I’ve been on lots of teams over the years – good and bad ones. The teams always had good people doing good work. The “bad” teams always seemed to have organizational problems that prevented us from performing well. The indicators were there early: bad behaviors were permitted, lack of psychological safety, focus on hitting a finish date at any cost instead of caring for the people shouldering the load. The difference between the good and the bad teams was simple: leadership.
Are you a leader that can’t quite figure out why your team is under-performing? See if any of these issues might be happening in your organization.
Control of communication
Communication is “managed” by a few key individuals. Honesty is “balanced” with certain groups’ “need to know.” Notice how I’m using quotes? That’s because there’s a lot of hidden meanings when communication is controlled.
This is not always a management tactic either. Teams or key project contributors may control communication to avoid blame or give a particular spin on their work. Note: this is always my first red flag that a team or project is in trouble.
Examples of this include:
- “Be careful” and “Don’t” are used frequently when team members are allowed to speak with others
- You are coached on how to say things or what details to leave out
- Information must come through only a few people
- There’s a “meeting before the meeting” followed by a “meeting after the meeting” to make sure everyone is on the same page
Individual heroism over team work
Teams are tasked with getting work done but it’s a core group of individuals that are consistently rewarded for “heroic” efforts. This sends the message to people that team effort isn’t valued.
Symptoms can include:
- heroes are visibly rewarded. You know what that looks like. A key project status update occurs where one person – usually, the same person over and over – is acknowledged for working “above and beyond” to make X happen.
- unrequested overtime is valued – individual heroes work a lot of overtime – usually without being asked – to pull off a timeline or deliverable that otherwise could not be achievable. They receive praise from leadership when they give up their personal time to help the organization.
- lack of team collaboration – the heroes have the best ideas and know how to implement them. They pursue that direction with limited involvement from others. They are not encouraged or just don’t feel the need to coach and mentor others to spread the knowledge out.
An eyeroll in a private conversation. A backhanded insult in a team meeting. Outright shouting and humiliation in public meetings. These are flagrant signs of disrespect.
When disrespect is permitted, team work and morale are undermined. It can be even more devastating to the organizational culture when the leaders are the ones exhibiting the disrespect. This gives employees tacit permission to be disrespectful to each other.
More subtle examples, which can be equally damaging to employee morale, can look like this:
- Gossip and, in particular, allowing a gossip culture to flourish
- Lack of regard for team members such as demanding unending overtime, referring to employees as “resources” or “bodies” rather than the using their job title or name
- Scapegoating and blame culture – blaming others when something goes wrong instead of assessing the root cause and fixing the problems
- Micromanaging specific individuals or teams without providing any explanation as to what concerns leaders may have
Team competition when done correctly can lead to increased morale and innovation. But teams can collapse when this competition comes with the threat of job loss or discipline. The threat doesn’t have to be real. Teams can pick up the vibe through the gossip mill, by watching the behaviors of the leaders, through poorly coordinated communication or, worse, the absence of communication.
Team competition can also be a problem when outside staff are brought in to do a portion of the work. One group can interpret leadership’s actions (or lack thereof) as favoring one side or the other. This creates an “us versus them” mentality which can give the favorite team permission to treat others poorly.
So What? Now What?
Do you see any of these happening in your shop?
These situations aren’t inevitable. Honest, empathetic leadership that prioritizes employee well-being is the key to addressing these behaviors early so they don’t become systemic problems.