A leader looking over her team with a question mark over her head.

Leaders, Are You a Part of Your Teams Or Apart from Your Teams?

by Jul 7, 2023Leadership

Human beings have two opposing and powerful pulls: to be part of and to be apart from. When we are ‘part of,’ we belong. We want to belong to groups of others that accept us, appreciate us, and support us. In fact, we only survive and thrive in communities with others. Accordingly, we have strong tendencies to please and conform to the standards of our communities, including how we dress and the way we think and believe.

We also are deeply attached to our individual identities that make us distinct and ‘apart from’ others. Our primary consciousness is that of being an individual, even in collectivist cultures. We believe in our individual autonomy to think and believe as we wish, even when we sometimes must suppress its expression.

This paradox is particularly sharp for leaders who are a part of the teams they lead, yet apart from them in their singular role as leader. I have worked with leaders who have erred on either side of this dilemma. 

Leaders who err too far on the side of belonging often fail to hold team members consistently accountable and too easily play favorites. Leaders of a team where they were once a member can struggle if some members are friends. Disparate treatment of team members leads quickly to team discord.

On the other hand, leaders who overly identify with the role of leader as distinct from team member can lean too far apart from their team members. There are certainly benefits to maintaining some distance from followers, including avoiding accountability and favoritism difficulties.

Too much distance, however, can exacerbate the reticence many people have about communicating with authority figures. I’ve worked with many leaders whose difficulties stemmed from being out to touch with problematic team dynamics. They, more often than not, saw themselves as leaders, but not as team members. 

It is not possible to lead a team of which you are not a member. Leaders who try to stay apart from their teams create an us-and-them dynamic will cause conflict and communication problems which could have been avoided.

Negotiating an effective balance between being a part of and apart from a team is a crucial skill for leaders. This balance is important for ensuring that you…

  1. Are approachable and relatable to assure effective relationships and communication flow.
  2. Maintain the authority and perspective you need to guide and support your team.

Here are four strategies that you can use to strike this balance:

Build Relationships with Clear Boundaries

Build open relationships with team members. Engage in informal conversations, showing genuine curiosity about, interest in, and appreciation for their lives. This helps you to be seen as a part of the team. At the same time, set clear boundaries that maintain your role as leader. Develop a friendly of professionalism and avoid getting involved in the personal matters of team members.

It’s okay to listen to the personal issues of your people, but do not get involved in helping them resolve such issues. Limit the time you spend listening to such issues to avoid compromising productivity. Five minutes would be a reasonable limit.

Clarify Friendship Requirements

Back in the days when I’ve been a leader, I had friends who reported to me with no difficulty. And I have worked with several clients who were having problems with friends as subordinates. The difference was my clarity that a friend would help my job as leader be easier, not make it more difficult.

As my clients clarified such personal definitions of friendship, they found themselves revising, sometimes dramatically, who was a friend and who wasn’t. From there, their issues leading friends dissipated.

Be Fair, No Favorites

You must provide each and every team member with the opportunities to succeed. Have no favorites regarding who has access to resources, who gets assigned to important projects, who gets promoted, and who gets your time and support.

Be sure you fully communicate to all your criteria for doling out rewards. For example, if attending conferences is a reward for high performance, assure that everyone is clear about the criteria you use to judge performance.

Make Open Communication a Performance Standard

Creating an environment where team members will voice their opinions and concerns is vital. Even when it may feel comfortable. Your behavior must lead way through effective listening and non-punitive responses.

Actively seek feedback and be open to constructive criticism. This will make it easier for your team to support you in adhering to these strategies. You are human and can use the support, particularly when you don’t want it.We all get caught up from time to time when our need to belong seems to conflict with our need to be the individual that we are. Such conflicts are part of being a human being.  

By integrating the strategies discussed, we can strike a balance between being a part of our teams while also maintaining the necessary distance to effectively guide and support our teams and ourselves so that all can win.

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Dr. Michael F. Broom is an organization development psychologist who transforms organizations with his 45+ years of wisdom and expertise . Michael Broom smilingSpecializing in developing leaders, building teams, strategic planning, conflict resolution, and performance management, he emphasizes empowerment and excellence.

He is the author of The Infinite Organization and Power, The Infinite Game.

He is a recipient of the OD Network’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Contact Dr. Broom for a free hour of consultation at chumans.com or email him at michael@chumans.com. You’ll be surprised the difference a single hour can make!

Check out his immediately useful services and programs at CHumanS.com.