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4 Big Reasons Workplace Teams Struggle—And What to Do About It

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Many workplace teams I observe are not much better than the typical nightmarish college class group project that most of us have lived through at one time or another. The goals are vague, roles are poorly defined, leadership is absent or misdirected and there are varying degrees of enthusiasm for participating, ranging from the loner’s cry of, “Get me out of here!” to the naïve whine of, “Why can’t we all get along?” Oh, and don’t forget that there’s always a few simply along for the ride while others practically kill themselves in an effort to prop up the rest of the team.

Too many of our workplace teams stumble along in search of performance and quality output, while we as managers look on with a mix of horror and disappointment at the slow-motion pile-ups occurring in front of us.

And while we would like to point to senior management teams as best practice examples, those groups are most often “teams” in name only, struggling to get out of the starting gate on anything more than showing up and sharing functional and operating status updates.

Here are a least four big reasons why our workplace teams struggle:

1. We’re naïve. We ignore the reality that groups of otherwise competent professionals don’t necessarily and naturally combine and produce. 1+1+1+1 should = 5 or more according to the theory, yet without guidance, coaching and structure, breaking even on productivity is a long shot in most cases.

2. We don’t teach people how to work in groups. And yes, working successfully in and with groups is a learned skill. Sure, all of your team members have been through leadership development programs, but helping individuals develop their own leadership skills doesn’t necessarily translate to performance in a group setting. The skills, practices and behaviors necessary for team success and success on a team are different than those required for leadership success.

3. We don’t coach our teams. This simplest of all steps: ensuring that our key project teams, our senior management teams and other related work groups have valid, objective coaching support is almost summarily ignored in the corporate world.

4. We don’t walk the talk when it comes to teaming. Our values might include the word “team” or “teamwork,” but we don’t teach and reward the behaviors that make teams work.

Here are nine ideas to help strengthen team performance in your workplace: 

1. Embrace the idea that cultivating high performance teams in the workplace is hard work.Too many of us ignore this reality. Acknowledge this publicly when forming a new group. Share ideas on the challenges and opportunities of group work and leverage the ideas and tools below liberally as part of the teaming process.

2. Extend professional development efforts in your organization beyond individual skills development. Add a “team” track to the work and provide widespread access to this content. From brainstorming to making decisions to learning to adapt based on momentary failures or risks, doing this in a group setting is difficult and merits investment in training.

3. Define behaviors critical for team success and openly discuss and debate those behaviors with any new team you are forming. Codify these behaviors and strive to keep them visible in the process of group work. Individual team members must understand they are accountable to supporting and exhibiting the behaviors spelled out in the values.

4. Encourage teams to examine primary contributors to project or group failure. While it’s fairly intuitive that vague goals, unclear roles and a lack of understanding of the customer are contributors to project stress or failure, many otherwise smart people contribute on groups who step all over those landmines. It’s healthy for people to be challenged to recognize the problems and press the stop button.

5. Challenge teams to define what success looks like in their own terms. This firm definition of success (perhaps shared via a custom scorecard) is priceless context that supports performance.

6. Make a religion out of choosing team leaders right for the situation. Seniority or title are almost never the right reasons to choose someone as a team leader. Choose the individual who offers each unique group the best chance of success.

7. Provide a coach for critical projects. Every team struggles to learn how to talk, debate, brainstorm, decide, provide feedback, learn and, of course, execute. A coach is your best chance of helping a group learn how to navigate these challenges.

8. Recognize that teams cycle through phases of storming, norming and performing. Leadership and coaching are essential to help not only with the early-awkward phase of startup, but also as projects progress and new or unanticipated challenges arise.

9. Get the executives involved. One of the critical contributors to project or group success is an informed, empowered executive serving as a sponsor and resource for a team. The ability of this individual to cut through corporate noise is priceless. A good executive sponsor is part advocate, part coach and part accountability guru, and is present and involved at the right level.

Great teams don’t happen by accident. They are products of very deliberate work to form the environment for success. While our natural tendency with groups is to bypass the squishy front-end of purpose and behaviors definition and get to work, the time spend defining what success looks like is the most valuable time of all. Teach, coach and support your teams for success. Anything less is a formula for individual and group stress and poor performance. It’s time to quit watching the group pile-ups and start building in the values, behaviors and programs that help these teams succeed.

Art Petty is a coach and consultant working with top executives and management teams to unlock business and human potential. Art writes the Management Excellence blog.

(Image via bikeriderlondon/Shutterstock.com)

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