Long back in my career as I took on the responsibility of being a team leader, I thought I was on a good path. My intentions were above board and all I wanted was for my team to progress and shine. In that spirit, I called our first team meeting and set about sharing something really cool and new with my brand new team. Their reaction, which was mostly silence, told me that I was the only one who was excited. The ones who would execute the new plans weren't the least bit curious or enthusiastic. I was new to them and vice versa, I had got to a good start I thought, but I hadn't obviously.
I stepped back and thought over my interaction with my team thus far. I had missed something for sure. Over time, as I went about addressing major and minor concerns and reasons for their disengagement, I realised how easy it is to both include and alienate our team through actions that we don't even think about as important. This happens swiftly and stays with the person until we realise what's happening and address it.
Wouldn't it be great to not fall into these traps as much as possible, so there is less apologising and less time spent in disentangling relationships when we could have been enjoying them instead?
Inclusive Leaders don't expend more energy on connecting with their team than do ordinary leaders who end up excluding their team.
Small acts of neglect and disinterest over time entrench the team in a culture that says, we don't really care about you, but we need you to work hard and show results. Do leaders who exclude their teams have bad intentions? Probably not. Though most of them don't realise that their behaviour has far-reaching effects on the team, one way or another.
Here are 7 behaviours you can watch out for that might be excluding and alienating your team, and saying to them that you don't really care.
#1 Neglect to say hello in the morning
If you have a team that sits around you or is likely to bump into you, then do make it a point to say hello when you see them for the first time during the day. Instead of starting a work conversation the moment you lay eyes on them, smile and say hello first. Maybe, the team member was saying good morning, and you went right over that and landed in the thick of an update. We don't just throw people when we neglect to greet them properly, but tell them that they aren't really people, just things that get stuff done.
#2 Use appreciation as a tactic
Appreciation is a powerful non-monetary reward and a motivator for many of us. We might not be as pumped with a salary hike as with an email of appreciation that is marked to senior leaders in the team. Appreciation matters, but when we remember to appreciate people only when giving them more work, asking them a favour or when the person is threatening to quit, we are beating the purpose of the compliment. Not just did we fail to genuinely appreciate the team member, they most likely think we are using them to get what we want. Manipulation is a sure shot way of exclusion. Appreciation is not a tactic, it's a time-sensitive tool for engagement and motivation.
#3 Fail to make eye contact
Ever had a boss who would invariably be distracted when you were speaking to them? Several of us might find this hugely annoying when we want to have a chat with our leader, but they insist on making eye contact with their laptop or phone while we struggle to get their attention. Not everyone is comfortable with eye contact at close quarters. Yet, leaders need to practice it and get comfortable because the eyes are the windows to our soul, after all. If we aren't looking at the person, then we are likely not listening either, and therefore, not that interested in their career. And a team member who's career is not your priority will soon be on their way out.
#4 Ignore the team in subtle ways
You are having a team meeting, but you end up talking to one or two people you are closest to, who've won your trust and do most of the work. The rest of the team is not sure why they are there and if you even care they are listening. While it's a team meeting, they know that it really isn't. Most team members feel ignored and begin to suspect if it's such a good idea to be somewhere they are clearly not valued or spoken to directly. You may have less time on your hands, but it takes literally fractions of a second to pan the room or call your virtual team member by their name to let them know you acknowledge their presence and that they matter to you.
#5 You spend most of your time with your boss
You have a team, but you also have a leader you report in to. They are likely giving you chunks of work and discussing important actions. That's great, and the more clarity you have from your own leader, the more clarity you can give to your team. At the same time, you are bound to your team, not so much to your own boss. The more time you spend with that person, the less you spend with your team. Also, when teams watch their leader constantly be in meetings with their boss, they wonder what's going on and if they know everything. If your team ends up knocking on your bosses door just to get your attention, then you are probably spending too much time away from your them.
#6 Pretend to collaborate after taking a decision
I've been in meetings where my team leader had already decided the course of action, something that would affect our way of working and our timelines. Yet, they approached the meeting as if to take our inputs and decide the way ahead together. We all knew we were part of a mock meeting, more about saving face and posturing and much less about what we thought. Think how demotivating and deflating it would have been to be part of such a meeting. People don't appreciate being toyed with, none of us do. It's so much better to come clean and confide that you didn't have a choice in the matter and there were compelling reasons to have taken a decision without the team's participation. Most reasonable people would understand and focus on how best to navigate a tough situation and work together to make the best of it.
#7 Let the team take the blame
Nothing excludes faster than breaching trust. A team leader has the tough responsibility of having the buck stop at their desk. No matter how much the team may have messed up, you can't name them to your leaders and say, it wan't your fault, but so and so messed up. This may sound unusual, but happens far too frequently behind closed doors. The team member may never know they were singled out until it was too late and they bear the consequences of being told on. While the responsibility of the work is on a specific team member, the accountability of their success or failure is on the leader. This is a hard place to be, but without this, you can't cultivate commitment, engagement and the spirit of being a team. When we sacrifice someone we were meant to guide, we send a message loud and clear about our real intentions and the strength of our character.
You can act in tiny ways that tell people you care about them and that their presence makes a difference to you. When we do that, we are taking our leadership to the next level. Including a team doesn't take as much hard work or extra time, it's a question of awareness and intention instead.