10 Things that Suck about a Team Lead

If you’re leading a team, big or small, at your startup or in a multinational, if you’re a manager, team lead, project manager or department director, here are a few tips to alienate your team and to make almost sure (within a 95% confidence margin) that they do pee in your coffee:

  1. Never give a straight answer. Avoiding a clear-cut answer insulates you from the responsibility of something going wrong. Doing this too often will decimate your authority in front of your team and it will cancel out any personal or professional connection you have with them. This doesn’t mean you should pretend to know the answer or force yourself to see the world in black and white all the time. Just try, at least every once in a while, to be honest and utter the magic words “I don’t know”.
  2. Delegate, but don’t take any responsibility. Even if your team members are responsible for their actions, you should take responsibility for the guidance and the direction you give them. Take responsibility for having them work longer hours when they ask for time off. Take responsibility for making them research or work on something that proves unnecessary. Making them take responsibility and be autonomous does not mean you can blame them for everything.

    Trust by Dilbert
    Trust by Dilbert
  3. Contradicting people when taking feedback. If you ask for someone’s opinion (within your team or outside, employee, contractor or client), make sure to listen to it. Trying to talk back and explain how their feedback is wrong or how they didn’t understand the question almost guarantees that next time they’ll just tell you want you want to hear, counting the seconds until you shut up or leave the room. 
  4. Tell people to look at the bright side when there is none. Being positive about your work helps a lot. Everybody knows that people with better morale work harder, get better ideas and communicate a lot easier. But sometimes things are just plain crappy. Don’t try to sugar coat it, don’t try to present a bad situation as an opportunity.  It is true than in Japanese, “crisis” and “opportunity” are one and the same word, but don’t force this on your team unless you have solid arguments, because they will see through your bullshit. And in a crisis, you want your team to be by your side, not to see you as an enemy,
  5. Refuse to make decisions. It is true that you should let your team self-organize and become autonomous. It is true that you should give guidance instead of orders. This is all true – 90% of the time. But in situations where disagreements on approach, strategy and methodology drag on  and slow down your team it is your duty to take charge and set an example. Democracy is a good practice, but some regulation is in order from time to time.
  6. Constantly crash drive, initiative and performance in the name of team work. Constantly praising some of your team members while ignoring others will definitely ruin the mood. But not praising anyone at all can be even more demoralizing. Moreover, if for every task and for every project you uniformly give credit to the entire team, without emphasizing anyone’s contribution, the high performers will stop caring and the low performers will get comfortable. It’s like workplace socialism – it simply doesn’t converge. 
  7. Make mistakes blur together with achievements, in the name of team work. This isn’t to say you should single out anyone who has made a mistake. But clearly stating, in private, what someone could have done better can send the right signal without making anyone feel like an outsider. Allowing bad performance and bad mistaken for six month or one year (until the scheduled review) can give the impression that it doesn’t matter whether you do or do not care about the result.
  8. Boast about letting people reach their own conclusions, while manipulating them into agreeing with you. In one word, don’t be a manipulative prick. And if you are one, don’t overdo it. Subtly steering people towards the right conclusion without ordering them is acceptable, within the bounds of common sense. However, trying to make team members you are in disagreement with reach your conclusions without taking responsibility for that conclusion will distance you away from your team and it will dilute your authority.
  9. Change objectives often. Dissolve vision into short-term tactics. Manipulate principle into fitting your agenda for this week. This week’s top priority is about minimizing cost. Next week’s is about sticking to the timeline. The week after that is about quality of the deliverable. Next month you’ll say micro-management is essential. The month after that is about empowering and guiding, without getting lost in the details. If you change the focus, the principles and the objectives of the team every month or every week, they will all fade to random noise. Focus will become something between not caring and best effort. Principles will be just subtle orders you refuse to take responsibility for. As far as objectives and strategy are concerned, you make everyone by a short-term thinker with no vision. Think twice before changing focus. Don’t allow the transition periods between changes overlap. And if you force change without taking under advisement the input from your team, at least take some responsibility when things go awry. 
  10. Deal with everything high-level. Yeah, don’t get too involved, act like a CEO. Act like you are driven to work in a limousine each morning. If someone comes to you with a problem, don’t give them any hands-on advice. Just stare blankly into their eyes and  say “But you’ll fix it, right?”. That will empower them, for sure. If you refuse to get involved in day-to-day, low-level activities – even for a few hours a month – you’ll lose touch with your team. They’ll start seeing you as a pencil-pushing smug bureaucrat instead of a leader. Every once in while, at least for your curiosity and amusement: put yourself in their shoes. Do the things they have to do. Take your own advice, eat your own dog food. See how it tastes like. That will keep your grip over reality. That will keep your from being inside your own team.

That being said, I’m leaving you with Dilbert and I’m looking forward to your comments.

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