Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, our team just doesn’t thrive. Sometimes it fails completely. Team members may fall short of delivering what we thought they would deliver, or our team may end up a bubbling cauldron of dysfunction, rather than that smooth cocktail we were hoping for. Sometimes the realities of the situation simply overwhelm the team. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out.
We can take all the right steps at the outset, do all the necessary planning, and assemble a team and plan a project in the most diligent way, and it still may not work out the way we want it to. What do you do as a team leader when success is no longer possible but failure is not an option?
For one thing, you can make a point of asking yourself every once in a while, “What will I do if this team fails? How will I respond? How will I attempt to save the situation?” If you game out these scenarios once in a while, you’ll be better prepared to respond if they actually do happen.
Here are a few ideas to consider when things go awry:
1. Take a look in the mirror. Examine your own behaviors. Ask some trusted teammates or advisors to evaluate you. Ask yourself what you can and should be doing differently. You may realize that you are the problem. At a minimum, you may come up with some concrete ways to improve your own performance, and when other members of the team see you looking in the mirror, they are more likely to do the same for themselves.
2. Go back to your planning and preparation. In chapters 11 and 12, we laid out a series of first steps you should take as you plan and build your team. Those steps are critical, and not just in the preparatory stages. All that work you did around goals, roles, and responsibilities can serve you well when things start to fall apart. Here’s a perfect example. My wife teaches at a private boarding school in our home state of Connecticut. I do a little work with some of her school’s sports teams and coaching staffs, including the coaching staff of the boys’ hockey team. Several years ago, we tried having the players write out team goals and expectations at the beginning of the season, and then sign the document. The team relied on that agreement to dictate the culture of the team, but, more importantly, it has helped avoid a number of problems as seasons have progressed. How? Well, each time the team hits a rough patch, the team’s leaders pull out the document and review with team members what they previously agreed to. This exercise provides the team with a calm, unemotional way to look in the mirror and remind each other what they had decided they wanted to be. Does it solve every problem? Of course not. But it can solve a lot of them. If you do your planning correctly at the outset, you not only start off on the right foot, but you also establish a framework for resolving disputes and overcoming challenges.
3. Communicate as directly as possible. Problems ignored don’t disappear. On the contrary, they tend to become bigger and harder to solve as time goes by. When things on your team start to malfunction, it’s usually best to deal with the issues directly. You might need to start by speaking privately with certain team members to find out what is going on. Perhaps you then have some group dialogue. Perhaps you communicate with the subset of the team that is causing or having the problem. Perhaps you deal with the problem gently. Perhaps you deal with it harshly. All of these possibilities depend on the gravity and nature of the problem. The point here is that you will do better, more often, if you put issues on the table, talk about them, and attempt to work through them. A problem ignored almost always becomes a problem that you regret ignoring.
4. Look for other leaders on the team. People like to see themselves as leaders, as reliable resources to help solve problems. So, when you are on a team that is starting to falter, consider appealing to the leadership instincts of some of the key members. Bring them inside, talk to them about how you need their help to solve the problem. Appeal to their sense of pride and ownership over the team and its productivity. This concept is related to your preparation of your team. If you create a sense of ownership at the outset, you can put this to use when things go south. People will care more about things they feel they own.
5. Avoid using embarrassment. If there is a person on your team who is causing the problem, embarrassing them publicly rarely provides the results you seek. When you have an underperformer on your team, your goal should be to get him or her realigned with the team, carrying his or her own weight. Embarrassment rarely achieves this. Conversely, it usually drives a wedge deeper between the underperformer and the rest of the team.
6. Make changes when you need to. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, no matter what we do, we end up with a group of parts that don’t fit. And sometimes all the effort in the world won’t change that fact. When it becomes undeniable that you have a team that isn’t going to work, the only move is to make a change. Someone may have to go. The entire team may have to go. Sometimes even the leader – yes, you! – may have to go.65 Regardless of the shift that needs to take place, changing your team takes courage and confidence. If you have exhausted all other possibilities and the performance of theteam remains at risk, making a change is the only option.
7. Remember the lessons learned for the next time. Every team experience flows into the next one. Every team and every team situation is different. It follows that every team opportunity is, above all else, a new opportunity to learn how to lead, manage, and follow better. Whether your team experience ends well or poorly, take note of what worked and what didn’t. Begin building a toolbox of techniques you can use to do better next time.