8 Tips for Team Leader Success

Leading fairly and by example, and standing up for teammates are key

Businesswoman leading project meeting in office
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A team leader isn't quite a manager role—most team leaders don't have hiring and firing power over their team members—but it's not the same as the role of a regular individual contributor either. While companies and departments vary, these common practices can help make you—and your team—successful.

They are eight fundamental principles about how a team leader most successfully interacts with their team members.

Act With Fairness

As a team leader, you often are required to assign tasks or even set the schedule for your team members. You may like some of your team members more than others, that is natural and human. But, that doesn't mean you should show preferences for your favorite team members.

If you're having trouble with fairness—and team member complaints are one way to gauge your efforts—ask your manager to look over the task assignments, assign jobs without names, or let a different employee pick their schedule first each week.

Lead by Example

Team leaders generally work alongside their team members. If you're gossiping or slacking off, your team will lose respect for you. Instead, work hard. Set an example of what you expect from your teammates. Don't talk about team members or others behind their backs.

When a team member comes to you with a complaint about a coworker, decide if this is a problem or just whining. If it's just whining, shut it down. If it's a true problem, solve it. But don't gossip about it. Fix it or don't talk about it.

Take On the Unpleasant Tasks

You may think that now that you're the team leader, you're finally exempt from doing the tasks you always hated. For instance, if your team is responsible for cleaning the customer restrooms, make sure that you're on the schedule for that, too. While it's an unpleasant task, your team members will have more respect for you if they see you taking your turn.

Make the Tough Decisions

While you generally don't have hiring and firing authority, you are responsible for making recommendations to those managers who do. You might be included in job interviews for prospective employees who will potentially join your team.

As a team leader sometimes you have to recommend or enforce disciplinary action on a coworker who is also a friend. You may need to recommend suspension or even termination of a team member. Disciplinary actions are difficult, but they’re critical to your team's success. You must handle the problems when they occur.

Follow the Law

If one of your team members has a baby and takes 12 weeks of FMLA-approved leave when she returns you may be tempted to give her the unpleasant tasks—after all, she's been gone for three months. This is, however, against the law. You can't punish someone for taking legally approved leave: it’s called retaliation if you do, and it’s a growing reason for why employees sue employers. Treat the returning employee like she's been there all along.

Likewise, if you have an employee with a disability, work with your manager, the human resources department, and the employee to develop reasonable accommodations as the law requires.

Record all overtime. Don't allow your employees to work off the clock, and never ask a coworker to do it. Make sure that you follow all laws and ask your manager or human resources staff member if you have questions.

Follow Company Policy 

Sometimes you may want to grant an exception to company policy, but don't do so without approval from your boss. The reason for company policies may not be immediately clear to you, but it's critical that you follow them in order to protect you and the company from accusations of illegal discrimination.

For instance, you may think it's not a big deal to grant an exception to Jane but not John, but if the exception is not made for the proper reasons, John could claim discrimination.

Radiate Happiness at Work

This advice might seem silly and unnecessary, but your attitude sets an example for the entire group. If you're positive and pleasant, it can make your whole team work harder and better together. Happy employees are more productive, too.

Stand Up for Your Team Members

Never throw a team member under the bus. If you want to celebrate their successes, you must also stay prepared to support them in their failures. Remember that mistakes happen and you should work to fix them, not simply blame people for them.

The Bottom Line

Leading a team marks a significant step forward in your career. Make sure you approach the responsibility in the right way. These tips will help you lead people to all of your success.