Whether we are running a department or an entire organization, leading small teams can have its own special challenges. Long-tenured staff have institutional knowledge and idiosyncrasies, newbies can have a hard time getting into sync with co-workers who finish each other's sentences, and everyone knows the quickest and best way to get on each other's nerves.

To avoid slipping into comfortable, less-productive roles, consider these three secrets to ensure continued success leading small teams.

Fair with favorites

In a small group, it is often more difficult to appear fair. The regular interaction between and among staff affords everyone more opportunities to form opinions on who is the favorite. While it is helpful to be clear about what actions and behaviors are encouraged versus those that are not, it is equally important to be measured in how any given employee is singled out.

For example, if the superstar exceeds yet another goal, praising her again at a mandatory lunch held in her honor can create animosity within the team and may leave the star feeling like she has a target on her back. Instead, consider direct, one-on-one conversations with individual employees (including the superstar) to provide feedback. This can help ensure the intended message reaches the appropriate ears.

Play to strengths

Similarly, not everyone on a small team is good at everything. Staff figures that out pretty quickly and will often cover for each other, create a workaround or in general reallocate the duties on their own.

These problems may show up as:

  • a long-tenured employee holding onto institutional knowledge with a death grip
  • irregular or inconsistent work hours across the team as they cover for each other
  • convoluted processes created to work around a less-skilled employee

To avoid single sources of failure and other inefficient systems, consider creating a work environment that supports individual strengths. Use job descriptions, performance reviews, goal-setting and regular team meetings to reiterate a strong focus on each team member's unique contributions.


It can feel constricting and frustrating to work with the same faces every day, year in and out. Lines blur between work and rest as personal relationships between co-workers and their families deepen.

Perceptions can be hard to outgrow — like the "newbie" who has been there for five years but will always be the new kid on the block compared to her 25-year co-workers. That is why it is so important to maintain perspective.

Working day in and out with the same group of people can also have its benefits. Leaders can create individualized career plans and provide opportunities for staff that may not be possible in larger groups. Teams can become more productive as they get into a groove working through a variety of challenges together. And employees can be exposed to a variety of roles that may expand their contribution to the group.

The bottom line: Successfully running a small team can be rewarding for everyone if leaders can maintain fairness, objectivity and a healthy dose of perspective.