I am a firm believer that providing guidance and support is a much better style of leadership than simply giving instructions and relying on one’s authority. Supportive leadership brings too many benefits to ignore, and it’s also the leadership style that’s best suited for design and creative teams.
Let’s see what makes this kind of leadership such an asset and discuss how you can become a great supportive leader that your team can rely on!
What is supportive leadership?
Supportive leadership is all about exploring what is needed to ensure the well-being of your team and the optimal working conditions that enable their best possible performance.
Yes, there’s still delegation, but it’s not just about assigning work. Instead, supportive leaders walk their team members through the task, with the goal of improving their skills until the employee has all of the tools and knowledge to handle similar projects in the future with minimal supervision.
Supportive leadership strives to fully empower your team members in various areas. This helps to develop a productive and loyal team that can deliver effective solutions and help your business grow. It’s a win-win relationship, in which employees benefit from leaders mentoring them and leaders benefit from a highly skilled team that they can trust.
Why is supportive leadership so important?
McKinsey’s survey found that being supportive was at the top of the list of effective leadership behaviors.
The research showed that leaders in organizations with high-quality leadership teams typically displayed 4 of the 20 possible types of behavior. These 4 types explained 89% of the variance between strong and weak organizations in terms of leadership effectiveness.
What are these 4 types of behavior?
- Being supportive
- Operating with a strong results orientation
- Seeking different perspectives
- Solving problems efficiently
We can see that two of these four types play a direct role in supportive leadership, and efficient problem solving can also be connected to it.
Why do these types of behaviors have such a huge impact on leadership effectiveness? Well, supportive leaders show authenticity and a sincere interest in people around them in order to help them grow. Not only does this build trust, it also inspires and helps colleagues to overcome challenges. Emotional ties make it easier to gain cooperation and support from the people whom a design leader must rely on to get the work done. It is more satisfying to work with someone who is friendly, cooperative, and supportive than with an individual who is cold and impersonal, or even hostile and uncooperative.
Supportive leaders also seek different perspectives. They encourage employees to contribute ideas that could improve performance, differentiate between important and trivial issues, and assign the appropriate weight to stakeholder concerns.
Efficient problem solving also benefits from supportive leadership, as team members feel encouraged to share their ideas and try different options that may lead to the best possible solution.
Supportive leadership is not a style that suits every business environment. However, it’s pretty much perfect for any organization that needs to be creative and strives to empower its workforce. It fits with design methodologies and is the leadership style that can get the best out of a design team.
How to be a great supportive leader
Supportive leadership does not always come naturally, and there are many aspects of it that need to be considered. These include your team members’ well-being, their environment, business objectives, stakeholders, your own mindset and more.
Let’s see what makes a great supportive leader and how you can become one.
Trust your team members
Leaders, especially design and product leaders, cannot afford to micro-manage. They need to establish smooth processes, provide their team with everything they need (tools, processes, clearly defined problems) and then trust them to do their best work.
Designers are experts in solving problems and addressing pain points. Unless you want something really specific, you should brief your team and allow them to do their job. It can be hard to give up total control, but it’s necessary; you might be amazed by the solution that your team members come up with!
You can even tell them directly that you appreciate their problem-solving abilities and trust that they’ll figure out a great solution to the presented challenge.
Empower your team members
Trust and empowerment go hand in hand, and both will motivate your team. If you present the challenge and then allow employees to take ownership, you will inspire loyalty, confidence and high productivity.
As a good leader, you should see yourself as the coach of your team. You should agree with them on rules and milestones and undertake the journey together.
However, when it comes to empowerment, it’s crucial that your team members are skilled and motivated enough to face the challenge and create a fitting solution for the user and your company.
How do you get your team motivated? And what if someone is not skilled enough yet?
You should challenge your designers with relevant and meaningful problems and break down the challenge into manageable tasks.
The majority of designers want to solve interesting problems that allow their design to make a real impact. They want to prove themselves and expand their skills through new domains, user types, tools, and styles. It’s your job to find challenges that are just tough enough, but still not impossible for them. They should also know why their task is important – more on this soon.
That’s how you can empower your team members, as well as ensuring that they improve their skills and awaken their enthusiasm for the goal that you want to achieve.
See and explain the bigger picture
When you want to empower your team, it’s crucial that you’re able to take a step back, observe the bigger picture, identify what expectations need to be considered and how they are to be handled.
Your team members need to understand the bigger picture, as well as how their role in the project or design will play into it. They should recognize the problem that you are trying to solve and why you are trying to solve it. With the bigger picture in mind, even smaller tasks, perhaps adapted for newer members of the team, can feel meaningful.
Once you’ve explained the bigger picture, you also need to identify and communicate the key priorities. The job of a supporting leader is to make sure that your team truly understands what needs to be achieved and why.
Communicate and give actionable feedback
Leaders often assume that their teams know and understand what is required of them, yet poor communication can lead to many issues and misunderstandings down the road.
It is deceptively easy for leaders to minimize the information that they pass on to their teams. Tight schedules can also lead to them forgetting to sit and talk through projects and expectations with their workforce.
Some leaders seem to think that once they have empowered their team, they no longer need to communicate with them as much. This is obviously a false assumption to make.
The clearer you make the problem, the more confident the designer will feel when solving it. Time spent defining problems, helping to identify blockers, and making the collaboration process with other teams run more smoothly is time well spent. Clear communication can quickly turn an underperforming team into one that is productive and engaged.
As a supportive leader, you also have to be capable of adapting your tone. Junior designers require more constructive feedback, while senior designers need more direct feedback. The way that this is delivered should be adapted depending on how mature the designer is.
Speaking of feedback – a supportive leader should give practical feedback, not abstract feedback.
Your feedback and general communication should always move the team closer to a solution, whether by providing a clearer understanding or through some other way.
Providing real feedback and adapting your tone is even more important considering that a supportive leader should expect and accept mistakes.
You should provide guidance when things aren’t quite right, but you should mostly let your team work things out for themselves. If you step in whenever there’s the slightest sign of trouble, you’re sending the message that you don’t think they can handle it alone. This undermines your team and shows the company that you don’t really trust them.
Of course, some team members need more help than others, so you need to be flexible and adapt your leadership style to suit the situation.
The key is to encourage open dialogue and ensure that individuals feel ‘safe’ to learn from their mistakes and grow. After something goes wrong, debrief your team and see how the situation could have been improved. Never play the blame game and make it clear that you’re in it together.
Make yourself available
All of this talk about empowering employees and accepting mistakes can make some leaders uncomfortable. What if someone is lost and needs help? What if they aren’t motivated or are going through some personal problems? Should you just leave them be? That doesn’t sound very supportive.
You have to make yourself accessible and let your team members know that you’re there for them. By doing this, people know that they can ask for support whenever it’s needed and they will be taken seriously.
It’s also a good idea to schedule regular individual meetings with your team members to check in on them and see how they’re doing. Showing empathy and taking employees’ problems and wishes into account also increases employee retention and enables you to build a very capable and satisfied team.
If you want to be accessible, you should also check your body language frequently. You might think that you’re available, but if team members don’t feel comfortable approaching you, something might be off. Ask around, seek your friends’ opinions, or try to observe yourself to see what kind of signals you’re sending. Which brings us to our next point…
Take care of your own attitude
Yes, sometimes you’ll be fed up. You’ll have had enough. You’ll feel frustrated, annoyed and angry. That’s perfectly normal. If you know that your mood is going to influence your behavior, let your team know. Be transparent. They’re human too – I’m sure they’ll understand.
That’s much better than not caring or failing to be a supportive leader anymore.
You should also check in with yourself every now and then and ask the following questions:
- Are you progressing towards your goals? Or moving further away?
- Are you able to be the leader that you want to be in your current role?
- Do you care about what your team or organization is trying to achieve?
If you notice that there’s a problem, try to find some positive steps that you can take in order to get back on track. If your mind is not in the right place, you won’t be able to help your team.
Align your external stakeholders
Last but not least, you need to make sure that your external stakeholders are aligned with what you’re trying to achieve. You want to ensure that your efforts aren’t being undermined by external factors.
The last thing that you want is for your team to be wasting time on overly complex reports or unnecessary features because someone else wants it, even though it goes against your wishes.
You should organize meetings with key people and tell them what you are trying to accomplish. Let them know if they can help to improve your team’s work in some way and explain what’s in it for them. This is important if you want to gain buy-in.
Establishing a supportive leadership style does not happen overnight – it’s a process that takes time. You need to show your team that they can trust you and that you care about developing their skills.
As a supportive design leader, your ideal goal is to become the worst designer on the team. Not because you’re a bad designer, but because you support everyone else to become better.
After a while, you’ll not only have a team to be extremely proud of, but also one that will contribute to business growth. Such a team is an incredible asset that only supportive leadership can create.
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Design strategy consultant, founder of DesignStrategy.guide
I work as a Design Strategist who holds a Master of Business Administration. I have 15+ years of career experience in design work and consulting across both tech startups and several marquee tech unicorns such as Stellar.org, Outfit7, Databox, Xamarin, Chipolo, Zemanta, etc. I currently advise, coach and consult with companies on design strategy & management, visual design and user experience. My work has been published on Forbes, Hackernoon, Blockgeeks, Newsbtc, Bizjournals, and featured on Apple iTunes Store.