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How to Lead Your Small Team and Win Big

Written by on April 10, 2017

If you are a small team leader or are working on hiring a team for your growing small business, you need to know the best ways to motivate your employees.

We’ve already discussed how to inspire your small team by setting big, visionary goals.

Now, we’re going to talk about what you need to do beyond those goals in order to get your small team on board.

There is one important thing to get out of the way here. Yes, truly great, genius leaders may seem to be born, not made.

But great leaders are definitely made, and you can be a great leader as well. Coupled with your experience and knowledge, you need to determine the best ways to get your team on board with your vision, help them work together, and increase their productivity.

Let’s look at the most important things you need to consider with your employees and how you can lead your small team to big wins.

I. The 5 Different Leadership Styles

There are quite a few leadership styles that one can follow when managing a small team, as many as 12 according to some.

However, we’ll look at the five most important leadership styles and see the advantages and disadvantages of each.

1. Laissez-Faire Leadership

The laissez-faire (French for “let [them] do [as they choose]”) leadership style has minimal supervision of employees and provides rare (if any) feedback to those in his or her small team.

Advantages: This type of leadership style is mostly negative. However, it can be acceptable for employees that are highly experienced and exceptionally trained. They tend to require little supervision and may fare well with this style.

Disadvantages: Laissez-faire leadership is quite bad for most employees. It doesn’t provide any direct supervision and little to no feedback (which is absolutely necessary).  Beyond that, it often leads to decreases in worker productivity and control, and can also lead to increased costs as a result.

2. Autocratic Leadership

This leadership style is, as the name suggests, autocratic in that no input from the employee is required at all. The manager makes the decisions, and that’s it.

Advantages: This type of leadership style, which is quite old school, is perhaps good for employees who require very close supervision.

Disadvantages: For the most part, this leadership style is bad for workers’ creativity. All authority rests with the manager and they impose their will as they see fit (think North Korea). It is also bad for motivation, as the employee has no input in the direction of his work.

These are the 5 small team leadership styles you need to be aware of

3. Transactional Leadership

This type of leadership style is based on the manger and employee working together on creating goals and then either rewarding or punishing small team members based on the results.

Advantages: The employees work on the goals with the manager and follow the directions to reach those goals. The employees get rewards (such as bonuses) when they reach the goals, which acts as an incentive.

Disadvantages:  There is an element of punishment to this, and rules are usually quite rigid. Furthermore, all the accountability for the failure rests on the employee’s shoulders, rather than looking at wider causes (such as appropriate time, support or the company structure).

4. Transformational Leadership

A transformational leadership style emphasizes constant, high level communication with employees.

Advantages: With this constant communication, employees are motivated and their productivity is enhanced. They also become more efficient as the manager constantly refines their work processes and helps them improve and reach their goals.

Disadvantages: This is largely a preferred leadership style. However, it is possible that the manager may have a preference for the development of one or more employees and therefore less attention to the others.

5. Participative Leadership

This balanced leadership style is based on democratic principles. It not only values but also supports employees providing their input, although the final word rests with the manager.

Advantages: This is an admirable leadership style that promotes employee input and boosts office morale. As the employees are taking part in the decision-making process, they begin to feel that their decisions and ideas in fact do matter.

Also, it is a great style for when changes are being made in an organization, as the manager can lead the team towards accepting those changes gradually and with as little friction as possible.

Disadvantages: There are almost no disadvantages, except in those rare cases when employees either require very close supervision (autocratic) or no supervision at all (laissez-faire).

II. How to Boost Your Small Team’s Performance

No matter what leadership style you have (hopefully one of the bottom three), sometimes employees lose motivation or productivity, which can impact their performance. In these cases, it is important to work on actions to help your employees get back on track.

1. Measure performance

If you don’t know how to track your progress, how do you know how far you’ve come? It is crucial to find ways to track and measure your performance—that way you know if your team’s performance is increasing, decreasing, or remaining steady.

You can do this by introducing Objective and Key Results (OKRs), which are (often aggressive) desired outcomes and measureable ways to determine if you’ve reached them.

The Objective determines where you want to go and the Key Result determines how you’ll know you’re getting there.

Here’s an example of good OKRs.

Setting your Objective and Key Results can help your small team win big
Setting your Objective and Key Results can help your small team win big. Image source.

2. Emphasize Communication

It is crucial for any small team to work together effectively that they have great communication.

As the team leader, you‘ll need to set the example. Be open to others’ suggestions, questions and even criticisms and try to stay aware of their feelings and attitudes. Your communication should be clear and unambiguous, which is especially true for communicating instructions or your expectations.

Encourage your employees to give you their input in goal-setting (either as a team or for individual goals) and listen actively.

3. Make Objectives Clear

Make sure everyone on your team understands what their roles, responsibilities and expectations are. If you do not have these clear delineations, you will have team members confused about their or another member’s duties.

Make sure you have clear team values and goals, and that you evaluate the performance of the team and the individuals on a regular basis.

4. Cut down on meetings

Meetings are great for getting everyone on board, although they are used far too often or often run far too long. In fact, studies have shown that the average employee attends 62 meetings each month.

Too many meetings can decrease the productivity in your small team
Too many meetings can decrease productivity in your small team

Nonetheless, on average they believe that only half of those meetings are actually useful.

5. Do Team-Building Activities

There’s a reason the phrase “work hard, play harder” is a cliché: cliché’s stick around for a long time because they are actually true. If you want to have a high-performing small team, you need to know when the time has come for a break.

From time to time, your team will need a break from work (including discussions of work) and just have fun. This can be anything from small office games to city-wide scavenger hunts that can take a whole day.

It doesn’t have to be the boring team-building games of your father’s era either. Make them interesting, and the only requirement is that they involve uniting (not dividing) the team. This means activities that require them to work together, instead of trivially competing against each other.

6. Celebrate All Good Results

One habit that many managers have gotten too comfortable with is to only celebrate the big wins that their team accomplishes. This ignores the fact that most of the wins in your team will be the small ones.

Your celebrations can be anything, including a happy hour, some candy, takeout, little gifts or whatever your team might enjoy without getting too distracted.

This is also possible if you’ve got a remote small team. You can find many ways to celebrate the little things without necessarily being in the same space.

Buffer has a great list of remote team celebrations and general communication.

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III. Positive and Negative Feedback Strategies

Every important leadership program will discuss the crucial strategies of evaluating your team members’ performances. Many companies have formalized this, where managers are required to do annual or biannual performance appraisals.

While these are important for assessing how your team members are doing in a longer perspective, all your feedback shouldn’t be saved for those appraisals.

In fact, those appraisals are great for assessing performance, but not for impacting it. Employees need consistent and frequent feedback in order to develop strongly and meet goals more efficiently.

This is good for motivation and engagement. The absence of consistent feedback sends a message, although implicitly, that either the manager is unconcerned with their performance, or disappointed by it.

1. Giving Positive Feedback

There are a few simple but important steps you should follow when giving positive feedback that will be different from the negative kind.

Describe the objective clearly, honestly and objectively

Make sure to provide an objective assessment of the behavior or action you are discussing.

Although it is often easy to provide vague and emotional assessments for good behavior (and it is OK if coupled with an objective assessment later on), you should really try to state exactly what it is you’re praising.

For example, something less specific is: “John, you’re really a great team member!” That is fine and all, but exactly what are you assessing here? How is John great? Who says so—you or his colleagues?

It is important to give feedback consistently and as necessary, not just once or twice a year
It is important to give feedback consistently and as necessary, not just once or twice a year

Even better: “John, several team members told me that your performance last quarter, including your ability to reach goals and discuss strategies with others, was exciting and inspiring. It helped them reach their goals more efficiently and contributed to a great working environment.”

I know the criticism here—you don’t want to sound like a robot or a lawyer. You can say it how you want—but try to communicate exactly what you’re praising. Specifics are always better than vague niceties.

Deliver the feedback as soon after the action or behavior

It is important that you try your best to give your (objective, specific) feedback as soon as possible after the action or behavior that you’re assessing.

This doesn’t mean you have to drop everything you’re doing (such as drinking coffee) to run behind a team member and shout your praises. Instead, try to do it the day of or the following day.

Research shows that immediate positive feedback is more impactful in shaping positive behavior and ensuring its repetition than delayed feedback.

Identify the action or behavior, describe it objectively and specifically, and communicate the impact (on the team, the business, etc.)

Don’t wait for perfect performance

Feedback doesn’t have to be at certain points (i.e., when a task is completed well or perfectly, or at all). Instead, employees need positive feedback when you notice that their performance is improving. This helps to shape the employee by letting him or her know they are on the right path.

For example, if the goal was to improve positive lead responses by 20% for the month, and it has increased by 10% already, it’s a great opportunity to provide feedback.

Don’t mix positive and negative feedback

The so-called ‘sandwich method’ has been derisively discussed in the last few years and even decades for a very good reason—it starts with the positive, presents the negative, and ends with positive again. This is confusing.

Not only that, but it associates any positive feedback you’re about to give with an expectation of a negative in a 1:1 ratio. Such that, the more positive and longer the feedback is, the worse the negative part will be.

This makes employees apprehensive anytime you want to have a talk, even if it is for positive feedback. Therefore, don’t say: “John, you’re a really great team member, BUT…”

Instead, stick to either positive or negative feedback, in different meetings on different days.

2. Giving Negative Feedback

Negative feedback is unfortunate but absolutely crucial for any growth. Specifically, it is only human nature to make mistakes (constantly, though usually in different areas). Therefore, you should never avoid giving negative feedback, but you shouldn’t relish it either.

Because it is negative feedback, the steps here will be different from the positive discussed above.

It is important to give feedback consistently and as necessary, not just once or twice a year

Be private about the feedback

You should never give negative feedback within earshot of other team members. This is a big one, seeing as negative feedback is normally connected to emotions such as anger or disappointment, and therefore sometimes uncontrollable.

However, always try to get them to a separate room with a simple, “Can I talk to you [outside, in my office, etc.]?”

Don’t give emotional negative feedback

This is specifically for instances when you are angry or deeply disappointed (even sensitive). Don’t get emotional when giving negative feedback.

You must always be objective, not only to control yourself and get the message across, but also because emotions are fluctuating. Therefore, to an employee, if you present emotional negative feedback, he or she can write it off as anger, rather than actual.

If you’re angry, take a few minutes (or hours) and provide the feedback when you’ve calmed down.

Make sure the employee has understood your directions

Before giving negative feedback, check to make sure that the employee has understood quite well what was expected of him or her.

Also check to make sure that the employee had all the tools or resources necessary to accomplish the task.

If the employee was confused (for whatever reason) or didn’t have the appropriate support, your feedback should be pointed elsewhere.

It would be quite bad, not only for the employee’s but the team’s morale as well, to get ‘blamed’ for something that was out of his or her control. This would also negatively impact your reputation and the trust your employees have in you.

Deliver the feedback as soon as possible

As with positive feedback, negative feedback should be delivered as soon as possible after the action or behavior so that it has the greatest effect.

Do not wait or postpone the negative feedback. Not only will you minimize the potential effect, but you are implicitly supporting the behavior or action by not trying to curtail it.

It is important that you give feedback as soon as possible
It is important that you give feedback as soon as possible

Be specific and objective in negative feedback

In order to get the point across and impact the employee’s behavior the most, you need to

  1. be direct in identifying the situation, its time and place
  2. describe the exact actions or behaviors that need to be addressed
  3. discuss the impact it had on the other team members

For example, after inviting the employee into your office or in another separate space:

“Jason, I’d like to talk to you about what happened in the meeting we just finished (1). You cut off Amy’s idea about improving customer service even before she could go into detail (2).  Amy’s idea could have been very valuable if you had listened to it. However, after that, your behavior caused others to be reluctant to come up with new ideas (3).”

Give a plan for improvement

Don’t just leave it there. You, as the team leader, need to give a plan of action, a road map to improvement for the employee. You can work on it together. Be sure to ask if he or she will need any assistance in reaching that goal.

In the above example, John could work more on his listening skills, and the progress will be evident based on his not interrupting others before they’ve had a chance to get their ideas out.

Own the feedback

Be sure not to use general commands when giving directions. Rather, put the “I” in there, so that it is clear that the feedback is coming from you.

For example, instead of, ”You have to do better,” you should state: “I’d like for you to improve your speed in everyday tasks and increase the amount of leads per week.”

Look for positive changes

Again, don’t wait for the task or behavior to be improved by looking at results. Look for any progress in the process, and be sure to reinforce the positive behavior or action.

If you catch them doing the right thing, let them know, which will only help them do it better or with more motivation.

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IV. Work Smarter, Not Harder

If you’ve followed my previous advice about setting visionary, inspiring goals for your small business or small team, then you should have great energy at the beginning.

However, as with everything, there are breakdowns in energy levels, quality, speed and the rest. In these times, it is best to reassess and find ways that your team can work more efficiently and more intelligently by streamlining your processes.

In general, there are four great methods you can use to get your team to work smarter, not harder.

1. Set Your MITs

To-do lists are crucial for not only you and your employees having concrete directions on what needs to be done for the day or week. They’re also great for motivating and improving energy levels.

However, you should not overdo it. In general, you shouldn’t have too many items on your to-do lists.

You should set, as office policy, the requirement that each team member have 1-3 MITs (Most Important Tasks). These tasks are the challenging, big ones that are the highest priority for the day.

If you do not get them done in time, you’ll have to spend your lunch at work or even work late into the night. That is never good, and is always bad planning.

Instead, make it policy to have everyone get these MITs done before anything else. Afterwards, you can do all the minor tasks.

It is important to not set your MITs in the morning. Rather, set them in the evening before you leave for work or even earlier.

2. Accept and Support People’s Productivity Cycles

As biology tells us, our bodies are not capable of working 8 hours straight at full speed and energy.

Instead, we have natural cycles of productivity and great mental efficiency interspersed with periods of low energy. This is known as the ultradian rhythm:

You should respect your employee's biological ultradian rhythms and not push them too hard
You should respect your employee’s biological ultradian rhythms and not push them too hard. Image source.

Here, there is a period of 90 minutes when your brain is focused and productive, and then a period of roughly 15-20 minutes where rest is required.

This is natural for many people, which is why you often get up for coffee, tea or a chat every two hours or so.

You need to not only respect that, but support it.

Your team may not need to take walks in the park every 90 minutes in order to be most efficient. This is mostly because that would be impractical, but also because not everyone will have their rhythms or cycles at the same time.

Instead, these breaks may be a cup of coffee, or it could be taking a break from the MIT or other big task and checking email. I often do about an hour or two of writing, and then take a break by answering emails or working on images or graphics.

3. Template and Automate

One of the best things you can do to help your small team work smarter, not harder, and thereby improve both results and employee motivation, is by finding areas that can be templated or automated.

When your employees complete a task, it is very likely that some or most of the task will be reusable in the next task. For example, this could be in the format of email replies or coding that can be applied to other tasks.

Once you get a good pattern going, look at areas that are being repeated and create templates that will help your employees increase their efficiency.

That way, they don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time they need to answer an email or create or update software features.

Another important thing to do is to automate as much as you can. This is often by using software and apps that can help you do to the more regular tasks quickly or without much effort.

For example, Buffer is a popular social media tool and one of the best automation tools for small businesses.

You can also automate your accounting, especially with InvoiceBerry’s online invoicing software. That way, you can create and send your invoices out within two minutes, rather than spending much longer on it.

With the appropriate automation tools and great templates, you can help improve your team’s productivity and make them work much smarter.

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V. Dealing with Difficult People

No matter how inspiring you are being, and how much you are working on improving your team’s strengths, productivity and talent, you will come against some challenges.

This is known as the difficult employee.

Every team has a difficult employee (or more than one), or an employee with some difficult parts.  In order to keep your team together, you will have to deal with this person in the best way possible.

1. Observe

Before doing anything, you should observe the employee in different situations to see if there are any triggers to the negative behavior.

Is it stress? Is it a personal issue? Look at the timing. Is it sudden? Is it dissipating or growing stronger?

You should also see how the other team members are responding to this behavior.

You should also ask the other team members for more information. They may have deeper knowledge about the situation that can shed light on what is causing the behavior.

2. Set a Plan

Before you discuss the issue with the employee, you need to set a plan of action based on your observations.

More specifically, you need to decide which step to take:

  • coaching – work together to modify the behavior
  • counseling – discuss the problem situation and present the negative consequences
  • training – develop skills and increase knowledge
  • discipline – an immediate negative consequence for the situation

It's always important to set a plan first before talking with a difficult employee

3. Address the Problem

As mentioned above, you should not wait to mull over an employee’s negative behavior. Provide feedback to this negative situation as soon as possible and don’t merely hope that the problem will solve itself.

If you put it off, you could be signaling to the rest of the team that this behavior is acceptable.

4. Be Objective and Focus on the Behavior

While it is a natural reaction for many to get emotionally involved in a negative situation, now is not the time for anger.

Instead, remain objective and focus on the real problem: the behavior. Don’t attack the person, but instead inform him or her what the problem is and find out what the possible reasons are.

Make sure you don’t interrupt the employee when they’re explaining the situation and summarize what they’ve said.

5. Work Together

Now you need to work with the employee to develop an acceptable solution to the problem. You cannot simply hand down directions here. It may work for a short time, but the negative behavior will persist.

The employee must help to come up with this solution and have faith in its effectiveness.

It's important that you work with your employee to come up with a suitable solution
It’s important that you work with your employee to come up with a suitable solution

6. Follow-up

You work is not finished once the employee leaves your office with a plan in hand. In order for the behavior to be diminished or completely eliminated, you have to continue monitoring the employee.

Keep in mind that the desired outcome may not come instantaneously. Instead, look for signs of progress and provide positive feedback for those to motivate the employee to the desired outcome.

7. Get help when needed

Sometimes, you just may not be able to help the employee by yourself. This could be due to a strong family problem, illness or even psychological problems.

In those situations, you need to determine if time off will be appropriate. Sometimes, the employee may even need professional help. Don’t be scared to explore these options as well.

8. Draw a line

Not everything ends well. While you should always look for a mutually beneficial, or at least acceptable, solution, sometimes it just doesn’t work out.

Some employees see these negative feedback chats as problematic, weak, or unimportant, and may not take them seriously.

What that means is that they will not work to solve the problem. In those situations, you need to have a line that, once crossed, is difficult or impossible to uncross.

If the employee crosses that line, either in behavior or unwillingness to listen at all, you will need to terminate that employee.

VI. Summary

Your employees will expect a lot from you, explicitly or implicitly.

Explicitly, they will require you to provide them with appropriate and clear directions for their tasks and responsibilities. They will also require you to provide them with the adequate resources to help them best to their jobs.

Implicitly, they will want you to inspire and motivate them. They will look to you as a role model. You will set the tempo and atmosphere of the office (even remotely) and you need to be aware of that aspect as well.

As the manager of a small team or the owner of a small business, you need to understand your role as not just employer and paycheck-payer, but also as leader.

With these strategies, you’ll find that your employees are more productive, more energized, more efficient and most importantly, more motivated.

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