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One of the most important things a leader has to instill in their team is belief. Belief that the mission, work, time, and energy are worth it. Belief that succeeding in the worthy endeavor, whatever that may be, is not only possible, but probable.

Belief is fleeting and hard to cultivate. New beliefs are fragile and have to be hardened over time. People don’t just start believing one day that the mission and work are worth it and that the team will succeed. Most people are non-believers before they are believers. Yet, if a leader is going to help their team to perform at their best the team must evolve to believe in the leader, their teammates, the company, and the work.

Belief, even professionally, is hard to come by because people need to see evidence their belief is warranted. People guard against believing in things they can’t see, touch, and personally experience and their professional lives are no different. As a leader, it’s important for you to identify the belief signs and which team members are likely to be early believes, verses those who might take some time or convincing. This is important for leaders because team members who are faster to believe in something such as a new project or initiative that could be viewed as risky by most team members, are likely better suited for a role on the new project team. Leaders who don’t know their team member’s belief perspective run the risk of asking team members to take on roles and responsibilities that don’t align with the team member’s belief perspective putting the team member in a difficult spot and putting the project at risk.

Professional belief comes with more complexity than other types of belief. Someone can choose to be the fan of a team and have belief the team is going to have a good season out of a desire to want to be part of something larger than themselves, but that has no real impact on the person’s life. My parents loved baseball and they were NY Mets fans. They believed season after season the Mets were going to be good and even if they were wrong it didn’t matter. They still watched the games and rooted for the Mets, even after hope for the season being a good one was gone. This kind of arm’s length belief, that has no real personal negative consequences to it, is what I refer to as a superficial belief. Sports fans probably don’t see it that way and the belief in their team probably seems and feels much deeper than that, but it is belief in people and an endeavor that someone is not directly contributing to and involved in. People’s work is on an entirely different level of belief.

The NY Mets made it to the 1986 World Series and won. The rallying cry for the team and fans was, “We Believe.” There were “We Believe” signs and banners. This rallying cry was likely used by countless teams before then and certainly has been since, but it seemed to mean something for the 86 Mets and team’s fans. I used to think it was mostly for the fans, and it probably was and still is, but the more professional experience and exposure I’ve had makes me think there is value to the players too. The players on a sports team, just as the team members in any professional setting, know whether they have the ingredients to succeed…to win. Team members aren’t uninformed and unaware. Team members know whether belief is manufactured or whether it is based on a solid foundation. Belief that is manufactured asks people to deny what they know to be true to believe in something other than the truth. Manufactured belief can also be labeled as manipulated belief and this is where I think leaders really need to be careful around belief from their team members. A leader who asks their team members to believe in a mission and work that is not grounded in a believable foundation risk losing the respect and credibility of their team members. A believable foundation includes elements like a worthy mission, the right team to accomplish the mission, the right leadership, and the organizational support and commitment to see the mission through. Professional belief, for most people, is about what could be based upon what is. Most people are not willing to risk their professional time, earning potential, and reputation to believe in a mission and work that is unsubstantiated and that has very low odds of succeeding. Leaders need to build a belief case and be able to communicate it clearly to expect team members to buy into where the leader and organization are asking them to do.

People are very good at sniffing out false beliefs - and leaders that try to sell false beliefs. People also know whether the foundation of a belief exists or doesn’t. Every team member knows whether the mission is worthy, the work worthwhile, and if the team is capable of succeeding. Not guaranteed to succeed, but capable of succeeding. The skill and capability to succeed is a crucial part of individual team member and a team as a whole’s belief. Teams are not fooled when a leader or coach tries to convince them they have the team makeup to succeed, when the team knows they don’t. Leaders and coaches need to be honest with their team members about where the team is lacking in skill and expertise to succeed and what the leader is doing about it. This is not to say that the leader and team shouldn’t begin working on and making strides toward the mission, but by being honest from the start and guiding the team by addressing shortcomings and equipping them with the tools they need to succeed they build trust and credibility as a leader. To truly believe a team can succeed the team members need to believe they have the skills and expertise to do so. Without belief in the capability of the team, there can be no belief in the mission, the work, or the leader.

A team’s belief in a mission and a leader is rooted in trust, honesty, and transparency. A leader being honest about the skill level of the team and whether or not they are able to accomplish the mission is just one aspect of the needed honesty, trust, and transparency. Deep rooted belief that can help a team overcome greats odds and challenges covers every aspect of a team’s mission and work. Belief is either present or it isn’t. There is no in between. Belief can increase or decrease over time based on new information and actions by team members and leaders. The best leaders are the ones who facilitate belief among their team members because they are open and direct with the team members about the path ahead. The good, the bad, and the ugly. No Pollyannaish, rose colored glasses talk. Real talk about real issues and how the leader anticipates they and the team can overcome them. People follow leaders because they share the same professional beliefs and they also believe that the leader believes in them.”

We often think about people believing in leaders as the first step and the most important, but I think it is leaders believing in people that comes first. A leader must first believe in their team members for the team members to believe in the leader.

Being a professional leader is an immense challenge and responsibility. There is tremendous pressure on business leaders to produce and to get their teams to perform at a high-level, consistently. What happened last year, quarter, month, and week doesn’t matter. Every leader has to produce now and ongoing to be effective and to meet company expectations. The expectations and pressure can cause some leaders to become more Manager than Leader. Processes, equipment, and tasks get managed. People get led. Leaders that fall into managing vs. leading don’t typically even realize it is happening, but by the time they do it likely is too late to recover with that team because the team will have lost belief in the leader.

Leaders engender belief from their team members by providing an environment where the team members can ply their craft and do their work unencumbered by company bureaucracy, politics, and cultural challenges. Leaders who engage in and foster these negative company dynamics are more likely to have to resort to management tactics rather than being a leader. Team members believe in a leader who believes in them and protects them so they can do their best work. In some ways this is the essence of leadership…facilitate an environment and conditions for team members to do their best work. That is all any professional asks for really.

Leaders, if you don’t believe in your team currently and they don’t believe in you, you need to assess whether you have the right team so you can start believing in them and them in you. If you don’t have the right team, then start working on building a team you can believe in. You will not succeed as a leader if you don’t believe in your team and if your team doesn’t believe in you.

Here at AWH, we build custom digital products and solve complex data problems for our clients, so for us, our development team is the product. To be successful we need team belief, and we engender that through open and honest communication. From SaaS software development, IoT software development, to AI development we have the right team and leaders in place to build successful products. 

Originally posted with Columbus Business First