Management best practices: team leadership

Team management tips and fun team-building activities to boost team performance, collaboration, and morale

Management Best Practices: Team Leadership examines key ways to re-invigorate teams and improve their performance, along with fun team-building activities to reward and motivate all your team players.  

Read how businesses of all sizes are getting creative with team icebreakers and fun team-building exercises—everything from scavenger hunts, “cruises to nowhere” and community walk/runs to building models of team projects out of Legos. And, while you’re learning new ways to pump up your team’s performance, now might be a good time to undertake our Leadership Assessment Exercise to gauge your own performance as a team manager.

 Leadership skills

Being a good leader looks different for different people and teams. However, there are some things that are fairly common across organizations and industries. According to one survey, the top 7 skills necessary for being a good boss are, in order of importance:

  1. Communication & listening skills
  2. Effective leadership skills
  3. Trust in employees to do their jobs well
  4. Flexibility and understanding
  5. Intelligence
  6. Teamwork skills
  7. Even temperament

 8 things managers can do to retain quality employees

When good employees leave for greener pastures, it makes a manager’s job much more difficult. Managers can prevent this syndrome by doing what they can to make their own pasture the greenest. What makes a good boss?

While compensation helps, it’s not always cash that makes pastures greener. When salaries are equal with the marketplace, other factors take priority. Here are eight easy-to-plant “seeds” that help keep employees growing and content, according to a KEYGroup report:

1. Keep them engaged.  Bored employees are neither happy nor productive. To keep your employees engaged and satisfied, present them with challenging assignments and opportunities to grow and develop. Consider ways to provide opportunities for employees to improve on their skills or learn new skills they can use in their jobs.

2. Give praise where praise is due.  If someone does a great job, let the person know. It’s that simple. And then let his or her co-workers know. Then let the customers know! Recognizing a job well done isn’t an expensive proposition, but it will mean the world to your employee.

3. Be aware of employees’ changing needs.  As your employees progress in life, their needs change. After having a child, an employee may want to travel less. As your baby boomer employees get older, so do their parents. They may need to take time off to care for the health needs of their mom or dad. By recognizing these changing needs, you show sensitivity to what’s going on in their lives. This builds loyalty and helps bring stability to their personal lives, which means they can focus better at work.

4. Realize that great employees thrive under great leaders.  Employees won't leave for greener pastures unless you drive them. The buck starts and stops with their leaders. Employees of great leaders will go to the ends of the earth to do a good job for them. The flip side is that employees with poor leadership will simply go.

5. Conduct regular “stay” interviews.  Rather than exit interviews, use regular “stay” interviews to provide an opportunity to compliment high performers on their work and inspire them to do more. Use these interviews to gauge how well you are meeting employees’ needs. Seek out their suggestions on what you and the company can do to improve.

6. Create an environment where people can do their best work.  By allowing employees to develop and implement their own ideas, you’ll keep them passionate about their work. Make sure they have the right tools and equipment they need. Nothing frustrates employees more than not having everything they need to get their jobs done.

7. Create an environment of trust. Employees are happier and work harder when they trust their leaders. They decide which leaders they can trust based on how their fellow employees, company vendors, and customers are treated. As a leader, it’s important to ask yourself: Do I treat people at work with respect? Do I behave ethically and hold others accountable for their actions? When an employee sees his or her manager treating someone poorly—whether it’s a vendor or a fellow employee—the employee’s level of trust in the whole company diminishes and he or she cares less about doing a good job. In addition, remember that trust is a two-way street. Your employees need to feel that you trust them as well.

8. Rid your pasture of weeds. The weeds are those poor performers and negative employees who stifle the good attitudes and high performance of their co-workers. If you’re not pulling out your weeds, they’ll choke out your best performers. Obtain consistent feedback and keep good documentation so you can sort out employees. The bottom line: Striving to keep employees happy and engaged is not just a “nice” thing to do. It’s the only way to create a successful business. And it’s not just a matter of trying to retain people to avoid the high cost of recruitment. Engaged employees are creative, productive, motivated, and brimming with good ideas. Not only will they stay, but they’ll be fully committed to their jobs, to you, and to the company’s success.

     ABCs of employee feedback

    Giving employee feedback: It’s as easy as A, B, C

    Accurate. Offer objective, concrete descriptions of the problem, not vague statements. Provide specific examples and dates, backed by documentation. Avoid words like “always” and “never”; they’re exaggerations and don’t usually reflect realistic frequency. 

    Business-oriented. Focus on the business reason for the corrective comments. Stay away from personality critiques. Be able to point to written employee goals and company guidelines that aren’t being met. 

    Consistent. Provide regular feedback throughout the year; don’t dump it all on the employee at performance review time. Include what was done, the impact, and how it will be eliminated (negative) or repeated (positive) in the future.


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    Becoming a better boss: 13 steps to success

    Managers aren’t only responsible for an organization’s fiscal assets; they’re also responsible for its human assets. According to an Adecco report, here are 13 simple ideas you can implement today to become a more effective manager: 

    1. Recognize a job well done. Everyone likes to know when they’ve done something well. Make your employees feel important every day. Show enthusiasm for their work. 
    2. Encourage staff to take risks. Give them enough freedom to take prudent risks. You will find employees at all levels come up with good ideas.
    3. Always be honest. Let employees know you trust them, and be honest and open in return. Just one deception can destroy your credibility for good. A Gallup Poll found that one in five workers say their bosses don’t treat their employees fairly.
    4. Offer a challenge. Productivity and enthusiasm significantly decrease with boredom. A survey by the American Productivity & Quality Center found that the best motivator for employees is challenging work. Your challenge is to keep them challenged.
    5. Realize that money isn’t everything. Studies show that money isn’t the only motivator for employees. In fact, most studies show that employees choose factors like recognition for a good job, personal development, and challenging work as being more important than salary. So if you want to keep employees, a pat on the back can be just as effective as additional pay.
    6. Be a straight shooter. Don’t set foggy goals for your employees. People want to know what you expect of them. Give directions to employees in simple language. Tell them precisely what is involved and why you think they’re best for the job.
    7. Know when, where to criticize. Inform employees when they perform well and when they don’t. Tell them immediately. Don’t lump all your complaints into one session. Don’t criticize employees in front of others. Highlighting failures in public will discourage innovation by everyone involved, and you will quickly turn colleagues into enemies.
    8. Keep communication lines open. Employees crave clear, ongoing, understandable, and unambiguous communication. Don’t communicate just in times of trouble. Relay positive news as well. Give employees information before, not after, important events.
    9. Make employees feel important. The need to feel needed—everyone has it. One study found that more than half of the employees surveyed felt their managers failed to make them feel important as individuals. And 77% of those employees also said they were thinking of looking for another job. Allow employees to contribute. Ask for their opinions and advice. Reduce the number of autocratic decisions. 
    10. Be consistent. Workers can learn to live with any boss if they know what to expect. If you keep them guessing, you will keep them looking ... for another job. Inconsistent behavior breeds anger, frustration, dismay, and disappointment. 
    11. Be impartial. Don’t play favorites. Discrimination destroys morale, hurts productivity, and opens the door to lawsuits. Bosses who promote unfairly will quickly lose employees’ confidence in them. Treat everyone the same, politely. 
    12. Take an interest in employees’ careers. Coach or counsel employees on how they can climb the corporate ladder. Become a mentor to employees with real potential and fire.
    13. Know how to say “no.” There will be plenty of times that you can’t be Mr./Ms. Nice Guy. You have to say no. How? Just do it. Explain the reason for your refusal. Avoid making a snap decision unless time constraints force your hand. If possible, tell the employee you will consider the request and decide in a day or two. Take enough time to let the employee know that the request has had a fair hearing.
    14. Improve your emotional intelligence. Your relationship with employees extends beyond just delegating tasks. Being able to read into your employee’s moods, understand how they’re likely to respond to a situation, and empathize with their problems helps successful leaders get and keep employees on their side. 
    15. Empower employees. Micromanaged and constantly undermined employees are not going to give their best work. Employees who feel empowered to make decisions and have ownership over their work are more invested in creating work they’re proud of.

     Get the most out of employees & teams

    Bring off-site energy of team-building exercises back to the office

    The typical off-site meeting is chock-full of PowerPoint presentations, flip charts, and team-building exercises. But back at work months later, what actually changes?

    Lead an off-site event that leaves your team energized and focused: 

    The typical off-site meeting is chock-full of PowerPoint presentations, flip charts, and team-building exercises. But back at work months later, what actually changes?  

    Lead an off-site event that leaves your team energized and focused: 

    Know what victory looks like. How will you know if you’ve achieved it? 

    When Timberland Co. needed to revamp and add new products, they held an off-site event to jump-start things. They invited designers, engineers, and marketers from the company to spend one week hashing it out, a process that normally takes years. Result: They met their goals. “Having that concrete goal allowed us to walk the line between exploring creative flights of fancy and remaining results-driven,” VP Doug Clark said. 

    Make sure team-building exercises relate to solving a real problem.   

    During Ford’s off-site event, Carolyn Lantz, executive director of brand imaging, gave executives $50 each and put them on a bus to an Old Navy store. “I told them, ‘You have 20 minutes to find and purchase an outfit that you have to wear tomorrow. You are busy people looking for great design at a great price. Those are Ford’s customers.’” The exercise made a point: Ford’s products need to be well-designed, but democratically priced. 

    —Adapted from “Can This Off-Site Be Saved?” Cheryl Dahle, Fast Company

    Joe Torre’s rules for leading a team 

    Baseball manager Joe Torre has led far more diverse and ego-driven teams than most of us ever will. Yet, Torre’s teams have won repeatedly, thanks to these four “rules of straight communication” he has developed over the years: 

    1. Remember that every player has a special need for one of these things: motivation, reassurance, or technical help. Determine what that need is and meet it. 
    2. Deliver tightly focused, positive messages, such as a quick word of praise for a good play. Simple words of appreciation are more powerful motivators than many leaders expect. 
    3. Work hard to establish rapport with team members from backgrounds that are different from your own. It does take extra work, but the results can be extraordinary.  
    4. Let team members know that you accept the full range of their emotions, including fear and uncertainty. Unless people admit their fear, they will never be able to confront obstacles and grow. 

    —Adapted from Joe Torre’s Ground Rules for Winners, Joe Torre and Henry Dreher, Hyperion

    5 traits high-performing teams exhibit

    An effective team displays five baseline criteria, according to management consultant Patrick Lencioni: 

    1. Team members trust each other. 
    2. They deal constructively with conflict. 
    3. They are committed to doing well. 
    4. They feel personally accountable for the team’s success. 
    5. They focus on achieving results as a team, not just as individuals who happen to work together. 

    —Adapted from The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, Patrick Lencioni, Jossey-Bass

    Is your team the ideal size?

    When it comes to the ideal team, more is definitely not merrier. That’s according to researchers who study well-functioning teams. If you’re finding it tough to accomplish much with a team project you’re working on, consider whether you have too many heads on the task. 

    Psychologist Ivan Steiner found that each time you add a person to a team, productivity goes up, but so do inefficiencies. For example, coordinating the group becomes trickier. 

    In 1970, two professors from Harvard University asked large and small teams to do several tasks, and then asked whether they felt their group was too small or too large for the task. Using feedback from the groups, the professors determined the ideal team size is 4 to 6 people. 

    Bottom line: If you try to include everyone on a team, you might find that the group subdivides itself into cliques. Look for ways to logically subdivide the group or trim the overall headcount. 

    —Adapted from “Team-O-Nomics,” Jia Lynn Yang, Fortune

    Dealing with team ‘negatives’

    Negative team members are like poison. Left unchecked, they corrode morale through the ranks. They can take many forms, including: 

    Cynics, whose superior attitude infects other cynics in the ranks.  
    Political players, who attract other power-seekers to their sides. 
    Laziness addicts, who attract others who want an easy way to the top.  

    If you’re dealing with negatives like those, keep the situation under control by taking these steps: 

    • Take strong action against them, no matter how popular they are. Giving preferential treatment to someone who’s not delivering results sends a signal that you’re afraid of them—hardly the message you want to send through the ranks. 
    • Avoid politicking against negatives. It’s tempting to try to build consensus against them or express your frustrations to other members of your team. Be careful, since doing so can degenerate into a power skirmish that will erode your integrity as a true team leader.


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     Team Building

    Tap into creative, fun team-building activities 

    Team building activities can create more team synergy and a better work environment. However, many employees roll their eyes at the idea of forced team building. We’ve asked some of our administrative professional readers what team-building activities they’ve used and seen that really landed with employees. 

    • Find the perfect activity in The Big Book of Team Building Games: Trust-Building Activities, Team Spirit Exercises, and Other Fun Things to Do (McGraw-Hill) or Quick Teambuilding Activities for Busy Managers: 50 Exercises That Get Results in Just 15 Minutes (AMACOM).  
    • Bowl your way to tighter bonds. Affordable, low-stress team sports are a good bet for smaller budgets. Another sporty idea for teams: bocce ball. 
    • Spring for a big-budget adventure, such as the “BG U.S. Challenge” (, a two-day adventure race. One administrative professional says it was “the best experience of my life! We have to train throughout the year (hiking, running, mountain biking, and paddling), and that is also a great team builder.” 
    • Another option for bigger budgets: facilitated team building. For example, Adventure Associates ( offers a range of exercises, from navigating a ropes course to assembling a tent while blindfolded. 
    • Give back to the community as a team. Ideas: Organize a clothing drive, work at a food bank, clean up a neighborhood, or volunteer for Habitat for Humanity. You can also call your local United Way for suggestions. “A contribution of time, energy, and knowledge to the community will strengthen a team of individuals who share the experience,” writes one administrative professional.

     A case study: Boost office morale with team-building games

    Morale was plummeting at D’Ambrosio Eye Care, and Jocelyn Rodgers knew it. The administrative assistant realized she needed to do something at her Lancaster, Mass. office before the problem grew even worse.

    She’d recently been inspired by the book Fish! A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results, which taught her that, to create an energetic and creative workplace, each person needs to play, make each other’s day, be “present” and choose to have a positive attitude. 

    With the book in mind, she proposed a game.

    Everyone on the office staff would play the game, which meant about 55 people split among three office locations. Part of her goal: to help these far-flung groups get to know each other better and to “feel like family again.”

    “They were allowed to create their own team name,” says Rodgers, and everyone “came up with fun, silly names for themselves.” 

    The teams worked with a preapproved list of ideas such as being a new employee’s buddy or celebrating a teammate’s birthday for which they’d win points. They won more points for “inviting” another team to help them. 

    The teams also came up with their own ideas for earning points. For example, one team proposed giving every female patient a red carnation on Valentine’s Day and every child a Valentine. Another team participated in a local fundraiser.  

    “I created this game to help everyone have some fun during the day,” says Rodgers, but it also helped employees win perks. Management agreed to award movie tickets and VISA gift cards to each team that earned 300 points and $250 and two hours for a team lunch for those who scored 600 points.  

    If all three teams scored 1,000 points, they’d receive all of the above, plus management would close the office for an employee Fun Day. 

    Result: All three teams hit 1,000 points and will spend a full day together in Boston next April.  

    “Our team morale is up from last year,” says Rodgers, “and it’s a goal of mine to keep it that way.”

     Don’t make team-building too “weird” or you could end up in court

    In the summertime, corporate thoughts turn to company picnics and outdoor morale-boosting events. But a word of caution: If your team-building exercises go beyond three-legged sack races and into the realm of reality TV, you could be headed for a lawsuit. 

    Engaging employees in fun and games is fine, but make sure the joke’s not at one employee’s expense. Stay away from activities that could embarrass, humiliate or injure employees. 

    Recent case: A California security company staged employee team competitions to boost its sales team’s unity. Part of the exercise involved spanking members of the losing teams with yard signs. Other “fun” punishments: Employees were forced to eat baby food and wear diapers. 

    At least one employee’s morale wasn’t boosted. Janet Orlando quit over the incidents and sued, alleging sexual harassment. A jury awarded Orlando $500,000 in damages for emotional distress and lost wages, plus it slapped an extra $1.2 million onto the company’s tab for punitive damages. Two supervisors who helped concoct the exercise were found personally liable for $50,000 each. (Orlando v. Alarm One, Fresno County Superior Court)

     Revitalize a team and improve performance

    ‘Hot’ tactics for heating up your team

    “Hot teams” improvise, do more work with less supervision, and make the extra effort to follow through.  

    Management consultant Laurence Haughton offers this advice for turning ordinary groups into hot teams: 

    1. Don’t become rule-bound. Rules, intended to streamline and safeguard work, can hamstring your operation when common sense calls for exceptions. Before setting rules, ask if they’re really needed. 

    2. Don’t criticize in public. Embarrassing employees in front of the team will only come back to bite you. Mean bosses think that they’re holding people accountable, but what they’re really doing is inciting payback. 

    3. Show you care. If you like your people and show it, they’ll be more willing to help when crunch time comes.  

    4. Listen. Make it one on one, as well as in groups. Listening helps you correct misinformation, relax barriers, and increase trust among employees. Everyone wants to feel heard.

    5. Make it their mission. Even when a project is not terribly exciting, you can make the work more engaging. Creating roles for each person, for example, gives people a sense of importance on the project.

    6. Let them decide. Allowing people to devise their own processes boosts morale. Just make sure those processes keep improving.

    Adapted from “Creating Hot Teams,” Laurence Haughton, Leader to Leader


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     Fight off team complacency: 5 strategies

    Soon after a team forms, the excitement often peaks. Teammates dream of big accomplishments, set grandiose goals, and promise to collaborate. 

    But when the initial enthusiasm dies down, the spirited atmosphere fades and a more solemn routine emerges. Senior executives who attended the first few team meetings no longer show up. New developments (or crises!) within the organization redirect management’s focus away from the group’s activities. Some team members start slacking off or immersing themselves in other projects, leaving less time to devote to the group. 

    If this pattern unfolds at your workplace, a good leader needs to step in and breathe new life into your team. Here are five practices to try:

    • Inject new blood. Invite a few high-energy types to join the team. Don’t put them in charge or they’ll threaten the team leader and the informal hierarchy that’s already formed. Leave important decision-making to the people already in charge. Instead, just ask them to lend their talents and revitalize the group. 

    • Tape the team. When a lethargic public speaker needs to liven up, a smart speech coach will videotape the individual’s presentation and play it back. By raising the speaker’s self-awareness, the tape serves as a training tool. The same goes when you want to jolt a team to rise to a higher level. Lecturing a team to improve might fall on deaf ears, but a videotape of their meetings can show them just how listless they’ve become. 

    • Turn your team into trainers. Form a new team, and ask your current group to serve as an “advisory board” to it. Arrange for the veterans to coach the rookies. Encourage them to share their experiences about teamwork and isolate the kind of behaviors that facilitate more effective collaboration. You may want to create a buddy system, whereby each seasoned team member mentors someone in the new group. 

    • Strip away routine. If your team is falling into an underwhelming routine, break up the status quo. Disrupt predictable patterns by having the group meet in new places (a nearby park, a client’s facility, your home) and work together in new ways. Instead of having them break into the same small cliques, for instance, juggle the mix so that team members who normally don’t work closely together will get a chance to know each other better. Or, instead of having them sit in the same places, rearrange the seating configuration so that everyone’s in a circle. 

    Host an outing. Invite the team to join you on a weekend hike or family picnic. Schedule fun activities so that participants get to know each other with their guard down. Even if you already tried this early on, do it again now that the team has been together for a while. When the group returns to work, they’ll have a newfound camaraderie, which will translate into more trust and teamwork. 

     Is your team stuck? Get them unstuck

    The Wisdom of Teams, one of the first books to define the team phenomenon, still offers some of the best advice for managing them. Here’s how to get a stalled team unstuck: 

    • Revisit the basics. Ask the team to rethink its purpose, approach, and goals. It’s important everyone on a team has the same shared vision.

    • Achieve some small wins. Even noncritical short-term wins can get a team moving forward again. 

    • Introduce fresh new approaches, ideas, and information. Simply providing new customer case studies or front-line work measures can end the stalemate. 

    • Set up fresh training for the team. It could center on key skills, teamwork, or goal-setting. 

    • Juggle the team’s membership or change its leadership. Leaders who were appointed by senior managers can seem irreplaceable to other team members. Don’t be afraid to intervene and mandate a change. 

    It’s great when the team applies some of these energizing tactics from within, without being asked. But if that doesn’t happen, your job as an effective leader is to intervene and shake things up. 

    Adapted from the classic 1993 book, The Wisdom of Teams, Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith, HarperCollins 

     Reflect on a team’s accomplishments

    symptoms that warn of trouble in a supervisor’s appraisal process

    You’re thinking your team needs to push itself harder, but how do you determine that? Look for hard evidence. Ask: What has it accomplished so far? 

    Here’s a good exercise to measure your team’s progress to date:  

    At your next meeting, ask each team member to list “what you see as the team’s top five achievements so far.” Give them no more than five minutes to write down their responses, and then collect them. Explain that they don’t need to include their names—you’re not grading their answers as much as using them as a learning tool. 

    Share the results with the group. Rank the “consensus achievements,” the ones that appear in the most responses. Write these items on a flip chart. Then ask the group whether they’re satisfied with their work thus far. Encourage them to discuss the significance of their achievements. Prod them to explore whether they’re capable of making a more substantive, lasting contribution to the bottom line. 

    To refuel a sputtering team, redirect the group’s focus away from easy, safe tasks to more ambitious stretch goals. Motivate them to think big by dangling fresh, meaningful rewards for stellar effort. Offer to give each team member a choice of three prizes if the group attains specific, measurable objectives. 

    Here’s an example: 

    Three months after you formed a team to study high employee turnover, the group hasn’t come up with any useful research or solid recommendations. It started out strong but has since stalled. You present the group with this challenge: “If you were the head of human resources, what steps would you take to reduce turnover?”  

    Tell them they have two weeks to devise a practical, doable, cost-effective answer. Promise to give team members a paid day off, a gift certificate, or a chance to spend a day shadowing a senior executive of their choice—as long as they come up with an action plan that cuts turnover by 10% over the next six months.

    Re-energize your team: 6 quick tips 

    ► Pump up creativity by scheduling a group innovation strategy session, even it if means coming in on a weekend or setting aside a few hours a week, recommends Rowan Gibson, co-author of Innovation to the Core. Let discussions play out and reward effort with, say, extra vacation time, a prized parking space, or a spot on the development team.  

    ► Want teams to work together most effectively? Keep some distance between one member and the rest of the team, says an article in Organization Science.  When one member is at a different location, it forces the group to be more conscious about including that person. The result: better and more productive communication. When forming a team, think beyond individuals to consider configuration. 

    ► Encourage your team to ask you the hardest questions they can think of, not the easiest. That’s what the Dalai Lama asks journalists to do when they interview him. It’s a leadership practice that’s worth copying.  

    ► Poll your team members to find out where they’d like to see your organization next year, in the next five years, and on into the next decade. Post responses on a whiteboard, and use them to brainstorm for a new, shared sense of mission. 

    ► Keep your team motivated during demanding periods by stressing the personal side. Try a simple statement such as, “Is there anything I can do for you?” It shows you haven’t forgotten the “give” side of “give and take.” 

    ► Resist the temptation to keep people who hate each other from working together. Once you begin to cherry-pick the people you put on teams to avoid conflict, you lose the ability to use your best people to your best advantage. 


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