There is no question about it. A team can be a powerful vehicle for accomplishing a major project, guiding a unit to superior performance, or bringing together diverse perspectives to solve a pressing problem.
Have you ever been a member of a smooth functioning, high performing team? Those of you who have, no doubt, harbor fond memories of how energizing it is and how great that rush of pride feels when you achieve great things together.
The best teams, including certainly that great team you were on, are not just adept at driving outcomes. They also monitor their process,--how the group deliberates and makes decisions--the morale of the group and the well-being of the individual members. Therefore, the best teams are aware of how well they are doing during a meeting and, when necessary, discuss it openly right on the spot or in a debrief discussion at the end.
Do you remember the last time you were in your car when your wheels were mired deep in a patch of oozy mud (or, for those of you from a colder climate, in a bank of snow and ice)? How heavy it feels to be stuck. How helpless and frustrated you feel. You try to accelerate, spinning your tires faster and faster. If that doesn't work, you try first revving up, then pausing, in an attempt to get a back-and-forth motion going so you can catch the next forward momentum and rocket out of the muck.
While even the best teams get stuck occasionally, most working groups experience this state more often than they realize or admit. I have seen some teams stay stuck for quite awhile, for days, even months.
Just what do I mean by "stuck?" Here are a few examples:
*A couple of people continue to dominate the discussion.
*After much debate, you still have two factions pushing their different solutions or goals.
*The discussions keep going off agenda and consuming too much time.
*Certain individuals hold up team progress by missing meetings or failing to deliver on task commitments they have made to the group.
The vast majority of teams either are not aware-or simply ignore it-when the team (which is, remember, a group of human beings) becomes stuck. Why? Because "stuckness" is a people issue, a so-called soft skills problem. It calls for courageously confronting the whole group or certain members and potentially bringing emotions into play.
The Cost of Remaining Stuck
You can't afford to deny or ignore it for very long. When your team gets stuck, it can cost you serious money, in at least three ways:
- The energy and enthusiasm around the table drops off. Team members become discouraged. They start to lose interest in the team's goals. If the situation isn't resolved, their off-line comments about the team turn negative. ("Man, what a waste that meeting was. We're going nowhere. I wish they'd let me drop off this team and just do my regular job.")
- The extra time each one of you spends spinning team wheels constitutes an opportunity cost. That time and effort could certainly be used more productively elsewhere.
- Your team may end up squandering the time available for a quality decision on an issue or it may fail to meet promised deadlines. Obviously, poor decisions or missed deliverables can have serious negative repercussions for the operation and for the wider organization.
It pays to recognize when your team is stuck and then intervene quickly to get it humming again. But this still begs questions: How do you know when your team is, in fact, stuck? What can you do to turn it around?
Seven Pitfalls and Seven Solutions
Below are seven situations that can cause your team to become bogged down and unproductive. In italics are suggestions of how to respond in order to give your team new found traction.
- Lack of Agreement. We often proceed with the business of the team without everyone being clear and onboard about the team's goals, priorities, tasks and time-lines. Have you ever held a discussion as a group to clarify everybody's expectations regarding objectives, team operating rules and individual roles and accountabilities? Raise questions when you are not clear about something. Challenge the team to confirm that everyone is on the same page.
- Lack of Commitment. Sometimes people's initial commitment to the team's goals and agreed-upon priorities wanes. You can hear it in their voices and see it in their record of attendance, participation and delivery on promises made to members. When some people withhold their commitment, it can be a drag on the rest. Help each member identify benefits that will accrue to him or her personally from the team's success.
- Lack of Accountability. Are all members following through on tasks they accept responsibility for and promises they make to the group? Take accountability for confronting-with respect and for the good of the team-a colleague when he or she does not (take accountability to) deliver on task commitments by the agreed-upon deadline.
- Lack of Leadership. Whom among you do team members rely upon to step forward and lead? Who keeps the team on target and on agenda? It need not always be the formal leader, the boss. Any member can take the initiative, when needed, to challenge, inspire or confront his/her colleagues. Ask the manager to be more directive when leading. At the same time, raise the issue with the team that none of you seems to play a leadership role. Or, try stepping in yourself.
- Lack of Communication. Communication is the lifeblood of your team. It is how the team makes decisions and gets things done. Are people being authentic when they speak in team discussions? For that matter, is it safe to say what you think, even if it goes against what the group-or the leader-thinks? Does everyone have a chance to contribute? Do members truly dialogue or do they just engage in dueling arguments? Ask everyone to be more conscious of listening, honoring all points-of-view and disagreeing constructively, with respect.
- Lack of Collaboration. Some teams, by their very nature, need to collaborate more than others. This is particularly true for groups, such as project teams, that have to share information, reach consensus decisions and integrate individual tasks into a collective outcome. This, of course, is less of an issue for a management team composed of department heads with little in common other than they report to the same boss. When collaboration is a must, alert everyone to be sensitive to what their colleagues need and how their own action (or inaction) can impact their team mates' contribution.
- Lack of Trust. Leadership expert Warren Bennis calls trust the "emotional glue" that holds a team together. It underpins all six elements, above. For trust to be present in your team, members must feel safe to disagree with and confront other individuals or even the team as a whole. They must believe that their colleagues genuinely hold their interests in high regard. Be patient; trust builds slowly. Encourage everybody to demonstrate their trustworthiness by meeting their commitments and speaking authentically. In return, others will reciprocate...and trust will grow.
Whether your team is a project, cross-functional, matrix, limited life or a permanent one, it will from time to time become stuck. Look to the above seven factors for the key to pulling your group out of the mud...or the snow!
Ian G. Cook is a trainer, keynote speaker, and facilitator and, since 1988, Principal of the leadership development firm, Fulcrum Associates Inc. He works with managers who want to increase their effectiveness as a leader and build a stronger team.
Ian invites you to contact him regarding the ideas in this article or to discuss challenges you face around building strong leadership at all levels of your organization, the kind of leadership that generates strong results and gives your enterprise an enduring edge.