One of the most important aspects of leading an effective team is allowing team members to focus on their work by protecting them and insulating them from much of the corporate politics and outside pressure. In this sense, the manager's role is to take in the expectations of the higher-ups, determine what the team is capable of delivering and create a reasonable plan of attack.
But chances are, there will be bumps along the road, whether it be changes in expectations, delays in the team's schedule, or a lack of support from resources outside the team. Even the most prepared manager will be confronted with the question of when to defend the team's interests against these types of outside encroachments. While it's important that your team knows you have their welfare in mind, that doesn't mean you go to the mat for them every time a problem arises. As they say, it is best to choose your battles.
When Do You Stand Up For Your Team?
Team members are dealing with complaints from other parts of the company -- As the manager, you are the one who should be giving your team grief, not people on other teams within the company. They shouldn't be getting marching orders or receiving feedback from all sides. The reason there is height to the organizational structure is so that kind of thing is funneled through the team leader, who, in theory, understands the challenges facing the team. A scheduled meeting set up for getting feedback from other teams or an organized feedback structure could prevent some of these problems, and if they still pop up, an email reminder of the existing feedback structure will likely ruffle fewer feathers than a face-to-face rebuke.
The team's workload or timetable is too ambitious -- It's OK to be stretched and to have to figure out resourceful ways to make a deadline. It's even OK to have to push back a little on a deadline. But you don't want your team to become overwhelmed or lose faith that making the deadline is at all possible. If you find that a schedule or workload is too intense and the team seems to be slipping into a state of learned helplessness, it's time to bring the task back into the realms of reality and possibility. Just as you spent a great deal of time and consideration coming up with the original schedule, you should carefully consider any changes to it. Can the time lost on current deadlines be made up later? Is there another resource within or without the company that can help alleviate the pressure? These possibilities and more should be considered before making your case to management.
The goalpost is being moved again and again -- If your team is working on an unfamiliar task, chances are that the initial task that brought the team together in the first place might be altered along the way. But if this is happening from above without making sure the team understands the changes, it can frustrate team members and make it difficult to maintain focus. Both the manager and the team cannot feel truly invested in a task if they don't feel like they have any control over its direction. While some level of control will always rest outside the team, it's important that the team and the rest of the company knows that it's your hand on the rudder. If you set up meetings to discuss what others may see as the new requirements of your task and include all stakeholders, then the bar for affecting change will be higher, well above whim, where it belongs.
The team suffers from a lack of resources -- Nothing is worse than being asked to meet an ambitious deadline on an unfamiliar task and then starting out hampered by not getting the resources that were agreed upon when the plan was devised. Not only does it undermine the team's faith in the plan, it also suggests management's lack of investment in the project. While budget shortfalls can change the availability of resources, the plan should be rethought and the team kept in the loop. And if it's simply management dragging its feet, it might be good to convey the importance of the resources in written form and eventually take your case to higher stakeholders if necessary.