Common wisdom suggests that we should treat our teams as fragile and avoid overburdening our resources. In some cases, the opposite is true.
As a sympathetic leader, you likely spend a significant portion of your time trying to balance the need to get work done with a fear of overworking your team. With a frothy job market and challenges with retaining and hiring staff, it's easy to assume we should treat our team members with kid gloves and endeavor to create an environment that minimizes uncertainty, challenge and strife.
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However, consider the moments throughout history that have defined great leaders and great teams. While history can overplay heroics as the years wear on, most of our greatest leaders and the teams they led were asked to do difficult tasks on impossible timelines, all while faced with seemingly insurmountable odds. If you reflect on your own career, it's likely that your proudest moments were not when your job was cushy and easy, but rather when you were called upon to perform a challenging task that required skills and effort levels that you didn't even realize you possessed.
Challenging your teams, the right way
The key to engaging your teams the right way is to offer challenges rather than merely piling their plates high with busy work. Similarly, creating a shared cause and sense of "we're all in this together" will go further in creating a high-performing team than cultivating a loosely connected group of prima donnas. As the leader, you build trust in your team by sheltering them from the busy work and administrivia, while simultaneously trusting that they're capable of doing hard things that will require a degree of grit and determination.
There can be a fine line between challenging your team and overtaxing them, so be attentive and engage your team members in frequent checkpoints to determine if they feel a healthy sense of fatigue from performing at their best, versus a sense of utter burnout and exhaustion from an untenable workload.
Some of your team members may find engaging challenges in one-off projects, or short duration "sprints," while others might become energized and challenged by optimizing an existing process or performing roles where they can accomplish a predictable set of tasks each day.
This level of planning might sound daunting as it adds another task to your plate, which is likely already full. However, the core of a leader's job is maximizing the performance of each individual they lead, and there are few more valuable activities than taking the time to ensure each of your team members is being challenged and engaged and performing his or her best work.
There's no one-size-fits-all approach
Much like athletes, different team members might require different cycles of high-pressure projects and rest and recovery, so avoid a one-size-fits-all approach that might have one or two team members thriving and fully engaged while their colleagues struggle to keep pace. Equally bad is "managing to the median" and allowing your top performers to languish in roles that don't challenge them.
Most high performers will gradually stagnate and start casting one eye toward the exit when they feel a role no longer offers an appropriate challenge. In these situations, offer the higher performers more responsibilities or allow them to engage in special projects to keep them enthused, while respecting and managing the fatigue levels of the rest of the team. The proudest moment for a leader should be when a team member has exceeded the leader's ability to offer new challenges and development opportunities, and you should celebrate this "leaving the nest" rather than actively avoiding it.
Demand more of yourself
As a leader, it can become lonely when you're largely responsible for setting the agenda and determining whether you want your section of the org chart to be striving for growth or happily chugging along on cruise control. Constant development and growth rarely come from stagnation, so if you're seeking to build your own skillset, take the time to perform a periodic assessment of whether you're being appropriately challenged as well.
You need not abandon your position or make a career change if you do find yourself coasting during your "day job." Learn a language, coach a team, start a new hobby or engage in a physical challenge of some sort, and you might be surprised how challenging yourself in one area of life reinvigorates you in other areas.
Just as eons of evolution have rewarded organisms that continue to evolve and experiment, you can be a more effective leader by challenging your teams and yourself to evolve.
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