To get things done these days, working in teams is almost imperative. But how can you, as a leader, motivate a team to accomplish your objectives? How can you avoid common mistakes that can kill performance and morale? This article discusses ways of doing so.

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#1: Believe in your team’s objectives

Do you believe in what you want the team to accomplish? Do you think your goals are realistic? If not, rethink your position, because your team will sense your uncertainty. You may say the right words, but your body language and overall demeanor will give you away. On the other hand, if you truly are dedicated and believe in your goals, your team will sense it and will react accordingly.

#2: Model the behavior you want from the team

Don’t be a hypocrite — lead by example. You want your team to interact courteously and professionally with others, but do you do so yourself? If you ask them to put in extra hours, are you there along with them? Country artist Rodney Atkins sings about how one day, his four-year-old son said “a four-letter word,” but how later that night, all by himself he got on his knees and prayed. What did the son say when asked about how he learned to do both things? “I’ve been watchin’ you.”

#3: Keep a positive attitude

  • Game 1 of the NBA Finals has just begun. Fifteen seconds into the game, one team connects on a field goal, making the score 2-0. The other coach slumps in his chair, puts his head in his hands, and yells, “@(*@&@, this series is OVER!!”
  • (On November 12, 1989): Person 1: “The Berlin Wall just came down!” Person 2: “Horrible! The guards are now out of a job!”

Don’t laugh. If you have these attitudes, how do you think your team will react? If you model a negative attitude, your team will pick it up. I know it sounds trite, but try to stay upbeat.

Doing so doesn’t mean being unrealistic. It does mean, however, that you try to look at the glass as being half full rather than half empty. Instead of saying, for example, “This project will never succeed because of issues 1, 2, and 3,” consider saying, “If we want this project to succeed, it’s critical that we resolve issues 1, 2, and 3.”

#4: Be clear about your goals

It’s hard for your team to accomplish its goals if those goals are unclear or unknown to them. More important, it’s hard to get them even to agree with those goals if they don’t know what they are. Make sure your team knows what you are expecting of them. If you can quantify your goals so that you can measure how well you did compared to what you expected, so much the better.

#5: Get feedback from the team members

Unless you hear from your team members, you may have little or no idea of how effective or clear you are. Few of us enjoy hearing bad news or criticism, but if there’s a problem in what we’re doing, it’s important that we hear it.

When discussing issues with the team, don’t shoot the messenger. When listening to a team member, try to separate the message and issue from the person. Similarly, when someone is offering suggestions or discussing issues, try to separate your own self and ego from the discussion. If you do shoot the messenger, all you will have done is make your team even more reluctant to talk frankly with you in the future.

#6: Set expectations

Make sure your team knows what to expect of you. If they do, there’s less chance that they’ll be unpleasantly surprised or disappointed.

Suppose, from the previous point, you had a discussion with a team member, who made a few suggestions. Some of them are workable (so that you could act on them), but others aren’t. Before having this discussion, it would be good to let your team know that while you will listen to them, you may or may not adopt all of their suggestions. One would hope they’d realize this already, but it’s best to be explicit. Furthermore, if you do adopt a suggestion, make sure everyone knows about it.

#7: Avoid mixed messages

Consultant and trainer Robert Mager, in his book Analyzing Performance Problems, discusses the uses of consequences and rewards in shaping human behavior. Specifically, he points out that to encourage desirable behavior, there must be positive rewards for it. Conversely, to discourage undesirable behavior, there must be consequences that result from it. Believe it or not, some people mix up these two points. Have you, as a parent, ever said to your child, “Any time you have problem, you can talk to Mommy or Daddy”? What happens when they do? You become irritated and yell at them, “Come back later! Can’t you see I’m busy?!” If you send similar mixed messages to your staff, you will make it harder for them to act the way you want.

#8: Know the difference between exhorting and belittling

It’s fine and good for you to want greater and higher quality results from your team. However, be aware of the line between exhorting someone to do better and belittling them because they aren’t right now. The latter might work, but the chances are greater that it might only create resentment and turn out to be counterproductive.

A couple of weeks ago, after a rehearsal of the choir I direct, I said to two young men, “I want to see confidence in your eyes when you’re singing.” I didn’t say to them, “You idiots, you don’t know the music.” In other words, in keeping with the positive/negative point discussed earlier, I focused on where I wanted them to be, rather than on the fact that they weren’t there right now.

#9: Correct in private

If personal issues of a team member are becoming a problem, address them with the person in private. Don’t embarrass the person by bringing it up in public. Such issues include attendance and punctuality, dress, and general professionalism.

What about a mistake involving work? Use discretion here. Using the choir example again: Suppose a person has an incorrect rhythm in a measure. I will just take a moment and work it out with that person in front of the group. If he or she gets it, fine. However, if he or she were consistently missing notes and rhythms, I would need to talk privately with that person to see what’s going on.

#10: Praise in public

When someone does something right, you probably are happy and want that person to continue doing it. You also probably want to make that person look good in front of the others, and for the others to be motivated to improve their own performance. For those reasons, recognize good work in public, rather than in private.

Other things being equal, of course, most people would prefer money and praise rather than praise alone. However, praise alone still can motivate, as long as you’re sincere and specific in what you’re praising. Generalities are unhelpful. Rather, focus on the specific action, and how it benefited the group.

In the case of the young men I mentioned earlier, I spoke to them again just a few days ago, after our last rehearsal, which went really well. I said to one of them, “Remember I told you I wanted to see confidence in your eyes? Well, I see it now.” To the other, I said, “You’ve been practicing, right?” When he nodded yes, I continued, “See what a difference it makes?”

#11: Believe in your team

England expects every man to do his duty.

The Battle of Trafalgar, in 1805, established British naval supremacy for decades afterward. In that battle, a fleet led by Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson defeated a combined French and Spanish fleet off the coast of southwest Spain, near Cape Trafalgar. As both sides were preparing for the battle, Nelson sent his now-famous message to his fleet. Sadly, Nelson suffered a mortal wound and did not live to see his ultimate victory.

People tend to live up, or down, to your expectations. If you expect high performance from them, and they realize it, you have a greater chance of getting such performance than if you expect low performance.

It can be rewarding to see a team come together and execute the way you want. It’s even more rewarding to see people develop the way you want. However, try to be realistic. The members of my choir are all teenagers and friends with my younger daughter, Rayna. One day, I asked her, “Rayna, do some people in the choir tell you how much I’ve influenced them?” At that, Rayna replied, “Daddy, don’t flatter yourself.”