Why do team leaders lose credibility, and what does this do to staff engagement?

Piers Bishop · November 27, 2012

In a group of human beings leadership is not fixed.  It passes automatically to whoever the group sense will best help them get their needs met at the time.  It is easiest to see this at work in a collaborative enterprise like building a barn, where people take over the action as their skills are best suited to the task, then fall back to being assistants when someone else’s specialty is needed.

There is nothing we can do about this, it is just how we work, but it does create a problem for people who want to be leaders in organizations.  The moment their staff can sense that they do not really have what the situation needs, they lose credibility completely.  Watching groups at work you sometimes see that moment happen, when someone who has been promoted beyond their real knowledge and skill level is ‘found out’ by the group and loses authority in an instant.

And staff engagement is lost in that instant, too.

To me there are three main lessons in here.

  1. Promote people if they have the things their team will need from them in practice, not because they have done their time as a junior, have the right certificates or know the right people in the hierarchy.
  2. Take the time to learn what people need from the work, beyond money. There are a dozen or so things that people actually need from their work, and if a leader can provide them they will follow him or her. For a steer on what these are take a look around this site – you’ll find a lot more useful ideas on leadership, team building, engagement and motivation.
  3. Measure how well your work environment meets your people’s needs – don’t assume, or hope for the best, even if people look happy enough and results are ok. The main motivators are not explicit in our culture and your people are probably doing less well than they could if these things were properly understood and managed. Measuring how well the workplace meets the needs of the people who work there gets you past the stage of hoping for the best and allows you to put a number on engagement and so start to manage and improve it.

This moves staff engagement from the status of woolly nice-to-have and into the realm of reality. Additionally it gives solid dimensions to the concept and practice of ‘leadership’, which also seems to be a rather too abstract idea, given the amount of time people spend discussing what it is!