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If Your Team Isn’t Performing…Maybe It’s You!

Anyone can wrangle people together, give them a task, and call them a team. But that approach is usually a recipe for disaster and, certainly, no one would consider you much of a leader for doing it. You can’t just throw paint at a canvas and call yourself the next Rembrandt. You need to be careful with your choices, sketch out a plan, and figure out ways for your different hues (i.e. personalities) to work together. Otherwise, you might as well be a kindergartener smearing finger paint on construction paper.

The fact that you’re reading this article—that you actually give a damn about creating a transformative team—means that your head and heart are in the right place. You’re aiming for quality far beyond the finger-painting level.

And that’s great! We believe the best leaders are the ones who truly care and are willing to put in the legwork to get where they’d like to go. In return for you investing your limited time to read this article, we’re going to give you:

  • Research-backed findings

    • Clear, concise advice

    • Action-oriented questions

But before we get into all that, let’s briefly talk about why cohesive teamwork matters.

  1. Our brains tend to track in one direction. We become accustomed to thinking about a problem in a certain way and only seeing a certain set of solutions. Others can open our eyes to alternative perspectives and problem-solving methods, shed new light on a project, or challenge us to approach a task from a different angle.

  2. A cooperative team can move much larger mountains than any one person. When your leadership team is functioning properly—with everyone communicating, working toward the same goals, capitalizing on strengths, and trusting each other—you can have a greater reach and tackle larger, more complex problems.

  3. Cohesive teamwork fosters a supportive and energetic atmosphere that leads to better personal well-being and job satisfaction. Some may roll their eyes at “warm and fuzzy” words like well-being, but study after study demonstrates that if a person feels valued and supported at work, their job performance increases and the whole company benefits. The Human Capital Trends report found that the best-performing companies were “11 times more likely to offer holistic well-being policies than their lower-performing peers.”

In our experience as professional coaches (in addition to working a combined 40 years in leadership roles in corporate America), we have come to appreciate the true value of a well-functioning team. We also know what it means to make mistakes in a leadership position, and leave some team members feeling unsupported or unheard. We’re only human, after all! Besides, these less-than-optimal situations have given us opportunities to learn, grow, and pass on real-life information to leaders like you.

We could fill a book with lessons we’ve learned about developing and sustaining a “dream team” of communicative, cohesive individuals, but this article is going to whittle it down to three crucial factors: Shared Vision, Meaningful Communication, and Trust.

1. Shared Vision

Take a moment to visualize a team whose individuals do not share the same goals. What problems might arise? What will the end results look like? How will individuals feel as they attempt to move forward?

A group without a shared vision can hardly call themselves a team. If people are not on board with a specific direction or goal, they’ll end up either spinning in circles or heading in completely different directions. The bottom line is this:

If people feel rudderless or unconnected to a larger goal, the team is going to have trouble moving forward.

Connection is key. Your team members’ hearts need to be engaged, as well as their heads. They need to not only move toward a shared vision, but be excited about it. Evidence shows us time and again that when teams are enthusiastic about a shared vision, they perform with greater motivation, purpose, and clarity.

How can you, as a leader, help connect your team to a common goal or vision?

Start by taking a deep dive into the problem or task that lies before you. Get to know the problem intimately—who it affects, what outcomes it’s preventing, why it exists in the first place—and then come up with possible solutions (a shared vision) for your team.

Stanford professor and author, Tina Selig, has found that if you want to come up with smart, innovative results, you must first “fall in love with the problem.” She discourages skipping ahead to brainstorming solutions without first “framestorming” the problem. “Framestorming” essentially involves defining the problem and the stakes so you are better prepared to come up with appropriate solutions or action plans.

Once your team members understand and feel personally connected to the stakes, they can determine the end goal, and start working on potential strategies to get there. Create an open dialogue. Get everyone talking and on board with your team’s direction.

As a leader, it’s a good idea to consistently remind your team of what you’re working toward—your big-picture objective. Keep it top-of-mind by talking about it regularly and pausing every now and then to ask action-oriented questions like:

“For this area, where do you think we should focus our attention?”

“How do you see these ideas relating to our goal?”

“What can we do to not lose sight of the big picture?”

“Tell me more about how you’re feeling about connection or lack of connection to this goal.” (Okay, this is technically a statement, but you get the idea!)

By engaging your team and keeping them centered on your shared vision, you’ll steer your team straight and true, and avoid veering off course and getting stuck in the weeds.

2. Meaningful Communication

A communication meltdown spells doom for a team, no matter how motivated and high-performing the individuals may be. Research points to poor communication as a frequent cause of failed or incomplete projects, low morale, missed performance goals, and increased stress.

How can you foster an atmosphere of open, honest communication?

Start leading by example. Ask yourself:

How transparent is my communication?

What can I do to be more inclusive and make sure everyone shares the microphone?

How can I create a safe space for people to air their frustrations or voice their ideas?

Practice being an engaged facilitator by making a point of meeting one-on-one with each team member, and (this is the important part) listening to what they have to say. During team meetings, make sure everyone has a chance to speak. Sometimes, it helps to lob a question directly at those who tend to be more reserved.

Few things are as frustrating as feeling like your voice isn’t being heard. Make sure your team knows their thoughts and perspectives are valued, no matter what.

Another aspect of effective team communication has to do with the way people think and process information. Some are more analytical, others are action-oriented. Some are reserved, others expressive. When these very different personality types work together, conflict can ensue.

Fortunately, personality gaps can be bridged simply by understanding and acknowledging how others process information. Oftentimes, it pays to work with a coach or consultant to help bring to light personality differences and ways of processing information. This isn’t just a trivial, “let’s get to know each other” activity; it’s a practical way to improve team dynamics by helping people understand others’ (as well as their own) communication preferences.

Forthright communication can also help get “the right butts in the right seats.” Not everyone is suited to (or excited about) every single task. By taking the time to get to know one another through open communication, it will be easier to match certain personalities with certain tasks. It’s not a good idea, for instance, to make a super social, action-driven person sit in a room by themselves and pore over charts and statistics (but other personality types might love this kind of work!).

Additionally, if someone feels they are ill-suited to an assignment, hopefully they will feel comfortable enough to say something. They should know that their comment will be taken seriously, and their voice matters.

3. Trust

Trust is one of those words that gets tossed around as casually as parmesan cheese in an Italian restaurant. We are asked to trust insurance agencies, political candidates, or a certain brand of toothpaste. It’s a shame trust is used so flippantly, because it really is enormously important in all aspects of life.

Trusting teams count on each other to do the work thoroughly and on time. They lean on each other when they need support. They trust each other to be open and honest communicators. David Horsager, a trust specialist and author, says, “Where trust is high, there is freedom to make mistakes, learn, and do better.”

How do you nurture something as delicate as trust? What steps can you take?

As with fostering positive communication, it’s a good idea to start with yourself. Ask yourself:

How can I improve follow-through with my commitments?

What can I do to keep private information strictly confidential?

How can I build confidence in my team, so they know they will be supported if they take risks?

Make trust a cornerstone of your personal brand (by the way, we love talking about developing a solid personal brand. Send us a note if you’d like help defining yours!), and lead by example, each and every day.

Your personal commitment to trust will help foster an environment of reliability and integrity, but it’s not quite enough. Another aspect of trust involves developing an accountability system. Make sure your expectations are crystal clear, AND the subsequent consequences are clear as well. It should be no mystery that, for instance, a person will be removed from the team if they turn in subpar work a month past its deadline.

However, if your team members are going out on a limb and taking a risk, you may want to focus less on accountability and more on support. Let them know that you have their back, regardless of the outcome, and focus on the work completed and lessons learned, rather than the result.

One more aspect of trust involves delegating tasks and letting go. That’s really difficult for a lot of leaders. What if things don’t turn out precisely as you’d like?

If you struggle with micromanaging tendencies, ask yourself:

What is standing in my way of letting go?

When I do let go, what does that look like?

How does my team feel and respond to that?

When you trust others to take the reins, you’re opening yourself to new possibilities and fresh, new angles that you might not have considered. By letting others share in the problem-solving, you’re letting them have a stake in the project. And when people have a stake—when they feel trusted—they’re more likely to be committed.

Developing a super-powered, effective team doesn’t have to be complicated. When you break it down, the elements are quite simple. Communicate openly and honestly, develop and work toward a shared vision, and foster an atmosphere of trust along the way. Embracing these three attributes will not only help your team perform to the best of their ability, but will also empower the individual.

When a person knows they are listened to and valued, a transformation occurs. They become more engaged and energized. They have a personal stake in the results, and will work hard to achieve the best outcome possible.

As a leader, you have the power to transform your team. All it takes is intention, a strategy, and perhaps a little assistance from an experienced coach. Make this the year of transformative teamwork.


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