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Teams that lose their mojo have one person to blame

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Your team at work was once the very model of efficiency and creativity. The room hummed when you were at it. Managers praised the results.

But over time, the team faltered. Members began to disengage; some felt like they were rowing upstream. The work was not getting done.

They had lost their mojo.

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At this point managers might be tempted to conduct surveys, or go on a retreat, or buy expensive software to manage it all. But often poor leadership is to blame.

"I've seen it happen," said Julie Giraldi, chief human resources officer at the Ontario Hospital Association. "Leaders are not really leading by example. Leadership to me is everything. You can really tell the organization by its leaders and that trickles all the way down to the front-line staff."

A team with poor leadership might have these characteristics:

  • Employees don’t know the team’s chief objective. They might become more interested in personal glory, a concept that runs contrary to teamwork, experts say.
  • Too few members end up doing too much of the work. Focus goes out the window, as members argue about small matters that never result in achieving the ultimate goal.
  • There is no accountability. Members miss deadlines. They ponder theoretical questions, they gather information with a bent toward procrastination. They dither.
  • Nobody can make a decision. This should be the job of a strong leader who considers the facts, draws conclusions and then acts on them to reach the goal.

Even if teams understand the vision, the leader must translate that into a road map and state clearly why the team exists and the outcome expected, said Philip Wilson, a human resources consultant who spent more than 10 years with the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. It doesn't matter if it's a small team working on a single project, or a corporate team that's providing service to a large group of employees, he said.

The team must also have a strong sponsor – someone who understands the vision. "If you look at any organization development model, sponsorship is probably the most important thing," Mr. Wilson said.

In other words, the group needs someone who can clear hurdles, seek resources or financing when needed, and navigate the political environment in the organization, he said.

Other symptoms of trouble are employees who feel that they're not being heard or understood, or they can't make the connection between their work and the company's strategic plan, Ms. Girardi said. "It's all in the communication, and you need to over-communicate," she said.

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"Listening is really important," she said. "Leaders must give team members an answer to their questions, even if it is something they do not want to hear."

Mr. Wilson said he once had to help heal a "fairly dysfunctional" team that eventually became one of the best he has ever worked with. The issue? Personality conflicts.

After studying the team, he decided he had to remove one of its members. Then he brought other conflicted personalities together to help them understand that there was a real benefit to working together.

"Up to that point, they didn't have a shared purpose," Mr. Wilson said. "And once they did, they were able to get their heads around how they fit into delivering that purpose."

He also subscribes to the 80/20 rule. If you can persuade 20 per cent of the people on a team to move in one direction, the other 80 per cent will follow, he said.

Generational differences can also affect teams, Mr. Wilson said. Younger people are more accustomed to working with a team because they've done it since they were in elementary school. Baby boomers, on the other hand, have been rewarded throughout their careers for their individual contributions.

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Diversity is important, however. "Having a good mixture of young and old, and people of different races is only good for the team and for the business," he said.

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