Downward Diplomacy: How to Get What You Need From Your Team

Diplomacy with a team

Challenging times tend to reveal fault lines in any system, and that includes the way your team pulls together when it really matters. Whether it’s a looming deadline, issues with resources, or a global pandemic, you will learn much about the work styles of individual team members when you’re counting on them to reach a goal, even when the circumstances are daunting.

Be Diplomatic With Your Team To Drive Success

Leadership skills can help you take the reins and get the team back on track when events threaten to lead them astray. When you combine the skills with compassion and discipline, you can instill a collective sense of accomplishment that will pay dividends for all of you in the future. Staying calm and employing basic principles of downward diplomacy will make your team feel supported and empowered to do what you need to get done.

Set the tone and stay consistent.

Diplomacy matters when you need to persuade people towards the desired outcome or behavior. People respond positively to a courteous, respectful tone and it also helps maintain a calm environment, rather than heighten anxiety.

Moderate the language in verbal and written communications to avoid generating feelings of being judged or reprimanded – feelings that can be counter-productive when seeking to nurture a collaborative atmosphere. Saying a project was “not a success”, for example, rather than describing it as a “failure”, relays the essential message without undue negativity. Practice expressing your concerns without resorting to exclaiming or exhorting, which can often color a situation to seem worse than it is. A softer tone conveys professionalism and engenders trust.

Intensity can also be lowered by employing language that puts problems in perspective, without denying that there is an issue. Focus on the situation at hand, and not the people responsible for it, when it’s not necessary to relay that information.

Minimizing words that downplay setbacks, without denying them, such as “a slight delay”, or “a little late”, guides the team towards focusing on solutions. Using modal verbs, such as “could”, “would”, and “may”, when making requests is another technique that softens the tone and invites cooperation.

Stay fair and firm.

Being diplomatic doesn’t mean that you should ignore issues with a team member. When commitments aren’t met or there are lapses in performance, the team leader needs to engage immediately with the individual to determine the reason and find a resolution.

Managing a team diplomaticallyAny manager is used to hearing an endless litany of excuses from employees, but it can be the case that there are legitimate obstacles that prevent workers from fulfilling their obligations. Hear them out, but don’t stop there. Ask probing questions that invite them to reflect on what could have been done differently and that may enlighten you about steps that could be taken to support them more effectively.

As you question the individual at length, it becomes clear that you are not prepared to simply accept excuses and move on. Expressing disappointment and reminding them that the rest of the team suffers when one isn’t pulling their weight is often the most effective reprimand. It also lets those team members know that you have their back.

Set out clear expectations.

A set of guidelines for performance and behavior can forestall a host of issues with the team, especially when they are devised in consultation with the members. Along with a description of objectives for the team and roles and responsibilities, team members should gain an understanding of the big picture to bring context to the guidelines.

Discussing the expectations before adopting them will also increase the chance that the guidelines will meet with success. With clear expectations to point to, pushback can be met with reference to the guidelines and the reminder that they were designed and agreed with together. While guidelines aren’t legal documents, they should be written down and available for every team member.

The guidelines will also need to be revised from time to time as circumstances change. The recent shift to remote working, for example, calls for clarification around boundary issues, as team members may be juggling home schooling with work, and need to adjust their hours and availability. All team members, including the leader, need to be flexible and accommodate disruptions in the daily schedule. It may be helpful to formally acknowledge in the guidelines that additional measures are temporary and subject to periodic review until normal work life can resume.

Motivating Your Team in Challenging Circumstances

All good team leaders make themselves aware of what motivates team members, both collectively and individually, to help guide them in assigning work and appointing suitable people for a given responsibility. Remote working adds another facet to the tricky work of motivating the team.

Even before the global pandemic, a survey conducted by the Harvard Business Review found that working from home lead to less motivated workers. When they had no choice in where they worked, motivation dropped by 17 points. The challenge is to reinstate positive motivating factors that are not as easily accessed in remote working – play, purpose, and potential.

diplomacy on a teamEmpowering employees to experiment with new ways of working results in a 45-point increase in motivation, according to HBR. You can help your team maintain, or revive, their motivation by making it clear that you are ready to support and respond to the reality of remote working.

Create a safe environment for team members to share their experience with the present reality and measure their level of satisfaction or dissatisfaction. With an understanding of how the situation has impacted individuals and the team dynamic, you can then invite your team to find creative solutions to the dilemma of remote working. That may mean devoting part of each week to exploring adaptive strategies, with the goal of keeping your team motivated and resilient in the face of challenges, now and in the future.

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