Leading a Team Effectively With Action-Centred Leadership

Article by Kieleigh Dixon, last updated August 2022

I wonder if you ever have had the unforgettable experience of being led by a new manager who has neither managed people before nor been given any training on “soft skills”? Being managed in this way is rarely a good experience  - however it is amazing just how often it seems to happen in busy organisations!

Bad as it was for you it was probably not a great experience for the new manager either! Transitioning to a new leadership role where you are suddenly thrown into managing a team can be daunting. For many new leaders, the move from managing self, to managing others, often comes with a lack of clarity, uncertainty and doubt around what it actually takes to succeed. 

The good news is that it doesn’t need to be like this! 

In fact, a great leadership model to help with this is John Adair’s Action-Centred Leadership model. In this article we look at how ACL can be combined with an appropriate Business Simulation, for example - CREW,  to allow new managers to quickly hit the ground running in terms of their people and team leadership skills.

What is Action- Centred Leadership?

Developed in the 1960’s by one of the world’s leading authorities on Leadership, John Adair, Action-Centred Leadership is equally relevant today. ACL provides a great blueprint for any new team leader by highlighting three key areas and the actions that leaders need to focus on to successfully manage their team. The three core areas are: task needs, team needs and individual needs.

  • Tasks, priorities, vision and direction
  • Identify goals 
  • Set performance standards 
  • Establish responsibilities 
  • Monitor, evaluate and maintain performance against the plan
  • Report on progress, review and re-assess
  • Performance and behavioural standards 
  • Resolve conflict
  • Develop team working, cooperation,
  • Empower and motivate 
  • Give feedback 
  • Coach and develop
  • Identify skills, strengths, needs, 
  • Agree roles and responsibilities 
  • Motivate and recognise contribution
  • Give feedback 
  • Coach, upskill and develop

The interlocking areas of the circles show that each relies on one or both of the others for success. To be an effective leader of others you must balance all three areas of responsibility.

Here are a few examples which demonstrate the importance of balancing each area.

Example 1.

Your manager has put intense pressure on you to hit your department goals or service level agreements. 

If based on this scenario, you decided to prioritise the task at the expense of the team and the individuals (who are working hard to achieve it) you can expect problems can arise. You may have little time for your team, which can result in conflicts within the team, work not being done and a negative impact to team morale. Not to mention the individuals may feel you have no time for them, impacting their well-being, motivation and productivity. 

Example 2.

Let's say that your team works well together however one team member is falling behind (this might be due to a capability issue). 

If this is left unaddressed this could result in a situation whereby productivity declines or the team fails to meet its deadline which impacts group morale. In this case, the unaddressed issue with the individual then negatively impacts both the task and the team.

Example 3.

Now, imagine you have a highly skilled team that collaborate well. You make sure that the team have the skills needed to do their job and you meet with them regularly but as a leader you have not clearly stated your team's vision or goals. 

The result is that your team's progress is slow because no one knows what they're aiming for. In this example, individual and team needs are being met, but the task itself is being ignored. This is likely to result in the team heading for failure.

Things to Consider 

There are several ways to fulfil each area of responsibility. Use the following lists as a guide and add or remove tasks based on your own circumstances.

Achieving the Task

Here are some actions that you can take to do this:

  • Define your team's tasks, priorities, vision, purpose, direction and goals then communicate them clearly
  • Define success – include the team to get their views
  • Identify resources, people and allocate resource
  • Create the plan to achieve the task and explain, deliverables, measures, timescales, strategy and tactics
  • Establish responsibilities, objectives, accountabilities and measures, by agreement and delegation
  • Be proactively aware of what’s happening around you (internally and externally) enabling you to adapt and act quickly
  • Set standards, quality, time and reporting parameters and control and maintain activities against parameter
  • Apply efforts appropriately – Prioritise what needs to be done. Consider importance and complexity of tasks and align people accordingly
  • Monitor, evaluate and maintain overall performance against plan
  • Report on progress towards the team’s aim
  • Review, re-assess, adjust plan, methods and targets, as necessary

Focusing on the Team

These actions can help your team to work more effectively together:

  • Establish, agree and communicate standards of performance and behaviour
  • Make sure that everyone has the necessary skills, training and ability
  • Monitor and maintain relationships.
  • Anticipate and resolve group conflict, struggles or disagreements
  • Assess and change as necessary the balance and composition of the team
  • Make sure people feel valued for their contribution
  • Develop team-working, cooperation, traditions, team norms, operating guidelines, morale and team spirit
  • Develop the collective maturity and capability of the team - progressively increase team freedom and authority
  • Empower and motivate the team (what and why), provide a collective sense of purpose and full support to deliver results
  • Identify, develop and agree on the team and project-leadership roles within the team
  • Give feedback to the team on overall progress; consult with and seek feedback, and input from them

Focus on the Individuals

It is essential to understand the unique needs, strengths, motivations and worries of each of your team members. Here are some strategies to help:

  • Understand the team members as individuals - skills, strengths, personality, needs, aims and worries
  • Clearly define each person's role and tasks
  • Assist and support individuals to plan their own development and offer coaching and support
  • Identify and agree on appropriate individual responsibilities and objectives
  • Give recognition and praise to individuals - acknowledge effort and good work
  • Reward individuals for their contribution
  • Give those high in capability, extra responsibility and encourage all team members to play to their strengths and contribute
  • Identify, develop and utilise each individual's capabilities and strengths
  • Give regular feedback
  • Train and develop individual team members
  • Develop individual autonomy 

Adopting the ACL model in practice 

Ok so you like the sound of ACL but how do you adopt it? 

The best way we have found is to have new managers learn ACL experientially through playing a suitable Business Simulation or team leadership scenario.

For example, CREW is our Team Leader Simulation which allows teams to practice using all three elements of the Action-Centred Leadership model in a safe, risk-free environment.  

Each round, the team collectively acts as the operational Team Leader and must manage and balance all the issues arising in Task, Team and Individual.

CREW requires the Team Leader to schedule themselves and their five other Simulation team members to appropriate work projects over an intense 4-week period at the same time as dealing with all the personal, skills, attitudinal and team issues which arise. 

CREW shows a team very powerfully the key learning point about team leadership which derails most new managers as it is somewhat counter-intuitive:

“If you focus too much on the work scheduling and project tasks but neglect the team and individual issues your productivity will soon degrade thus damaging your project delivery performance”

If you would like some more information on our CREW Business Simulation please get in touch using the form below.

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