenges to Consider
There are a number of things you might encounter in this type of situation. Here are a few questions to ask yourself and some thoughts to consider around a few common challenges.


Respecting the chain of command
What is the right balance for you to achieve here when it comes to your chain of command? It’s important to consider how you can maintain the integrity of the organizational structure while ensuring that issues and concerns at lower levels are addressed.


You don’t want to create an environment where, as a first option, team members are going around their leader to address a concern. So this is something to weigh carefully as you proceed.


Diversity of leadership styles

Is this more of a leadership style issue? Different leaders can have very different styles. This should be perfectly acceptable in a healthy organization, as long as a leader’s style aligns with and supports the organization’s culture and values.


That’s not to say anything goes, however. You want to avoid enabling a leadership style that negatively impacts other team members or team effectiveness. You’ll want to consider how this specific leader is showing up with their team, and if there are any changes that you want to coach this leader to make that would smooth some of the bumps the team is experiencing.


Effectiveness of communication channels
Are the right conversations happening at the team level? Open and transparent communication is ideal, but sometimes it gets left by the wayside in difficult conversations or when teams are struggling to work well together.

Evaluating the lines of communication you currently have in your organization, both formal and informal, will be important here. This can help you determine if employees at all levels feel empowered to share insights and feedback constructively and that 1:1 conversations are happening regularly between team members and leaders.


Open, transparent communication is ideal. But sometimes it gets

left by the wayside in difficult conversations.

This could be a topic to bring up with your communications, HR and leadership teams as well. In so doing, you can encourage everyone to step back and ask how well things are working – and what could be better.


You might also want to determine how frequently conversations among team members seem to be devolving into gossip and complaints rather than focusing on productive dialogue. This could be a clue that your culture needs some attention.


Professional growth and support
Do you have talent initiatives that promote individual team member growth and development, as well as (if not more importantly) your leaders’ growth and development to hone their leadership skills? 


This challenge is a good one to reflect on to ensure every individual, regardless of their rank, feels supported in their role, sees opportunities to learn and advance in their career, and is committed to being on the learning journey.


Now that we’ve considered a few challenges you might face, let’s take a closer look at some practical strategies you can implement that could help you address this situation.


Strategies to Try
There are a number of strategies that could help you check on the culture and effectiveness of your team while supporting and encouraging the leaders you’ve put in place.


This balancing act requires that you take some time to ensure you have a good understanding of your people and how they work together. You’ll also need to take thoughtful action to get your new leader and their team back on track while also promoting the long-term health of your organization.


Here are a few strategies you could implement:


Empower your leaders to adopt a coaching mindset
Set an expectation for your leadership team that you would like to see them adopt a coaching mindset. This is one of the healthiest ways to lead – when we have the best interests of our team members at heart and want to do what we can as leaders to help them grow and succeed in their roles.


One of the ways leaders can demonstrate a coaching mindset is to hold periodic 1:1 check-ins with their team members simply to get a pulse on the relationship. In these informal conversations, leaders can ask open-ended questions such as:

    • How can I better support you?
    • What could I do more/less of as a leader to help you be effective in your role?
    • Are the ways in which we communicate working well? If not, what could be better?

These types of non-judgmental questions (and here are a few more), asked in a sincerely curious manner, can help to create a safer environment for honest upward feedback. This approach on your part also reinforces the value of a proper working chain of command by empowering leaders at all levels to be directly involved in their team's development and well-being. In addition, team members will be less likely to go around their leader if they feel they can have open dialogue with them.


Focus on leadership effectiveness over leadership style
While recognizing the diversity of leadership styles in your organization, you’ll want to keep an eye on how well a leader’s style aligns with the organization's culture and values. Talk with your leaders about how they are showing up. Encourage them to adopt a leadership style that is authentic to them, yes. But at the same time, challenge them to consider how their personal style might impact their team and how they might need to adapt their style to foster a more positive working environment.


You can also consider implementing workshops or training sessions to help team members understand and adapt to different leadership styles, and how they can develop their own style as they grow in their careers. This type of training can raise awareness about the topic of leadership in general, while also providing practical tools and fostering an environment of mutual respect and understanding.


Encourage direct communication
There are many situations where you might have informal conversations with junior team members without their leader(s) present, for example, at a team social gathering, or at a training or conference. This can be a helpful way to build camaraderie and emphasize a sense of care and nurturing throughout your organization.


However, you want to be sure that you are supporting those leaders who are not present. If a concern comes up in conversation, let them know you’ve heard them. Then encourage junior team members to bring it to their immediate supervisor. This not only respects the chain of command but also strengthens the leader-member relationship by building trust and openness.


If the conversation goes further, you can ask questions like:


    • What is something you can do that would help in this situation?
    • How can the organization be of help?

These questions keep the focus on finding a solution rather than inviting criticism of their leader.


Finally, you can always encourage an employee to seek the assistance of the organization’s HR resource, if that would be useful in navigating a team dynamics issue.


A word of caution…
One thing to be careful of whenever you have informal conversations with junior team members: Don’t allow the conversation to invite a comparison between their leader and other leaders in the organization in inappropriate ways.


You can watch for this if someone begins says they don’t “like” their leader or how glad they are they are no longer reporting to “that” leader in the organization, or how much they wished they worked for another leader (or you!).


If you see this happening, you can make a mental note to follow up with the leader in question to explore what might be going on.

In the moment, however, you should encourage the team member to focus on how they can strive to work effectively with whoever their leader is. We all have to adapt, to some degree, in order to work effectively with others at all levels. This is just a normal part of building an effective team.


Plus, if this team member can show a bit of grace to their leader (and vice versa), it could go a long way toward building a productive relationship over the long run. The world is complex, and people are not perfect. We would do well to give each other a break every now and then. We are all on the learning journey – even (and especially) leaders.


Implement a culture check-in and 360-review process
Consider establishing an annual employee-wide culture check-in as well as a periodic 360-review process for leaders so that team members throughout the organization can provide valuable insights into your culture and on specific leaders' effectiveness.


Making both the culture check-in and the 360-review process anonymous ensures honest and constructive feedback. This also helps leaders to keep their focus less on who said what and more on how they can identify specific areas to work on.


I use the Hogan 360 Assessment with many of the leaders and teams that I work with. I can recommend this tool as one that is efficient, effective and affordable. 


Hold diagonal conversations
Another useful strategy is to create opportunities for 'diagonal' conversations that cut across the traditional lines of reporting. These are direct, more formal conversations that can happen between leaders and team members, regardless of rank. A diagonal conversation can be a practical way of providing leaders with a broader perspective on the organization's functioning. It can also help to uncover valuable insights that might not surface in a strictly hierarchical communication structure.


There are many ways you can enable diagonal conversations. For example, scheduling a monthly meeting where team members from various departments and levels are invited to talk with you in a small-group setting about the business or other important topics (e.g. culture, values, future trends).


As a first step, I encourage you to talk with your leadership team about the idea. Ask them how they might suggest you structure diagonal conversations. What are the things they want you to observe? To do or not do? While they might be a bit cautious about this idea, remind them that your goal is to encourage openness and transparency in the organization. While some topics are best handled in 1:1 conversations between leaders and their team members, other topics benefit from being discussed and addressed more broadly. Help them see the value of this and to not be overly concerned about what might surface.

One of the strategies I implemented with some good success at my agency was scheduling a quarterly “Breakfast with the CEO” for employees at various levels throughout the organization (with a particular emphasis on new employees). More than muffins and chitchat, these gatherings were designed for both give and take. I shared some of the history of our company, highlighting key turning points, lessons learned, how we crafted our company values, and where we were headed in the future.


Then I opened it up to Q-and-A, inviting any question at all. This gave me a chance to listen and learn what was on their minds and to spot any potential concerns or patterns I was noticing. Then, importantly, I would bring these things back to my leadership team for broader discussion, as well as taking individual items to a particular leader to note, if appropriate.

Navigating the challenges of leadership and ensuring organizational effectiveness at every level is a complex but achievable goal. By adopting a strategic approach that respects the chain of command while fostering open communication, continuous learning, and adaptability, leaders can build strong, resilient teams capable of navigating the complexities of the modern business landscape. Remember, the goal is not just to manage but to inspire, not just to direct but to empower. In doing so, leaders can cultivate an environment where every team member feels valued, understood, and motivated to contribute to the organization's success.

Written By

Elise Mitchell

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