What do I do when the team is not delivering?
Beth Hood gives TJ some trouble-shooting tips for teams to function properly.
Reading time: 9m 30s.
Appraisals, end of year reviews and one to ones pepper our diaries throughout the year. Nothing quite focuses the mind on how we are achieving as those all-important performance conversations. It’s an opportunity to celebrate what’s going well and make plans for what to do next.
It’s also an opportunity to investigate where things might be going adrift, to reflect on how things could be better and do some collaborative problem solving with our team members. When our team members don’t seem to be doing the things we want and need them to, it is often because of one of the 5Cs: clarity, capability, capacity, confidence and conviction.
Very often, when people aren’t performing as we would like them to, there is a lack of clarity about what is needed. Ask yourself whether you have been absolutely clear on what is expected and what the outcome should be.
Quite regularly managers and leaders are surprised that the results they are presented with don’t match the outcome they themselves had in mind. If you ask for a four-legged domestic animal, but what you really want is a dog, don’t surprised if you end up with a cat!
In some Silicon Valley organisations, the policy of a ‘third’ is now relatively common place. In meetings where actions are agreed and assigned, decision makers and leaders will assign the task to an individual and then ask for a third party to describe what they think has been asked for.
Attitudes to work and the amount of discretionary effort we are prepared invest, varies hugely and is complex and nuanced. The single most powerful tool we as leaders have in this regard is the conversation
It’s a good way to be crystal clear on expectations as it quickly shows up any wooliness in the requested actions.
It’s also good practice to ask your team members to brain storm or think aloud with you around complex tasks and objectives. That way you can identify where there may be areas that are still unclear and need further explanation or clarification.
It’s also a great opportunity to re-examine your own assumptions about how a particular task should be addressed and gain an insight into how your team member thinks and works.
So, the goal is completely clear, and you’ve checked your team member’s understanding of what is needed, but still they aren’t delivering. It’s time look in more detail at their capability. Do they have a proven track record on similar tasks?
If so, it’s unlikely that this is a capability issue. If the area of work is a departure for them however – being new or more stretching than their other responsibilities, it is possible that their underperformance is down to a skills or experience gap.
Development is often seen as something to be outsourced and solved by formal training, but more often our learning is done on-the-job. What opportunities can be offered to the employee to develop the skills they need to complete the task?
Can they buddy up with someone, shadow you, examine previous examples of similar work, have a mentor? Furthermore, how we as leaders view development may be having a big impact on that development actually happening.
In her seminal work, Mindset: the New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck explains that capability is often something to which we apply artificial psychological boundaries. .
Dweck argues that from any early age we develop deeply held ways of thinking about our abilities (and those of others). We subscribe to one of two viewpoints: either that our ability is fixed and innate within us and has a ceiling (a fixed mindset), or that the resources and potential of human beings are unknown and unknowable and that given the right set of circumstances and opportunities, we can accomplish things way beyond that notional capability limit (a growth mindset).
Leaders with a growth mindset will tend to work with their team members who are underperforming to help identify the conditions that will support optimal development, operating on the basis that better is possible for everyone.
Leaders with a fixed mindset on the other hand, may see non-delivery or team underperformance as confirmation of a subconscious bias that the individual in question cannot do this task, get better results nor make improvement.
So, here the question to ask ourselves is, how do we think about capability? Are we accidentally boxing in our people and limiting their potential because of our deeply held beliefs? What further conversations might we have with our team members to understand where they are in terms of their skills and what more they might need?
Sometimes, of course the investment and conditions required to unlock that ability is not viable and we have to make a judgement call on that for the business. Overall though, research shows that leaders who operate from a growth with their teams get a huge amount of often outstanding results, simply by removing those psychological limits.
So, the ask is clear, and the individual has the capability to deliver what is needed. The next for investigation then is capacity. Does the team member have the time and resources needed to deliver this result? Are they overwhelmed by competing priorities – often in complex, matrix organisations, arriving from different stakeholders and leadership figures?
It is a very common refrain from the coaching room – ‘I know what I have to deliver, and I know I have the skills to do it, but I don’t have the bandwidth/ budget/ resources’.
This can be one of the most frustrating and mentally taxing part of the 5Cs spectrum, leaving the team member feeling impotent and out of control and very often impacting adversely on their confidence levels.
For leaders who recognise this challenge for their team members, it is helpful to ask ourselves what is within our gift to do to support them. The starting point will always be a conversation to try and understand the lived experience of the individual.
Having a broader understanding of organisational strategy and vision often gives us the insight needed to help the individual prioritise and organise their deliverables. Sometimes, we can offer tangible resources to help take some of the load off. And sometimes we can help by reducing conflict with other stakeholders, thereby providing clarity and alignment on what needs to be tackled first.
For leaders who themselves are capable of delivering the results they want to see from their team, there can be a powerful instinct to take over at this point - to step in and do it themselves. Whilst this might be well intentioned, Daniel Goleman’s work on situational leadership explains that this pace-setting style can often be damaging in the longer term.
It is well documented that the highest performance teams are those that operate in a place where it is ‘psychologically safe’ to fail.
‘Rescuing’ your team member really only sends a message that they are not living up to your expectations, and whilst you might get the job done in the short term, over time this pace-setting style is likely to damage levels of motivation and engagement for the team member in the future.
The fourth C is about levels of confidence. One of the biggest obstacles to employees delivering the outcomes that are expected of them is their own self-confidence – or lack of it. In some cases, the fear of getting something wrong can utterly paralyse the individual.
Maybe they have never failed before; maybe this task is bigger in scope and sits outside their comfort zone. Maybe they have done something similar previously and it didn’t go well.
It is well documented that the highest performance teams are those that operate in a place where it is ‘psychologically safe’ to fail. That means that as leaders, we have considered the risks and variables associated with a task and are able to justify and be comfortable with a result that is not 100%.
This can be really hard to do as leaders when the stakes are very often high and a great deal of accountability for what is delivered sits – as it should – with them.
But, a culture of fear – where repercussions exist and getting things wrong just isn’t an option – is hugely detrimental to results. Understanding the negative impact of a project coming in late, budgets being blown, or a client being lost is one thing – but operating in a space where those outcomes are a thing of terror is hugely damaging to team performance.
As Google’s Operation Aristotle (a study of its highest performance teams across all business functions) found – and which countless studies have shown since to be true, teams where failure is viewed as a learning opportunity actually fail less. What’s more, those are also the teams which take the right risks, innovate, create and make big leaps for their organisations.
This can be the trickiest of the 5Cs to manage. The scenario is this – your team member has full and deep clarity on what is expected, they have the capability needed to deliver. They are in a good place as far of capacity goes and they are confident that the team ethos is one of safety and continuous development.
But they are still not delivering. What is going on? Well, often it is an attitudinal objection. Maybe they don’t buy into the task, or are experiencing questions about the validity of the objective. Perhaps they have wider issues with the business and sometimes they will have an innate objection to the person asking (that might be you!).
This is about attitude and mindset. Is the person they sold on where the team – and indeed the wider business – is going? Have they bought into your strategy as a leader to make that happen? Are they motivated by the task, or does it cause them feelings of disgruntlement, frustration and objection that has become an obstacle to delivery?
We all have to take on tasks and requests occasionally that don’t fill us with joy. Sometimes, it’s enough to know that we are being paid a fair wage to deliver that allows us to get on with it. But what we know is that our attitudes to work and the amount of discretionary effort we are prepared invest, varies hugely and is complex and nuanced.
The single most powerful tool we as leaders have in this regard is the conversation. If our employees are given the space and opportunity to share their objections, questions and frustrations, and have a visceral experience of being heard and understood, very often this in itself is enough to emolliate the internal challenges they are experiencing.
It may be that we can never adequately answer the questions, queries and objections that our team member has, but simply by hearing and validating those questions, we can create a bridge wide enough for both of us to walk over.
The 6th C
Whilst this is a model of 5Cs, it is clear that there is a 6th C at work throughout that is the starting point and answer to each and every one of the other Cs.
That is the C of conversation. To become the best performance detectives, we have to be prepared to ask and then listen. And that isn’t something to be saved for the yearly one to one. That’s a daily requirement of the best leaders.
About the author
Beth Hood is founder and director of Verosa Ltd
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