Q: I have been given responsibility for a challenging cross-functional project that is a bit of stretch for me. The problem is, I don’t feel like my team is supporting me and is undermining my authority by arguing against my point of view. The executive team is counting on me; how should I handle this? — Erin, 48, actuary
A: What is the role of a team?
In the case of a group of less senior people reporting to you, it may imply a hierarchy. In that case, you may have a more unambiguous expectation of decision-making. With a cross-functional project, especially an important one that may have more experienced people involved, your best role is a “leader among equals.” In either case, though, you shouldn’t be mistaking differences of opinion for undermining your authority.
This is an excellent opportunity for you to think through your leadership style and consider ways that you can grow. In particular, think about the areas of adaptability and communication.
How flexible are you in adapting to different viewpoints and changing needs? If you tend to be “cut and dried” in how you see the world, this role will be a stretch in more than just business content. The benefit of a cross-functional team is that you get a wide range of perspectives.
You can see this as contradicting your experience, as you seem to be, or as enriching your perspective and the team’s ability to succeed. What will it take to make this inner shift?
Remember, you don’t have to be the expert in all content. You were asked to head the initiative, which can be more of an orchestral conductor role. Find an image for a successfully adaptive style that works for you.
Next, how would you characterize your communication style? You may tend more toward a consensus style and feel that any disagreement is negative conflict. Or you may be more of the “because I said so” type. In either case, you may instinctively be triggered when people raise dissenting views.
Contrast your style with those on the team. As leader, you will be well served by understanding their styles and adapting yours to be able to interact most effectively with each person.
Team dynamics already may have been negatively affected by your tension with the group. It may be necessary to do a reset, perhaps getting a facilitator to help get you all on a constructive base.
Another consideration: When you have been placed in a stretch situation in the past, what has worked for you? Take your own best practices and think about whether they fit in this circumstance. Remember, a solo “power through” strategy may be misplaced here.
Consider the effect of words. When you say “my team,” you create hierarchy. Think about the different message the more inclusive “our team” sends. Subtleties like this can also create a unified culture within a team.
Finally, keep in mind that this may be a leadership test for you. Stepping up in an empowering and inspiring way may be just the thing that your executive leadership is looking for.