Fixing the boat in the water


There’s no shortage of sage advice out there on how to put together a highly productive remote project team. But usually these tomes are based on one of two assumptions: either you are creating a team from scratch, or you are a new leader assigned to an existing team. That’s great, but what if you need to improve the performance or relationships on an existing team that’s already in trouble?

Creating a high performing team is never easy, but it’s certainly easier when there is a logical reason to stop, examine your processes and have at least some semblance of a fresh start. When the team is already assembled, and visibly dysfunctional, it’s harder for a leader to address problems and effect change.

Why is it harder when you’re already running? You have weeks, months or even years of past history, bad assumptions, personal slights (real or imagined) and ingrained habits to overcome. People have already formed opinions about their teammates and their leader that are hard to break. Plus the project is ongoing. Simply stopping the work until you address any problems is not an option. It’s the equivalent of trying to fix a boat while it’s in the water.

Here are some important things to ponder if you really want to fix the situation:

Define and share what’s wrong. What is wrong with your team? Is work not getting done? Is the quality low? Are people fleeing in droves making turnover a major concern? Before you can fix a problem, you need to define it. Take the time to stop and truly examine your team; find out what works and what doesn’t. And don’t simply rely on your own observations and data. None of this will work if you don’t….

Include the team right from the start. To fix the way a team works, the entire team must be involved early and often. “Fixes” imposed from the top down seldom result in changed behavior, and often exacerbate existing problems. Of course, taking this approach may be one of the reasons your team is dysfunctional in the first place (just saying).

Explain why you’re addressing the problems now. The situation has continued in its own way for a long time now. Why is this the time to address it? Has something changed? Are you going to lose a major contract? Have you just had enough? No change can ever occur without everyone understanding - and buying into - the context for the change.

Shut up. As a leader, you are responsible for making sure the change happens, but you are not supposed to have all the good insights, ideas and suggestions on how to fix things. In fact, there’s a better than even chance you’ve contributed to the problem. Let the team members share their insights on what’s causing the problems, and how to solve them. This is an ongoing process of information gathering, so don’t just expect to get good input on a single call. Allow for multiple kinds of input including verbal, written, open and anonymous.

Come to consensus on priorities and action items. Nothing will unite a team quite like taking action they have suggested and bought into. That might seem obvious, but here’s the frustrating thing about allowing them to set the priorities and action items: you may see things differently. Be careful you don’t solicit input, request buy-in, then do what you want anyway. It will defeat the entire exercise. If you can’t take an action the group requests, be sure to explain why and seek alternatives that will accomplish the same thing

Remind and coach them. Once the team decides to change behaviors or processes, the hard work really begins. Your job as a leader is to continue to coach their performance as well as keep reminding them of the reasons you’re going through the hard work of change. Help everyone keep the reason for the changes in mind. Oh, and allow your team to coach you as well when you’re struggling - and you will struggle.

Addressing team communication and performance issues is never easy. It’s even more difficult and stressful when change needs to come from within and doesn’t have an obvious, logical starting point.

You and your team are up to the challenge if you remember you have to really fix the boat while it’s in the water, not simply keep bailing.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

Wayne Turmel is a speaker, writer and co-founder of The Remote Leadership Institute. He’s passionate about helping people present, sell and lead people and projects using today’s virtual communication technology. His books include Meet Like You Mean It - a Leader’s Guide to Painless and Productive Virtual Meetings. Wayne is based in Chicago, IL.