David Caulfield

Team Leader Anti-Patterns


  • Subliminally Standoffish - Don't be difficult to approach with problems.
  • Micro-manager - Don't be a tyrant on your team.
  • The Libertarian - Don't give your team unlimited freedom.
  • Defender of the Poor - Don't defend your team from every criticism.
  • Team Grouch - Don't complain.

Subliminally Standoffish

What is it?

A standoffish person is someone who is difficult to approach with a problem. If you, as a team lead, are disagreeable to your team members coming with their problems, then it will cost you in the long run.

Why it's bad.

Problems left unsolved will bite you and your team. Leaving something on the long finger will cost time, effort, money and sometimes even weekends.

A backlog of problems that are not getting resolved and that you are not interested in listening to will ultimately make the team unhappy. To have a team lead who is unapproachable is the same, sometimes worse, as not having any team lead at all.

How to avoid.

Listen to your team, both as a group and individually. If you hear someone complain about the same thing again and again, sit with them to discuss a solution.

If someone raises a problem that needs some thought at your standup, ask them to stay for 5 mins after the standup is finished. Discuss possible solutions with them.

As the team lead, the responsibility is on you to have at least a plan to fix the problem. If a new recruit is struggling with their work, pair them up with another team member who can coach them through the problem.

Sometimes, you may need to step up to the mark and lead the solution yourself. The team respects you - that respect should be commanded and used in high priority scenarios.

For example, a few ago a critical bug came into our team from a performance test. After a few hours of the team going through different scenarios, it was clear that some direction and leadership was needed.

I helped the team split up the possible solutions, and assigned each solution to 2 or 3 team members. I then stayed with the solution most likely to give an outcome. In this way, we covered more ground and found a solution much quicker than if I had left the team to their own devices.

Examples and signs.

How many problems have your team reported to you recently? If the answer is none, then either you have a perfect team (which doesn't exist), or they are not willing to raise their problems with you. Maybe they feel you don't care enough about solving their problems.

If the team are requesting support often, and asking your opinion, then you know you are on the right track.

Tricky part

If you have a history of being standoffish or snappy, it will take time for your team to trust you again. Take it one day at a time - say specifically that you want to hear more of their problems. Encourage expressing problems at retros and stand-ups in particular - this is where the team are ready to help out each other.


What is it?

Control - lots of it, all of the time. Control over individuals tasks, control over bugs, control over work hours...

A micro-manager will ask for more than frequent updates and pick at anything that they think is incorrect or unproductive. They will call for unnecessary updates to make sure every detail reported is on track.

Why it's bad.

A common misconception is that micromanaging is always bad. It's not. Sometimes it is absolutely necessary. A poor worker who is untrustworthy needs to be micromanaged. Anybody who cannot abide by a professional working structure needs a low level of management.

Having said that, the majority of your team will not have this problem (if they do, you're in for a rough time). When someone feels micromanaged, they feel not trusted to do their work. As the team lead, if you micromanager your team, it indicates you do not trust them to get their work done.

I once witnessed a team lead chase down a colleague who took regular coffee breaks. She then proceeded to scold him in the hall. This behaviour will  not lead to a good working environment.

How to avoid.

If someone is not pulling their weight, bring it up in a team context. If Patrick is not acting professionally, ask the team - "What can we do to help out Patrick here? Alex - can you join him this morning to try and help progress with his story? Patrick - can you update the team on your progress at the end of the day?"

In this way, you are not singling out Patrick, so he does not feel intimidated. But you are letting him know that the team sees a problem with how he is progressing.

Examples and signs.

You are constantly correcting and asking information from the the same individual again and again, more so than any other team member. A team member is getting frustrated at giving you so many updates and being told how to work.

Tricky part.

Micro-managing can be necessary. You need to balance between effective updates in a team setting while giving the freedom to work effectively.

The Libertarian

What is it?

The right to do whatever you want, maximum freedom and autonomy, little to no updates on progress at standups, and no structure on the team as a whole.

While the libertarian philosophy is ideal when talking about government and how one should live their life, it is not a good idea to allow your team absolute freedom in how they work.

Why it's bad.

Effective teams require structure and rules. You must help the team enforce those rules upon themselves. Remember, they are team rules, not yours. You are not a tyrant. A team without structure will perform poorly and get easily distracted.

How to avoid.

Encourage the rules within the team. Encourage effective updates in the standups. Ask questions and critique assumptions to encourage people to speak out.

Example and signs.

I met an old colleague of mine after he moved jobs into another software developer role at a bank. I asked him how things were going. He said it was fantastic.

His team didn't have to turn up to work by any set time. They could have their standup remotely from home and come in later on if they wanted. They didn't practice any of those 'nasty' scrum processes. Instead, they worked in an individual Kanban fashion and could take and leave tasks as they wanted. Needless to say, he was on the hunt for another job within 6 months, and the same bank made headlines for some data breach.

The above is an extreme case of 'anything goes' and on a macro scale. When it comes to your team, if you see tasks slipping, team members being absent from team meetings or complaints coming in from different team members about other team members then it might be time to revisit the rules within the team.

Tricky part.

A good team needs freedom to move. Your job is to help enforce the rules that provide that freedom. Each team will share a common rule set (eg. scrum), but certain teams require additional rules to pull together as a working unit. Your job is to figure out where the freedoms are taken advantage of and to suggest more structure.

In Defense of the Poor

What is it?

Whether you are an experienced or inexperienced team lead, you will come across colleagues that just don't want to be there. As the team lead, part of your job is to show off the team. You do this via demos, planning meetings, retrospectives etc. However, we must not confuse showing off the team with blindly defending the team at all costs. Avoid defending a bad decision made by the team or an individual in the team.

Why it's bad.

I have witnessed a few cases where a team lead was adamant that a weaker member of his team did not make a mistake. He seemed to think that by 'team lead', his job title included justifying every bad action made by his team. 

By defending the team's bad practices or habits, you damage their productivity. In particular, if a team member is consistently making bad judgements, do not defend them beyond doubt. Teams learn as individuals learn - they need to make mistakes to progress. By not admitting to mistakes and working to fix them, the team is damaged long term.

Furthermore, anyone who scratches beneath the surface of the team will quickly see the fault lines. Most importantly for you, it displays you are an incapable team lead. Your job is not to be 'nice' towards your team. It is to create an effective and high performing team.

How to avoid.

Avoid 'defending the poor' in the first place. Each individual should practice being accountable towards their team. Encourage the team to correct each other at stand-ups and other team meetings. Ask questions like  "What should we have done to avoid this mistake?".

If the issue persists, particularly with individuals who are consistently making mistakes, you may need to consult with your line manager. Sometimes it is simply the case that certain people are not fit for the team or the line of work.

If you do have a weak link in the team and you are asked to explain to an external colleague (eg. manager), respond with something like:

We recognise this is an issue - we have taken a retro internally and are working on a plan to fix it.

Remember - don't mention individuals. The team made the mistake, so you must express the mistake as a whole, not on an individual basis.

Examples & Signs

Gary has been arriving late to meetings and is merging faulty and untested code into the master branch. Your manager asked you what you were doing about it. You defended your team's pride saying that Gary turns up to all team meetings and is an excellent worker and team player. Your manager walks away unconvinced.

Notice how you have not solved the problem - you have essentially said "I don't want to know about it". Your manager won't thank you for that.

Tricky part

Very often, bad performers need to be called out. But you are the team lead so it is not up to you to call them out. Be socially intelligent enough to get the team to critique themselves and each other. This comes with practice so start now!

Team Grouch

What is it?

Everyone knows this guy. Sometimes there are a few of them. They love to complain and moan about every existing problem and every non-existing problem they can think of. They complain about management, about other teams (even their own team!), about their difficult life and so on.

In a work environment, it is bad enough to have co-workers who complain.
But as the team lead, it is not acceptable for you to complain.

Why it's bad.

Complaining displays weakness as a leader. Let's be clear here - when I say don't  'complain', I do not mean you should not recognise problems. The issue is when problems are raised for the sake of raising them. Then it becomes fruitless whining. Complaining is a childish quality and so leaders should never complain. Since you are in a position of leadership, either figure out a solution or keep quiet.

How to avoid.

Ensure any problems you raise are followed up with a potential solution. Stating problems without solutions are of no use to anyone. Finding solutions to problems is why you are in your position.

Sometimes you need to let loose to your colleagues. That's ok - we're all human. Just make sure these occurrences are rare and far between. Even if a team member is complaining, don't join in with them. Instead ask "How can we fix that?". Complaining is often used as a common ground to be friendly with others. Unfortunately, you cannot have this luxury. Find other ways of being friendly!

Examples and signs.

At the team standup this morning, John complained about the QA team lead saying they don't know anything about debugging the backend. You joined in saying "Yeah John, I've had problems with that guy too in the past".

Instead, you should have said "Ok John - can you think of any way to fix this? Would you be able to give the QA guy your debugging cheat sheet?"

Tricky part.

Not complaining is difficult. We like to let off some steam every now and again. But you represent the team and so must rise above it. If you see a problem but cannot figure out a solution, ask for help to find one. As long as you are seen to seek solutions to problems, you won't come off as the team grouch.

1 kudos