Inputs Vs. Outputs: Where Should Your Focus Lie As A Team Leader?

Published: Apr 10, 2017
Modified: May 20, 2020


I was sitting in on a sales team meeting a few weeks ago, listening to them talk about how they stay motivated when they hear “no” all day, every day. The team leader recommended that they focus on doing the right things. “If you’re putting in the effort, and focusing on the inputs, the results will follow,” he said.

This is common advice, for salespeople and for entrepreneurs who are launching new business ideas. You can’t get discouraged just because someone says “no.” It’s a numbers game. If your pitch is good, and you talk to enough people, eventually you’ll find the right ones. You’ll get to “yes” by focusing on the inputs.

While this is good advice for sales, when it gets carried over into management and leadership, it can be a problem.

The limitations of managing inputs for a team leader

Focusing on inputs in a team setting works when it is about coaching and helping people develop skills, but it can go wrong when it becomes micromanagement. In today’s economy, we’ve moved beyond completing repetitive tasks, for the most part. Anything that can be done in a repetitive manner is being automated. People are doing work that computers, robots, and artificial intelligence can’t do—the more complex work of critical thinking and problem solving.

To lead a team of people doing this more advanced work is less about directing and more about defining a shared goal and removing obstacles. That’s focusing on the outputs, rather than the inputs.

When leaders don’t do a good job of painting a vision of success, they often fall back to bad habits such as worrying about what time people arrive at the office or whether they’ve created an agenda for a meeting. This focus on inputs inevitably turns into a conversation about how the work should be done, rather than about the bigger picture of what success looks like.

Sharpening your focus on team outputs

For new managers, the balance between inputs and outputs can be hard to strike. When you’re trying to assert yourself as a team leader, it’s easy to fall into the command-and-control trap of telling people what to do and trying to be the boss.

So how do you keep the focus on outputs? One way is to create a vision statement for your team. By defining how the work you and your team do supports the larger goals of the organization, you can clarify what the big picture looks like, and more easily see when you’re off track.

In addition to having a vision for the team, you can use the SMART goal framework to create goals for yourself and to work with each team member to craft a goal plan. Engagement comes from being committed to accomplishing something that feels important. Doing that as a team leader means charting a path to that future success.

About The Author

Katy Tynan is an expert in the future of work. She is the author of How Did I Not See This Coming: The New Manager’s Guide to Avoiding Total Disaster (ATD Press, 2017) and Survive Your Promotion (Personal Focus Press, 2010). Tynan is the founder and chief talent strategist at Liteskip Consulting Group.