Give Your Team Leaders Authority and Support, Not Just Responsibility

“Different” doesn’t mean “wrong”, when it comes to problem solving.

Brian Strayer

Team Leader 2014-08-05

Were you ever appointed to a team lead role, only to have your manager swoop in and take control of your project when it became increasingly important or highly visible to executives? Or perhaps your manager saw issues that needed fixing and ‘jumped in and out’, confusing team members as to who was in charge.

In fast-paced environments, a useful resource deployment approach is to appoint non-managers as team leaders and delegate to them. Doing so avoids reshaping formal staffing hierarchies, and doubles to groom staff members for career advancement.

But too often, these informal leaders aren’t properly supported or utilized, as described earlier. I’ve been in both roles, as a team lead, and later as a manager doing the delegating. In this blog, I’ll share what I learned about what works and what doesn’t work. Although written as a guide on best-practices for managers, it is equally relevant for potential team leaders to use these practices to better work with the delegating manager to avoid common issues.

Appointing and Delegating

As a manager, how good are you at delegating authority, not just accountability? When appointing a team leader, we tend to focus on the task and desired results, yet handicap the individual by leaving out the level of authority he/she will need. If you don’t empower your team leader with authority to make decisions, and make such empowerment clear to the team, then confusion and dysfunction may occur. In particular, if a manager jumps in periodically and gives direction, the team leader (and the team) can be left wondering what they own and what they don’t.

Guide, but Don’t Direct

Managers should play an active role, but work in the background with their team lead to provide guidance and support commensurate with the team lead’s experience level. Here are some appropriate support methods.

  • Hold private one-on-ones to review project plans, as these don’t usurp the authority of the team lead in the eyes of the team. Speak openly about any team performance issues the team lead may be facing. Personnel management is often a skill yet to be developed in new leaders. Many have trouble giving out assignments and tend to do too much of the work themselves. Help them learn to delegate and hold others accountable.
  • There are moments when the team lead would certainly benefit from the manager’s experience or direct help. Hold back handing out the solution. Instead, ask the leader to spend time thinking of two ways to approach the problem. Discuss the approaches together, then pick one, and modify if necessary.

A new team lead I once appointed complimented my approach as he appreciated “being given the leeway to meander about the path forward, while being kept from falling off the road.”

Avoid the Temptation to Jump In and Save the Day

Sometimes hot issues arise, and without hesitation, a manager intervenes to give direction. There are several drawbacks to such tendencies:

  • The manager may deprive a capable team leader the chance to deal with the issue himself, thereby diminishing his authority and causing disruption.
  • The manager may be assuming a different resolution approach taken by the team lead won’t work because it’s unlike what the manager has in mind. But remember, “different” doesn’t always mean “wrong”. Let creativity play out rather than stifle it.

What if the approach by the team lead looks almost certain to fail? Shouldn’t the manager intervene immediately?

  • The team lead may be convinced her approach will succeed and resent the interference. Unintended and perhaps unseen rifts then develop between her and the manager. Remember, one-on-ones are appropriate venues for advice and persuasion.
  • If the impact of the failure isn’t costly (and can be easily recovered from), let your team leaders learn from the experience. They learn much more from small failures.


Is your team lead fairly compensated for the extra responsibilities? Many companies provide monetary rewards such as bonuses. Nonetheless, you should look into intangible incentives as well, especially during times when pay increases and bonuses are frozen. Managers can help your team leaders in their career growth by ensuring they get appropriate visibility from senior management. You can also help them translate their skills developments into different and/or expanded roles. Check out my earlier blog for more ideas.

Bottom line: be a coach when managing team leaders, take a step back and let them lead.

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Brian D Strayer

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