Developing Team Leaders

Team working is based on the principle that people are given as much responsibility, authority and autonomy as they can handle. The focus of team leader development is on equipping individuals, often used to more traditional command and control structures, with the skills and knowledge they need to build their teams into effective, self-managing work units, ultimately requiring little in the way of management control. The following ideas summarize just a few of the lessons which we have learned from our own experiences of team leader development.

Creating a team culture and identity

Effective team leaders will need to ensure that there is a cohesive, shared understanding of the team’s task and the part which individual team members will play in achieving that. They will also need to ensure that there is a shared identity and values set within the team, i.e., a team ‘culture’ which is espoused by all team members. Clear communication is the critical key to success in this respect.

One model which we have found effective in helping team leaders to understand their role as communicator is that used by Plunkett and Fournier (Participative Management: Implementing Empowerment, 1991). They suggest that team leaders need to provide and facilitate clear communication about four key issues: team goals, team roles, team processes and team relationships.

The table below suggests a number of questions which can be used to clarify team leaders’ thinking about the basic information needs of their team in relation to each of these four issues:

Team issue

Key questions to which teams need clear answers

Team goals

Why are we here?

What is our function?

What are we expected to achieve?

How will we know whether we are succeeding?

Team roles

Why me?

Why everybody else?

What do I bring to the team that is ‘special’ or ‘unique’ to its purpose?

How does this fit in with the contributions of others?

Team processes

How are we going to manage our work?

How are we going to organize ourselves?

How will we keep each other informed?

How will we deal with decisions, problems, conflicts, etc.?

Team relationships

Who’s who in the team and what are our implications?

How often will we meet?

What ‘ground rules’ will we set for our team relationships?

How will we manage relationships with others outside the team?

Team leaders need to understand that, where clear answers are not given to these and other questions, the ability of the team to perform will be severely constrained. Team members will lack:

In most situations, working with the team to discuss and answer these questions collaboratively can, in itself, be a valuable team building exercise.

Stages in team development

Groups of individuals do not automatically form themselves into teams just because they are ‘thrown’ together. The process of team building takes place gradually as the individuals involved settle into the team context and develop their working relationships.

Team leaders have a critical role to play in guiding and facilitating the team through the team building process. The Tuckman model (1977) is an excellent start point from which to develop team leaders’ understanding of the various stages of development which a team may go through, and the role which they will need to play in facilitating the transition between one stage and the next.

The Tuckman model identifies a pattern of development which is consistent with all teams as they learn to work together. There are four key stages each identifiable by its own behavioural characteristics and particular set of potential problems:



Potential Blocks to Development



Searching for common ground.

Avoidance of controversy

Dependency on leadership guidance.

Lack of clarity re. goals, roles, processes and relationships.

Reticence about expressing ideas; tendency to ‘groupthink’.


Intense debate, polarising language.

Strong, uncompromising positions and views.

Mounting frustration experienced by many.

Silence, withdrawal by some

Leadership tested and challenged.

Lack of consensus/agreement on a way forward.

Competition between individuals vying for team positions.

Interpersonal conflict.

Leader unable to assert authority and control.


Desire to ‘fit in’ and participate.

Devising, testing and appraising methods.

Open, constructive communication about problems and solutions.

Need for facilitating rather than directing leadership.

Unequal contribution and participation in team working processes.

‘Exclusion’ of some individuals because of unwillingness/inability to ‘fit’.

Leader abdicates responsibility too early, i.e., before the team are ready.


No-nonsense, practical approach to getting on with team tasks.

Free-flowing communication, both formal and informal.

Distribution of leadership responsibility.

Delegated authority for tasks.

Team structure, methods and results are frequently reviewed for improvements.

Creativity and innovation in approaches to problems and solutions.

Unrealistic targets leading to frequent failure and demoralisation.

Over-management by the team leader leading to frustration and resentment.

Over-adherence to established methods and processes.

Lack of creativity in coming up with ideas.

Lack of critical assessment in evaluating and testing ideas.

Team leader development activity needs to focus on ensuring that team leaders:

Team leader competences

Views concerning the specific competences required of team leaders vary. Fisher (Leading Self-directed Work Teams: a Guide to Developing New Team Leadership Skills, 1992) suggests that there are four critical competences:

We would add one further competence to this - ability to ‘let go’. The aim of a good team leader should be to create the situation and circumstances in which the team becomes self-managing and no longer needs a designated leader to provide it with direction and cohesion.

Many team leaders are afraid of ‘letting go’. Devolution of team responsibility, however, can be seen as an opportunity rather than a threat - as an opportunity for the team leader to:

© DBA 2000