If you’re leading an underperforming team, here’s what you may be overlooking


Published on: November 2019

Written by: Elizabeth Freedman

If you’re a senior leader, or work with one, you know that every single one shares this in common: they all want to be leading high performing teams.

Senior executives are in roles of such scope and scale that there simply isn’t any other way to achieve enterprise objectives without strong teams underneath them. However, ask any leader, and they’ll likely tell you that high team performance is far easier said than done, and that may be because of a simple fact. You can’t have a great team without a great team leader, and even great team leaders can unwittingly put their teams at a disadvantage through their own behavior, actions, and mindset. Take these examples:

The CEO who wanted the team “to own it”

A CEO looked to his leadership team to make critical decisions about budget, structure, and operations related to recent changes in the company’s strategy. Despite their best efforts, the team struggled to do so and quickly got caught in a swirl of back-and-forth and endless meetings. Weeks went by, and finally, the team agreed to approach the CEO to get clarity and ask for his help. The CEO promptly sent the team back to the drawing board to sort the matter out on their own. His reasoning? “You’re too experienced to need me to hold your hand. I expect you to own it and do what needs to be done to make a decision.” He may have felt it was the right move to send them packing, but in doing so he missed the fine line between demanding accountability and letting people twist in the wind.

The leader who poured salt in the wound

If you’re leading a team that is legitimately struggling, for whatever reasons, telling them (as one President did to her team), “You all get paid too much money not to be able to get this done,” can feel like salt in the wound and only exacerbates the team’s problem. Taking a step back and refusing to get involved may seem like the right move if you’re trying to hold a team accountable, but it can produce the opposite effect. Rather than accelerate execution, it can drive team members into corners, deepen silos, and amplify conflict. For team leaders, the risk is losing important insight and transparency into what’s really going on. The fact is that teams that are struggling need more leadership and support, not less.

To elevate performance, go beyond the dysfunction discussion

Senior leaders who get caught up in a mindset that says, “At this level, my team should be able to do this…..they ought to be able to do that….” find themselves frustrated when those things don’t materialize. In part, that’s because we’ve often been trained to think about team challenges through the lens of team dynamics, dysfunction, poor communication, and the like. While there’s no question those are all critical aspects to team performance, when teams struggle, there is often more to the story. For instance:

  • They weren’t clear about expectations and what they were being asked to do
  • Changes in roles and responsibilities weren’t well understood and creating confusion
  • They were reluctant to tell you that they weren’t progressing or running into roadblocks
  • They weren’t in agreement about the problem or criteria for a solution
  • They were given an impossible task to achieve without additional resources or support
  • The level of internal politics or burdensome processes required executive intervention
  • The rate of change happening across the company is creating fatigue and confusion

The LTPITM (Leadership Team Performance Index) adds a research-based definition to high team  performance. The 15 facets and 90 behaviors that comprise the scientifically validated model and assessment outline clearly what matters to high team performance and delivers important insight into what matters.

The next time your team is struggling, use the moment as an opportunity to elevate the team’s performance and your own.

  1. Start by helping the team develop a better appreciation for what’s working and what isn’t across multiple dimensions. Go beyond assessing “communication” or “dynamics” and use a validated instrument (like the LTPITM) to measure performance of the team as a whole in areas that address relevant aspects of senior team leadership – from strategic thinking to problem-solving to enterprise awareness.
  2. Let your team’s performance be a moment to reflect on your own leadership. Whether it’s about providing better information, clarifying expectations, or setting aside more time to be available or remove roadblocks, there are many steps senior leaders can take to help their teams that produce a very positive impact. As the senior leader, you always play the most important role when it comes to your own team’s game-changing performance.
  3. Don’t shame or blame your team. Senior leadership teams may struggle with performance for reasons that are fair and legitimate given the circumstances under which they are operating.  It’s one thing to raise the bar and set a high expectation that motivates. It’s another to set up a no-win situation that leaves people without a path to good results.  Even the best leaders become demotivated, disengaged, and may even leave the company if they feel under constant attack or see no way forward to success.  Recognize when your challenge or call to action for them represents good leadership, versus when it becomes something else. You’ll know when it’s happening – one creates high performance on a team, and one doesn’t.

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