I was writing a checklist on improving team performance and thought it would be useful to expand on it. Bruce Tuckman first proposed the team development model of Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing and it is a core principle of management theory. What I have found is that many teams really never get out of the storming stage, where team members are engaged in unproductive behaviors that limit their potential. This can have many causes but it’s mostly from faulty personal leadership and the failure to inculcate, by example and instruction, the values that make winners. Whether it’s an operations group, a multi-year project team or an ad-hoc team for short term projects, it is crucial to grow into the fully performing stage ASAP. This may take a fair amount of effort, some budget and frustration but if you think it costs a lot to improve team performance to the level of their potential, you should understand what it costs you when they don’t.
As a leader, you often can’t control the parameters you are given to perform under (limited resources, inept bosses, bad corporate strategy, and unreasonable customers) but you CAN always control what you do about it. Having your team members performing at their best, both individually and as a team is one of those factors under your control. Here are some tips on how to do that:
- Make the team’s common goals and purposes clear.
It’s pretty hard to hit your target if you have no idea where you are aiming at. You need to establish sufficiently clear goals for the team. The reason for only “sufficiently clear” is because targets can change rapidly in today’s ever-changing economy, markets and technologies. Still, the most frequent complaint many employees make about their company is “We’re all over the map. I need clarification on my priorities.” It’s difficult to focus the attention and direct the energy of a team without clear goals and the context of that goal in the larger plan. Even a group or team that has been together for some time may never have done this. It is so much easier for people to be motivated to get work done when they are clear on what they are supposed to do and why it’s important to the team and to the company as a whole. So take the time to articulate the team’s performance goals and how the team contributes to the company’s success.
- Establish group norms or a code of conduct.
Engaging in a conversation about the behaviors and attitudes team members want to abide by helps corral and focus their energy and builds trust. When people know the rules of the road and, most importantly, abide by them, they learn to trust each other and they’re more inclined to take risks. In addition, it’s important to recognize and accept that conflict will happen and that it’s not necessarily a sign of something going wrong. Indeed, conflict can often lead to very positive outcomes but only if it is managed effectively. By establishing a group code of conduct, you can proactively plan for how people should and can behave when conflict happens.
- Show you have trust in your team and each team member.
People need to be able to fail and make mistakes in front of others to be able to take risks. Allow them to make those mistakes as a form of learning. Show that it is really ok to make mistakes because if you really want to be creative you have to allow for failure. There are plenty of research studies on creative thinking that show that while highly creative people come up with many, many ideas, only a few are useful. Let them know you really support their decisions. The trick is to seek the root cause of a problem rather than to assign blame when things go wrong. Otherwise, they will always fear that someone is looking over their shoulder to make sure they do things right. Take risks, fail, figure out what went wrong and then keep learning and trying other options until you get it right.
- Give Recognition and Celebrate incremental successes.
Almost every team I’ve ever worked with has said, “We don’t celebrate enough.” They get so busy planning, doing and reviewing that they overlook this important human need. No matter how talented or experienced you are you’re still human. Everyone needs the occasional “atta boy” so it’s important to recognize people when they do something extraordinary. It not only gives people a sense of accomplishment, it inspires others to make efforts to go above and beyond their normal duties as well. Even small efforts can make your employees feel appreciated and inspire them to do even more.
- Once the team decides on a plan of action, everyone must support it.
Debate the issues beforehand and once the team decides to go with a plan… no one should passive aggressively or overtly subvert the plan. Too often, in organizations where there is little trust, people will focus more energy in planning to escape blame for the results of a team decision they didn’t agree with than helping the team to succeed. You can agree or disagree about directions, issues and opportunities – sometimes very forcefully! But once everyone has really been heard and understood, each team member should fully commit to the outcome.
- Enforce accountability.
Stay on top of individual performances because often the actions of just one or a few team members will drag down the performance of the entire team and waste a lot of your time. Address performance issues immediately rather than waiting till a performance review or even a weekly meeting. If you don’t enforce the code of conduct and hold people accountable, there will be the natural tendency to ignore the rules when it suits the needs of the individual. Executives need to know that they will lose their job if they transgress too much.
- Expect that everyone on the team should and will act like a leader.
On high performing teams, people don’t wait for their boss or other team members to speak up. Team members should challenge each other, offer their opinions, hold each other accountable, and, most importantly, praise each other. Mazlow’s theory of needs identifies self-actualization as the apogee of human performance and satisfaction. For team members to reach that place, it’s your job to give them the opportunity and encouragement to step up and lead and often to see in them qualities that they were not even aware that they had.
- Be a leader yourself.
The best way to lead employees is not to manage them. Don’t just TELL them about success, SHOW them what success looks like. Leadership is not about pushing from the back but rather beckoning from the front. After all, if you are not leading, your team cannot be following. This is a process of developing their skills and providing them specific feedback to meet high standards. By improving the team’s performance, you are also improving your own. Too many places have employees who feel as if their managers treat them like children rather than being on the same team with their bosses. Be their coach and lead the team to success!
- Encourage employees to propose better ways of getting their jobs done.
If you are a brand new manager, you will often want to put your own stamp on the group’s common goal. One mistake that many executives make, however, is to think that they personally must come up with the goals for a team. In fact, I’ve found repeatedly that if an executive enlists the aid of their direct reports in goal setting and prioritization, there will be much more buy-in and enthusiasm. Ask each for suggestions for other ways of getting the task or project accomplished. Listen and be willing to really hear their comments. Team members often state that they have no input and are told exactly how to perform their jobs, leaving no creativity. They know much more than you do about the everyday nature of their work. Let them have a say and you will see just how performance improves.
- Strive for continuous improvement.
Continuous improvement is not just catchy consultant speak and TQM sloganeering by management – it’s a way of thinking. We should always be learning, always be working on improving ourselves. While there are many frameworks, tools and resources (outside consultants!) that can help the process, the most valuable resource is the team itself. If you want to close the gap from where you are to where you want to be, you should convene the team at regular intervals to ask them: What do we need to be doing more of? What should we be doing differently? And, what should we stop doing? Remember, top teams don’t rest on their laurels – the laurels of yesterday are ever fading. There is always room to grow and improve.
- It’s Okay to Be Friends.
In most offices, you’ll spend more time with your coworkers than you do with your family. Being friends and getting along not only increases performance, it also leads to a great work environment. Some bosses think that if they have too many friends on a team, then team members will lose respect for them and productivity will suffer. I have found, however, that as long as you keep a goal-oriented focus and hold people accountable, you shouldn’t be concerned that team members are your friends – and often, you will get feedback that will help you to become a better leader.
- Delegate, Delegate, Delegate.
Clearly delegate responsibility and give your employees authority along with the responsibility. All those with a tendency to micromanage their teams and projects, do you give inconsistent messages? Do you ask the employee to handle a problem or project and then give them negative feedback or give them an assignment and then not give any feedback at all? Then make some changes! You cannot expect people to be responsible if they do not have authority to do the job. Giving team members authority to carry out decision-making and problem-solving is a pre-requisite for improved performance. Does that sometimes require a lot of trust? Yes, it does! But it’s the only way to grow a team to reach their potential.
- Have fun and laugh together.
High performing teams enjoy each other and frequently crack jokes and kid each other. This happens most often in teams where the team members have trust in each other, can be vulnerable and generally like each other. If you’re not enjoying yourself being a part of a team, why are you there? We live in an amazing country where intelligent, highly capable and hardworking people are in demand. Those people can pretty much choose where they want to work. Choose to work with people you respect and can enjoy being with. And, if you aren’t happy yourself… don’t make others miserable by burdening them with your unhappiness. Either change your attitude, strive to improve the situation or get another job where you can be happy.