Over time “the usual suspects” of why teams break emerge. Their causes and treatment are laid out in this section. What raise these four team-breakers above all of the rest are two criteria— frequency and lethalness!
1. Team-Break Number One: Two Teammates Not Working Together
A Remedy: Resolve or Remove to the Point of Team Functioning
Either the two bickering parties deal with old baggage, stylistic differences, and disagreements, or the team continues without either or both of them! I understand relationships are highly nuanced and complicated, and that there usually are no “bromides,” or quick solutions. But the team has the right to expect its members to act professionally and function effectively with each other. Two ways to address one-on-one tension and dysfunction are: 1) the team leader sets team expectations upon team formation, and addresses the situation with each of them off-line, or 2) informal encouragement from team colleagues recommending that each individual resolve their differences and figure out how to effectively work together for the greater good. Do not let the difficulty go drifting along untended; most often it will continue to simmer, escalate, and deteriorate! Ultimately, involvement of their manager(s) may need to occur to iron things out and reinforce behavioral expectations, as reinforced in their individual performance plans. The mission and project must go on. Situations addressed and not ignored or glossed over can result in amazing breakthroughs because two individuals work their problems out. It is like lancing a boil and applying a disinfecting balm. These two likely don’t become best pals, but the team functions sufficiently well to perform its assignments successfully.
2. Team-Break Number Two: the Team Leader Is Doing a Poor Job
A Remedy: Feedback First to Leader; If Needed, to Manager
This is all too common and never fun to remedy. Feedback and timely communications to the poor team leader and ultimately his or her manager are not easy steps, but usually the only way to make timely progress. There are so many approaches and tools here, from timely 360-degree reviews to using other tools for soon enough, constructive feedback to the leader that best benefits your unit, the person, and ultimately the company.
Doing nothing should not be an option. Considerate but clear feedback must occur sooner than later. Such feedback can come regularly and gradually from the group, or channel through a team member to whom the leader will most likely listen, or through confidential, un-ascribed group feedback to the leader with “What You Are Doing Right/What You Can Do Better.”
More than sometimes, the leader either does not get it or knows and is resistant. Recourse is confidential escalation to that person’s manager informally as a friendly, “I’ve got your back” heads up from a peer manager, or formally down from their manager. Politics and protocol are realities that protect the messenger(s) from getting shot. Net-net, if the team leader cannot do his/her job, it is a good thing that he or she would be replaced as early on as possible rather than to let this drag on!
3. Team-Break Number Three: Team Is Good—Above Is a Problem!
A Remedy: “Sell” the Right Solution in Terms Executives Accept
Observations attest that some senior leaders’ teams are incurable in terms of not helping a project team succeed. Some executives can mess up good teams in their purview, creating more problems than they solve. It is not necessarily true that when the top leadership is dysfunctional that the team cannot make progress. That fact used to be one of my most strongest allies when working under dysfunctional senior leadership situations. As a team member, and more so as a team leader, attempt to:
• Understand exactly what the stated executive direction is to get from A to B;
• Figure out options, then set the plan of attack;
• Gain/maintain upper management buy-in before, during, and after the project.
Number three is the toughest sometimes. In my experience what helped me was to “sell” our team’s solution through the lenses, in light of what senior management needs and wants. What are the business and financial objectives and measures? What are they worried about with their bosses? What will make them successful? By relating to their orientation, you build that “culture of constructive embarrassment” where they are made to feel overtly obstructionist and ridiculously inflexible to not “back their team” in the framework of their interests.
Sometimes the team’s recommended plan is un-sellable to clueless or close-minded bosses. You have to double back—Are you missing clues on how to get the win-win? Are you selling this plan right? At some point, you make business compromises, up to a line beyond which the team feels it cannot responsibly extend. It comes down to how much you can creatively flex and still function. Ultimately, it may unfortunately mean finding a more functional unit or company in which to work for the sake of your own sanity! Leopards do not change their spots, especially old leopards.
4. Team-Break Number Four: Runaway Team-Member Wreaking Havoc
A Remedy: This Person’s “World” Giving Feedback/Ultimatum
The team leader at the beginning of the project should set out team guidelines, the team should demonstrably buy in, and then each person should be held squarely accountable to them. This sets up early notice to the would-be malefactor. Fellow team members need to help the separatist teammate to see their blind spot/out-of-bounds behavior, register disapproval with his or her “four-wheeling through the garden,” and humbly, request that person to improve by doing more of “X” and less of “Y.”
One good method is to tell that person a couple of things you really appreciate about them, and that there are a couple of things she or he could do better. A more hardball remedy is for the team leader and/or selected team member(s) to give feedback to Runaway’s manager. It often works well if that manager can take that feedback “off-line” and incorporate that into day-to-day coaching with that person. That’s the way the accountability business works, or at least should work. If the manager does not hear and change, given a fair chance, politely and professionally escalate! Ultimately, the recommendation may necessarily be to kick Runaway off the island. Do not let the team process/product suffer too long or much in getting to that point. “Protracted talks” and a stalemate are your team’s enemies! The above options work unless the state of dysfunction in the department or company is so bad that “up is down and right is wrong.” What do you do then? Be patiently looking and migrating toward a team, department, business unit, or other company that has a solid corporate culture, reputation, and record of building and supporting high- performance teams!