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3 Ways Leaders Can Create a Seriously Engaged Team

You have probably heard the saying, “If you want to get a different result, ask a different question.” When it comes to leading teams to solve complex problems, we often forget this simple rule.

In my last post, I talked about the importance of taking your team out of the realm of “familiar opinions.” When you are living inside of the process day in and day out, it is easy to get comfortable with your view on the problem. Our tendency, mostly due to our lizard brains, is to simplify what we are experiencing so that we make sense of it. And the longer we have been involved in a process, the worse this simplification of what we see gets.

As a team leader, it will be your job (along with a facilitator) to guard against allowing the team to get stuck in this zone of familiarity. But how do you challenge your team while supporting and encouraging them to pursue thinking more deeply about the problem?

The first trap you must avoid is the most common mistake team leaders make.

“My team is stuck. Let me help them out by giving them ideas and my thoughts.”

In Roger Schwarz’s book, “Smart Leader, Smarter Teams: How You and Your Team Get Unstuck to Get Results,” he lists four specific behaviors leaders can use to support team engagement:

  • State views and as genuine questions
  • Share all relevant information
  • Use specific examples and agree on what important words mean
  • Explain reasoning and intent

As Shwarz explains, “It’s one thing to say you value transparency, curiosity, and accountability, along with informed choice and compassion. But it’s another thing to act that way.”

These behaviors are four of a list of eight mutual learning behaviors that help open the conversation between team leaders and their team.

In working with teams on complex issues, I have noted three simple ways that leaders can support their teams to engage and express their views openly.

Lead by being transparent

If you want your team to be transparent, you will have to lead by example. The best leaders I have observed can deliver a clear and authentic message that states what they know, what they don’t know, and concerns that they currently have about the problem. Teams will feel more confident hearing their leader confirm what they know and what they don’t know.  Hearing the leader’s concerns about the issue helps the team understand the gaps and where their thoughts about the problem may be aligning with the leader’s views.

As previously mentioned, the one thing that leaders must guard against is sharing their thoughts on solutions to the problem. If the team believes that the leader has already decided, it will cause them to shut down. What’s the point of asking the group to offer their recommendations if the leader has already determined what needs to be done?

Ask questions and listen

How you engage the team in discussions matters. Stating your opinions early in the process can lead the team to bias their views to fit that of the leader. Asking genuine questions driven by your curiosity models this behavior to the team. And it also shows them that you are genuinely interested in their perspective.

Krista Brookman, vice president of the Inclusive Leadership Initiative at Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that seeks to expand opportunities for women and business, says leaders should consider questions to be a way to open doors and start important conversations.  She says, “Good questions create good dialogue.”  In Stephanie Sozza’s Fast Company article “How to Ask Better Questions,” she gives leaders five ways you can start asking better questions.

Tell a story

It is easy to start by explaining your position or detailing out why you believe the item under review is important.  The best leaders understand that explaining can quickly turn into what sounds more like a lecture. Instead, they find a story or two that can connect to the team in a meaningful way. Describing the problem as a story with a person as the central character also helps the team see the people side of the problem. Creating a story for your problem doesn’t have to be complicated.  Dianna Booher’s Fast Company article gives us “7 Tips for Great Storytelling as a Leader.” Be sure to tell a story that is relevant to the team’s understanding and avoid language that is unfamiliar (e.g. acronyms or specific industry terminology not commonly understood).

Above all, remember that one of the signs of an engaged team is that they are doing the talking.  If you are still experiencing silence after trying these tips, it may be a sign of deeper problems with team dynamics.

What is the most challenging experience you have had with engaging a team?

Rebecca Mott is a GovLoop Featured Contributor. She is a self-proclaimed change agent and continuous improvement leader with over 20 years of utility industry experience leading technical teams to solve problems. She currently coaches leaders and teams to apply Lean Six Sigma methodologies and engage by focusing on the power of “we.”

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