Fixing the boat in the water

Jan 14 2015 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

Thereís 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. Thatís great, but what if you need to improve the performance or relationships on an existing team thatís already in trouble?

Creating a high performing team is never easy, but itís 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, itís harder for a leader to address problems and effect change.

Why is it harder when youíre 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. Itís the equivalent of trying to fix a boat while itís in the water.

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

Define and share whatís 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 doesnít. And donít simply rely on your own observations and data. None of this will work if you donítÖ.

Include the team right from the start. To fix the way a team works, the entire team must be involved early and often. ďFixesĒ 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 youíre 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, thereís a better than even chance youíve contributed to the problem. Let the team members share their insights on whatís causing the problems, and how to solve them. This is an ongoing process of information gathering, so donít 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 hereís the frustrating thing about allowing them to set the priorities and action items: you may see things differently. Be careful you donít solicit input, request buy-in, then do what you want anyway. It will defeat the entire exercise. If you canít 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 youíre 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 youíre struggling - and you will struggle.

Addressing team communication and performance issues is never easy. Itís even more difficult and stressful when change needs to come from within and doesnít 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 itís in the water, not simply keep bailing.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.