Lead or lay back?

“Know your place” can sound like an insult. But when you’re on a team, it’s excellent advice.

Your first task when joining a team is to assess group dynamics. Study teammates’ personalities and determine where you fit in. Example: If you’re normally a talkative leader but you’re stuck with three motormouths, you may want to listen more. Here’s how to weigh what role to play:

The take-charge leader. Some teams cry out for direction. If you notice that others are afraid to make even simple decisions—much less take stands on noncontroversial matters—then you should consider stepping up and speaking out.

Suggest that the team define its mission or list its three main objectives. Commandeer the flip chart and take notes as everyone chimes in. Soon, everyone will look to you for guidance and follow your lead.

The quiet consensus-builder. When divisiveness rules or office politics prevents team members from speaking honestly, you may not want to be too visible. Your leadership can backfire if you’re reduced to presiding over arguments. In this case, serving as team spokesperson can be a suicide mission.

Meeting privately with dueling individuals and helping them overcome their differences can help you earn allies. You’ll also prod the team to produce results. Consensus-builders rally support not by giving speeches but by buttonholing stubborn teammates and dangling rewards in exchange for their cooperation.

The detached questioner. If your team is trying to solve problems, then you shouldn’t insist on your solutions. Persuade colleagues to buy into ideas by quizzing them.

Ask open-ended questions that force others to grapple with issues. Don’t pretend to have all the answers or jump in with your opinion. Use your questions to challenge the group. They’ll share in the discovery of new ideas—and you’ll get credit for creating a climate conducive to breakthroughs.