Is it a bad boss, or a case of Leadership Deficit Disorder?
Ok: a bad boss might be the reason your 9-to-5 sucks. If your boss plays favorites, belittles you, lies, and/or flirts, that’s pretty bad. Or maybe you’ve got a “pigeon boss” — the kind who you never see… Until they fly in, shit all over everything, then fly right back out. That’s pretty bad, too.
But let’s say your boss isn’t a liar or a pigeon. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re an effective leader, either. Plenty of well-intentioned managers are unintentionally harmful to their teams. I’ve worked with hundreds of teams, so I’ve seen ineffective (or non-existent) leadership and the damage it does first hand.
A special breed of team dysfunction sets in, best described as “Leadership Deficit Disorder”.
You might assume that it’s someone else’s job to fix things. And while you’re waiting around for that to happen, you can either 1) continue suffering; or 2) leave the team. But that’s not true. It’s everyone’s job to fix it.
Let’s take a look at the symptoms of Leadership Deficit Disorder (we’ll call it LDD for short), the risks to you and your team if it’s left untreated, and ways to reverse this morale-draining team dysfunction.
Recognizing the signs of Leadership Deficit Disorder
Leadership Deficit Disorder isn’t necessarily the lack of a leader. It’s the lack of effective leadership. And it can strike just about any type of team: product development teams, project-oriented teams like HR and finance, or service teams like IT, customer support, and design.
Cross-functional teams have their own version of this struggle. They’ve come together from different parts of the organization to work on a project, but nobody’s bothered to establish who is in charge. Or worse, everyone assumes they’re in charge and heads off in different directions.
The three most prevalent symptoms of LDD revolve around accountability, clarity, and trust.
“I don’t know who is accountable.”
If you’re an IT service desk team, for example, it’s pretty clear who is accountable: your manager or team lead. But if you’re on a cross-functional project team, or in a matrix organization where people report to multiple managers (known as “dotted line” and “solid line” reporting), it can be about as clear as mud.
Tell-tale sign: A question is asked of the team, and you all look at each other waiting for the somebody (anybody!) to answer. “It’s definitely not my place to speak up here,” you think. “But who should?”
“My teammates don’t trust each other.”
I’ve worked with teams who pretend to agree, but then a few team members continue the conversation off to the side. They’re trying to push for what they think is best, but inadvertently breed distrust in the process. Those who’ve already rallied behind the decision feel undermined when they discover their teammates consider the conversation to still be open.
But trust issues are sneaky and don’t always bubble up to the surface in dramatic ways. If your team is afflicted by a mysterious malaise or disconnect that you just can’t shake, it might be due to a lack of trust.
Tell-tale sign: You ask your teammates for an opinion, and are met with silence. Or meetings that end with a “let’s meet again to discuss further” because nothing was decided.
“Our purpose and priorities are unclear.”
You don’t see how your work fits into a larger picture, which means you can’t figure out what’s high-priority vs. what’s negotiable. Too often, leaders implicitly understand why the work is important, but fail to communicate that to the team. Without a shared sense of purpose, your team is left wallowing in an existential crisis.
Tell-tale sign: You know what you’re doing… but you have no idea why.
Long-term risks of LDD
If left untreated, LDD is hazardous to you personally and to your team’s health. First, low morale will quietly rot your team from the inside out. You’re pulled every which-way by conflicting priorities. You don’t trust each other. You bury your head in the sand like an ostrich, and get ready to be whacked.
Second, your career suffers because you’re not collecting new feathers to put in your cap. You’re not growing, but the world around you is. And it’s leaving you behind.
But don’t despair. Leadership is personal, not positional. You (yes, you!) can take the initiative, and set your team on the path to health.
Recommended treatments for LDD
Leadership Deficit Disorder is just as toxic as a bad boss. That’s the bad news. The good news is that LDD is easier to remedy (and nobody has to leave the team!).
1. Project kick-offs
For project-based teams, especially where team members report to different managers, a proper project kick-off goes a long way. I know, I know… we all hate meetings whose purpose is to “level set” or “get everyone on the same page”. So don’t structure it that way. Put whatever information you need to share in writing and have your teammates read that before the kick-off.
Then use the meeting for activities and discussions that will make the project work go faster:
- Define the scope — Discuss what’s in, what’s out, and what’s a nice-to have.
- Estimate a timeline — It’s not a blood-oath at this stage. Just take a swag at what milestones you’ll track, what work is needed to get you there, and when you’re likely to hit them.
- Identify trade-offs — Schedule, scope, quality, cost, customer delight… We want it all, but we always have to compromise. Deciding which aspects of your project are most (and least) negotiable up front helps you make decisions faster when you move into execution mode.
- Define success — What does “adequate” look like? What does “amazing” look like? Come up with a wild-ass goal as a team helps keep everyone energized throughout the project.
These are just four ideas for your project kick-off agenda. Get nine more, and detailed instructions for all 13, from the Atlassian Team Playbook — a totally free resource, no strings attached.
2. Structured decision-making
Somewhere along the line, the concept of teamwork got confused with everybody reaching consensus on every decision. That’s just plain unnecessary — and inefficient, to boot. Instead of being slaves to consensus, give each member of the team an appropriate role to play in decision-making.
The DACI framework works really well for large- and medium-sized decisions, especially when the outcome affects how others will go about their work.
You have a driver (D) who is responsible for making sure the decision gets made in a timely manner. There is one — yes, one! — approver (A) who ultimately makes the call. One or more contributors © weigh in with subject-matter expertise and recommendations. And people whose work will be affected by the outcome are informed (I) once the decision is reached.
Healthy teams I’ve worked with have a default DACI, along with a handshake agreement to adjust it as needed.
Grab a downloadable DACI template and check out a real-life example from the Atlassian engineering department.
3. Clearly defined roles
Sometimes the things that “go without saying” are the things that most need to be said! Don’t just assume your teammates share your understanding of what each person is responsible for. Same goes for people you interact with on other teams.
It’s useful to get people in a room and map out exactly what work everyone does. Where are the dependencies? Are there holes in coverage? Or opportunities to shift someone’s focus to a new area that can benefit the team?
I’ve done this with single teams, as well as with entire departments, and the benefit was immediately apparent. Misunderstandings are resolved. Gaps get filled. Bottlenecks ease up.
Full instructions for this “roles and responsibilities” exercise await you in the Atlassian Team Playbook.
4. Track team health
Your team probably feels pretty un-healthy right now. And you probably remember (or can imagine) what it feels like to be on a healthy team. But how do you know you’re moving in a positive direction? You treat your team like the living, breathing organism it is: check in periodically and track your progress.
At Atlassian, we developed a system called the Team Health Monitor for identifying your team’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s like going to the doctor for a physical… but a bit less invasive.
During a Health Monitor workshop, you’ll self-assess against eight attributes of healthy teams using a simple red/yellow/green rating for each. By the end, you’ll have a plan to work on one of your weak areas. Then you’ll follow up with 10-minute checkpoints to get a read on whether you’re making progress in your red areas and flush out any green areas that are on a downward trend.
Where can you find Health Monitor instructions, videos, downloadable templates, and ways to strengthen your weak spots? You guessed it: the Atlassian Team Playbook.
You don’t have to live with LDD
Teams with a bad boss and teams with Leadership Deficit Disorder experience many of the same pains, so it’s easy to mistake one for the other. But the root causes are different, as are the cures.
Don’t wait for someone else to step in and make things right. Anyone on your team can get the ball rolling. Work with your manager, not against them. There’s no point in telling them what a lack-luster job they’ve been doing. Instead, channel that frustration into getting your team on road to recovery.
You may not be in the driver’s seat, but you still have some influence over where you’re going and how comfortable the ride is.
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Also published at Atlassian Blogs.