A simple example can be seen when taking your dog for a walk. From the dog trainer perspective, this is an opportunity for you to show the dog who is the boss by ensuring that the dog walks beside you or slightly behind you; with the human always in control and setting the pace. Like most new dog owners, I let Jake run to the full extension of his lead, far out in front of me. As far as Jake was concerned, I was telling him that he was the leader and could do whatever he wanted. I was wondering why Jake barely listened to commands while on the lead and was misbehaving.
Similar lacks of understanding can be present in a team without even realising they exist. Think about your team or the people that you manage. Is there a person that you go to all the time to help complete urgent work? Have you delegated someone to teach junior staff? Does the same person lead team meetings in your absence? If so, whether you intended to or not, you have set up a leadership hierarchy that may not be what you intended, or fit within your organisational structure.
I worked with a leader (lets call her Rachel) and her small team recently on strategic planning for their business unit. Rachel’s team has a very flat structure; Rachel’s Manager has three other direct reports at Rachel’s level, but the six people working for Rachel notionally have the same position / pay level. Even though all six of Rachel’s staff were at the same level, an unwritten hierarchy existed within her team. In Rachel’s absence, one team member always ran the team meeting. Rachel hadn’t delegated this to the team member, he just undertook it because it was what he wanted to do. In times of stress or deadlines from her Manager, Rachel had her ‘go to’ person; the one person in her team that she believed had the experience and demeanour to deal with short notice crisis requirements. Through both of these actions (one from her team and the other from herself), Rachel had set up a leadership hierarchy. When I asked Rachel if she had a leadership structure within her team, she replied that all of team were capable of filling in her role if needed. When I asked Rachel’s team members who would fill in for Rachel in her absence, only two names popped up. What Rachel had assumed was delegation of tasks had been assumed by the team as a mandate for leadership for certain individuals. I mention this example because neither of the people the team assumed would be chosen were Rachel’s first choice as her replacement.
Unwritten hierarchies within a team have the ability to cause confusion, create instability and result in friction between team members. When leadership issues such as these are not discussed by the team or told to the team, team members make their own assumptions and judgments. Without assistance, these judgments can often be contradictory and cause division. The simple remedy is to discuss hierarchy with you team and decide who has the authority to lead in your absence. If you don’t, the person the team decides may surprise you.
Does your team:
1. Know who has the authority to make decisions in your absence?
2. Know who should chair meetings?
3. Know the limit of the authority and decision making they have?
4. Know who will speak on behalf of the team?
5. Who will lead if the team faces a crisis?
If not, then perhaps you need to discuss with your team who will do what to avoid confusion and tension in the future.