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Does Your Team Suck…or Are You Just a Bad Leader?

Image via JrCasas/

“My people don’t get it.   My staff is incompetent.  I feel like I’m babysitting instead of doing real work.  My team is dysfunctional.  I’m sick of my employees bringing me problems instead of solutions.”

Ever hear yourself registering these complaints to a confidant, significant other, or friend?  I’ve heard these laments from many clients.  There is good news and there is bad news.  The bad news: if you are the leader, you are ultimately responsible for these manifestations and you may be committing leadership malpractice.  In fact, the more you complain about your people, the more of an indictment it may be about the kind of leader you are.  The good news: you can actually do something about it (but it will take more than venting to turn things around).  If you are committed to creating a healthy organization, there are some things you can start doing and some things you can stop doing.  Here are a few:

Stop saying your staff doesn’t “get it” and that they’re incompetent.  They may or may not “get it” and they may or may not be incompetent.  But note that words have meaning and that the language you use to characterize a person or organization has a strange way of creating that reality.  Think of the most extraordinary leader you’ve known. It’s unlikely they spent hours complaining about their people.  Good leaders are responsible, and intentional, with their language.

Accept that as the leader your job is to get people to do things. If you feel you’re babysitting a class of first graders, look at how you’re leading.  Are you behaving more like a first grade teacher or a college professor?  Are you micromanaging your employees, watching over their shoulders, checking to make sure they are doing what they are supposed to be doing, talking to them with an air of superiority?  If so, you are getting exactly what you have designed your team to give you.  A way to stop feeling like you are babysitting is to start acting more like a college professor.  For example:

  • Lay out the course syllabus for the semester (e.g. communicate organizational goals, priorities, etc),
  • Let people know how they will be graded (e.g. talk about performance management, deliverables/what they are responsible for, how they contribute to the organization and work with the rest of their colleagues),
  • Create an engaging classroom (e.g. communicate regularly and often using words people understand, and invite people to share ideas, ask questions, etc.).
  • Make projects and papers worthy of student’s time  (e.g. help people understand how the work they do contributes to the mission, why it’s important.  Invite people to practice critical thinking in the way they do their work, to challenge assumptions and the status quo.)
  • Make yourself available.  Remember the professors who had office hours.  You could go talk with them and discuss whatever you needed. You knew you could count on them to be available.  We have many clients who actually hold office hours.  While it sounds like a relic of the past, many of our clients are finding this to be invaluable. You may not choose to do that precisely, but make it a priority to be available to your employees so they can get what they need from you to do their jobs.

Coaches who lead losing teams eventually get canned. Coaches who lead teams that have chronic losing streaks eventually lose their jobs.  The coach’s job, like your job as a leader, is to figure out how to get your team to perform.  Maybe they need more training or skill development in a certain area.  Maybe they simply need more specific, timely and regular feedback about their performance: a different grip to deliver a forward spiral.  Maybe they are in the wrong role and would be better suited to a different position (maybe your underperforming catcher is a star outfielder).  And, yes, it’s true, in some cases they need to be cut from the team.  They aren’t ever going to perform – they need to find a new sport.  However, it’s unlikely your entire team needs to be canned. If you are wholesale dismissing your staff, it’s time for you to think about how you can be a better coach.  And, remember, keep talking about your dysfunctional team and sooner or later folks around will start to question your leadership.

People bring you problems because you solve them.  Years ago, a client shared a great article titled Who's Got the Monkey?  He was really frustrated by people bringing him their problems when he felt they should be able to come up with some solutions, or at least alternatives. I asked him what he did when people brought him their problems and he indicated he usually “took” their problem.  In other words, someone walked into his office with a monkey on his or her back they needed to get rid of and he ended up taking that monkey.  So, inadvertently he was creating a culture of dependency; people brought him problems dished up on a silver platter and he accepted them.  We talked through a different strategy for him to try.  Next time I saw him he told me that someone tried to bring him a monkey on a silver platter and instead of taking the monkey he asked them:  “what is it specifically you need from me?” The employee said “well, I guess nothing.”  This was years ago. I saw him recently and he said that his new non-monkey-accepting, more-coaching-focused approach had made his life easier and had created a more empowered team. 

Next time you go to rattle off the litany of complaints above, pause and consider whether you want to be that leader.  Instead, you might communicate the same things as follows:

  • “My people don’t get it.” = “I need to make it a priority to make sure my staff have what they need.”
  • “My staff are incompetent.” = “We need to invest in developing more skills, expertise, and making performance management a serious priority.”
  • “I feel like I’m babysitting instead of doing real work.  My team is dysfunctional.  ” = “What leadership development do I need to consider to be the kind of leader I want and need to be?”
  • “I’m sick of my employees bringing me problems instead of solutions.” = “I want to hear ideas from the team: tell me the things that work about X and tell me the things that don’t work or need to be changed about X.”

What’s the biggest complaint you hear yourself saying over and over?  How would you use different language to say the same thing in a constructive way?

Image via JrCasas/

Sarah Agan is a regular contributor to Excellence in Government. She has spent the past 17 years working with clients across the federal government with a focus on helping individuals and organizations thrive.

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