Samuel R. James, Ed.D.
The importance of well-functioning teams is increasingly the norm in organizations. While many factors determine a team’s success, one critical factor is the leader’s orientation to his or her team. Currently, there is a debate raging about whether the most effective leaders are task oriented—focused on accomplishing tasks—or relationship oriented—concerned with the team’s members. Yet this debate has a third option; the best leaders are both! The leader’s facility using both orientations enhances his or her ability to create and maintain trust, stability, and effectiveness.
Task-oriented leaders are focused on accomplishments. Initial success depends upon the leader’s ability to demonstrate competence and commitment to the team’s members. Faced with an initial uphill challenge, a task-oriented leader can help the team understand their challenge by providing a coherent series of steps that structure their initial meetings. These steps include creating a persuasive challenge; ensuring that the team has the right skill sets involved; developing a shared understanding of their interdependencies; and providing strategies for getting started. Each step fosters a collaborative culture in which the team members trust each other and their leader, carry out quick wins, and begin the pursuit of long-term work.
Relationship-oriented leaders focus on the relationships among the team’s members. This can be tricky because some team members can be suspicious of relationship-oriented leaders fearing manipulation and/or exploitation. To neutralize this concern, leaders create an atmosphere of trust and goodwill by emphasizing camaraderie, dignity, and respect. Time is taken to develop relationships with each member; simultaneously, the leader encourages the members to build constructive relationships with each other as well. They instill a culture focused on team performance; thus, individual achievement is downplayed by being woven into the team’s success. Only the team can succeed; conversely, only the team can fail.
The best leaders are skillful at both task completion and creating effective team relationships. In the beginning, they recognize the team’s need for structure and create a foundation that is both firm and flexible. Once the task-oriented building blocks are in place and members begin to take risks by sharing information and speaking honestly about the task, the leader can shift to a relationship orientation. When this shift is successful, the leader strikes the right balance between leading and following the team’s emerging leaders; knowing when to make decisions and when to yield to the team; and ultimately placing the emphasis on the team, not the leader. Consequently, the members’ evolving competence and interpersonal commitments drive them to become more courageous and influential with each other and within the organization.
Task and relationship orientations are not a linear process. Rather the leader oscillates between the two. When the team plateaus, a leader can return to the basics and maintain their focus on achieving results. Otherwise the leader is helping the team use their individual and collective skills and abilities to reach their goals. Combining both orientations provides leaders with a strategy for launching the team from a firm foundation and subsequently encouraging each member to be innovative, collaborative, and effective.