When a team grows too big to be everyone’s friend

  • Mikey Lynch
  • 21 May 2018

Recently my staff team at AFES Hobart has grown outward and downward. I directly oversee five staff, but last year there were two additional staff overseen by our FOCUS team leader. This year there will be, God-willing, two MTS apprentices and another part-time staffer in the mix.

What’s been particularly different for me is not particularly the number of people, but the layers: having staff one step removed from me, ‘reporting’ to someone else. I’ve been in that situation before with the FOCUS team and it’s always a bit strange and tricky. Why? Because I no longer have a directly relational bond with the person who’s one step removed.

This means that there is less affection and trust. It means that it’s harder for us to be persuasive to each other and easier for us to misunderstand, annoy or hurt each other. It’s a little easier for them to not want to submit to my instructions, and a little easier for me to be suspicious of a more distant team member. I need to go out of my way to invest in that relationship, being considerate, prayerful, interested. I aim to meet briefly once a month with these staff, just to keep a point of connection. It also makes the light chitchat when we cross paths, the interactions on email and text, and the time together in combined staff meetings all-important. Time spent conversing, reading the Bible, praying and eating corn chips is critical.

But I also need to make peace with the fact that part of growing the team is moving away from needing a tight relational bond with everyone. I need to let go of that desire, as well as the burden of guilt for not doing more. I need to be okay with the fact that I’m perceived as a bit more removed, a bit more bossy and unapproachable or whatever. I need to not be driven by a need to be liked.

But I also need to make sure I lead in other ways that make up for the lack of close relationship.

I might not have the same relational pull, but I can possibly have an even stronger influence in setting a clear vision and set of priorities. Perhaps those team members closer to me might zone out when I set vision; they know who I am, and they are following me, not some vision statement. But those less close to me rely more on a clear sense of what we stand for and where we’re going.

Likewise, clear policies about expectations and freedoms and communication need to be spelled out and consistently applied. I need to not ‘punish’ team members for appealing to these policies, as if that somehow shows they are not Really On Board.

Crucial here is also my own character and conduct. In my speech, actions, consistency and integrity, I will need to strive to lead the whole team not based on my rapport with personalities but instead based on alignment with our vision and fair application of our policies. My team needs me to be a just, merciful, faithful and kind leader, so that they don’t miss out through favouritism or sloppiness.

Lastly, I need to give responsibility to build team ownership and rapport to those who are leading other staff. They now have the job of providing relational glue. I need to teach and train and encourage them to invest in that, as this might be a new role for them. I need to support their decisions and allow them freedom to lead. Of course I need to hold them accountable to the vision, to our policies, and to their own conduct. But I want to beware of undermining them. I also need to help their staff resolve issues with their immediate team leaders wherever possible, rather than relying on me always stepping in.

Finally, I need to ask for a greater degree of communication from these team leaders. I want them to report to me not only on their own work, but also on the progress of the whole team.

It’s not going to be easy to make all these adjustments, to get it right 100% of the time—especially if you really want to be liked! And sadly, I won’t be the perfect leader to those immediately under me, let alone those a step removed. I'll need my team’s grace and patience. What is needed in this time of transition is what’s always needed: to remember that more foundational than deep rapport and intimacy in our human relationships is the wonderful intimacy we all enjoy with our heavenly Father, bought by the blood of Christ. This enables us to receive one another with a gracious warmth that surpasses our social connectedness, as brothers and sisters in him. And we need to be motivated by more than the buzz of a close-knit working group, but instead by a shared commitment to Christ's saving purposes being worked out in the world.

This post was first published at Christian Reflections, and has been updated and republished with the author's permission.