5 Signs That You Need to Get IN Your Team's Way

Last Updated Mar 31, 2010 7:07 AM EDT

One of the prevailing myths of managing remote teams is that the manager is best who just stays the heck out of everyone's way. While no one wants to be seen as a micro-manager, a leader doesn't know what's going on is in for some unpleasant surprises, and the whole team or project can suffer.

The problem with staying out of the way is that it's hard to really know what's going on until deadlines are missed or relationships are strained beyond repair. One of our most important jobs as leaders is to keep a weather eye out for problems, either internal (bad communication, strained relationships) or external (no good thing starts with the phrase, "Marketing has a few suggestions").

Here are five signs that your team might need you to get the heck in the way:

  1. Sudden changes in communication volume. If you suddenly get a lot more email than usual, it could mean everything's just fine. After all, as deadlines draw nigh, communication increases (or at least it should). But if you're suddenly getting CCed on emails and aren't sure why, it could be someone's feeling unsupported by their teammates. It's often a not-so-subtle way to ask for your involvement. On the other hand, if one person or group suddenly stops communicating as usual, it's also worth investigating. Often it's a sign that someone's struggling to solve a problem by themselves (and often not doing a great job of it). Either way you should investigate and ask lots of open questions. Make sure to ask about the status of the activity ("what might interfere with hitting our deadline?") rather than about the person. (There are plenty of reasons things go wrong without admitting personal failure.)
  2. Snarky comments about teammates. Tension between teammates, especially across functions, is normal, and it's easy to just ignore it. But changes in the status quo are worth paying attention to. When you hear, "Sharon is always late with these things," you need to do some assessment. Is she always late? How does that impact the team? More importantly, is this the first you're hearing about a problem? Don't wait for someone to come to you with specific complaints. Do a quick check-in by phone with the parties involved, and be prepared to listen.
  3. Posts to the wiki and discussion boards suddenly stop. If people stop contributing to discussions and other team communication, it could be a sign of trouble. The stresses of meeting a deadline might mean there's no time for such "unproductive" activity. Does someone need help or resources? It might also mean relationships are strained and people are no longer willing to go out of their way for teammates.
  4. Little milestones keep slipping. Anyone can run up against a deadline they can't meet, and it's often (especially early in a project) not a deal breaker to give someone a few extra days. Individual requests for more time might not ring alarm bells, but you have to ask yourself why they keep happening. Is it just from one person or group? There might be performance or resource issues. If it's chronic with the whole team, you might have to examine how well people are forecasting the amount of work required. Have people quit feeling accountable to the team and the project? It might be your job to call a time out and refocus the team on the team charter and commitments. (You do have a team charter, right?)
  5. People have tunnel vision. It's common for people to be so focused on their tasks that they lose sight of the big picture. Are others in the company unable to get information they need to do their jobs because your team doesn't think those requests are a priority? What are customers (internal and external) saying about the group? That big-picture perspective is one of the most valuable things you can bring to the team.
Knowing when to step in and when to stay out of the day-to-day work of the team is as much art as science, but you can't do either if you don't know what's going on.

photo by flickr user dpstyles CC 2.0