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Troubled teams

It’s wonderful to be on a high-performing team, but that experience is often fleeting. A high-performing team requires shared and evident purpose, ownership, trust, respect, safety, inclusion, openness, and adaptability. Reorgs and replanning can muddy purpose and revoke ownership. Misunderstandings can break trust. Missteps and mismanagement can ruin respect, safety, and inclusion. Discomfort can harm openness and adaptability.

Some problems facing troubled teams are easily repaired. In Good engineers, I discuss the impact of jerks on otherwise cohesive teams and how removing even the most essential-seeming jerks can quickly improve a situation. However, it’s rare to maintain the best of plans, it’s tough to fire your bad boss, and it’s impossible to avoid all misunderstandings, mistakes, and discomfort.

Is sustaining a high-performing team impossible? No, but doing so requires a similar mindset and amount of work as sustaining a good marriage. Changes, conflicts, and mistakes will happen. You must commit yourself to accepting and dealing with each situation quickly as it comes. I’ll talk about the types of trouble teams can get into and how to repair them in good faith.

Why are we here?

I’ve written about the importance of having an inspiring vision to bind a team together with a shared purpose. (If the vision for your small team seems a bit nebulous, you can also inspire team members with a clear strategy.) However, plans change, and what was once your north star may now point you in the wrong direction. There are two solutions to this problem.

  • Ensure your vision is independent of implementation. Often when plans change, your team’s approach is impacted, but its purpose remains intact. There was a time when people worried about data center operations. Then the concern was efficient VM management, which morphed to container management, which became serverless lambda functions. Implementations change, but your purpose of providing inexpensive services that delight customers remains the same. Thus, you should ensure your vision addresses purpose and leaves out implementation specifics.
  • Reestablish your vision. Occasionally, plan changes redirect your team’s purpose. Such fundamental changes are rare, but they happen. When your new purpose doesn’t match your team’s vision, it’s time to rewrite that vision.

Once the team’s vision is clear and isn’t tied to implementation, each team member should own at least one critical area and be a backup for at least one other. Your vision gives purpose to your team. Ownership of an impactful area gives purpose to team members. When you couple that purpose with trust, you also provide autonomy and mastery—the three crucial components to intrinsic motivation. When you add a backup area, you expand people’s skills and connections while making the team’s performance more robust and sustainable.

Eric Aside

For more on strategy and strategic leadership, read Lead, follow, or get out of the way.

Do I belong?

Jerks and other poisonous people are incompatible with high-performing teams. No matter how much these people know or how essential they may seem, you should remove them immediately. Your team will embrace the learning and growth opportunities, quickly regain missing skills and knowledge, and gel as a unit without the corrosive effects of bad influencers.

However, even good people can be misfits on a team. You can fix the problem of having too many people with the same skillset by assigning some of them to new areas. You can include quiet or uncomfortable people by focusing on shared experiences and celebrating their new ideas and viewpoints. But you can’t correct for people who clash over approach. You might find a compromise that the team accepts, but sometimes an individual must adopt the team’s preferred approach or work elsewhere. This is a shame, but fortunately, plenty of approaches work, and good people can find teams that align with their style.

Stay focused

As I discuss in Spontaneous combustion of rancid management, the interference of managers who constantly change direction and priorities can ruin even the best teams. If you’re leading a high-functioning team(s), you must prevent rancid managers and micromanagers from disrupting your work. You do this by keeping your team focused on your vision and documented org priorities. Your team’s vision and your org’s priorities are far more stable than an unstable boss.

When managers demand immediate action on their latest emergency, say “Yes,” and then take a few minutes to analyze the situation.

  • Is the situation a legitimate business and customer emergency? If so, take care of it as you usually would.
  • Will the request likely change within days? If so, do the absolute minimum yourself, and leave your team out of it.
  • Can you and your peers fulfill the request without impacting your teams? If so, let your teams know that you are handling the request and that they should stay focused on their planned work.
  • Is the actual work involved not due for a few months? If so, update your backlog to slot the work accordingly in the future, knowing plans will likely change several times.
  • Does the request fit into already planned work? If so, get on with your day.

Regardless of the situation, keep your team focused on delivering great value for your customers and partners.

We can work it out

Even the best, most focused, and happy teams have conflicts. Arguably, conflicts are a sign of team health and are considered an attribute of high-functioning teams. Regardless, misunderstandings, mistakes, and discomfort are inevitable among groups of humans. The key is to establish a safe environment where mistakes and misunderstandings are expected, forgiven, and rectified quickly and respectfully.

When you notice team members feeling offended, unheard, or left out, talk to them about what happened. Understand how they feel without injecting your own judgement or biases. Reassure them that yours is a close team where members respect one another, so that while the offense was real, it may have been unintended.

Next, reach out to the other people involved. Understand how they feel without injecting your own judgement or biases. Let them know the unintended outcome and impact the situation had on their close teammates. Talk through potential remedies, but don’t decide on any without involving everyone. There’s no situation or slight too small to engage quickly and openly. Doing so builds trust, grows individuals, and binds teams.

Happy together

Changing plans, poisonous people, conflicting approaches, poor management, misunderstandings, mistakes, and discomfort can destabilize the highest performing teams. However, everyday diligence can keep teams thriving.

Ensure your vision is independent of implementation so that plan changes don’t derail your purpose, and assign ownership of critical primary and backup areas to each team member. Remove jerks from your team immediately, ensure everyone feels heard and valued, and help inflexible team members with clashing approaches find a good fit on other teams. Deflect randomizing requests from rancid management to keep your team focused on delivering customer value. Resolve inevitable misunderstandings, mistakes, and discomfort quickly and openly together, accepting the feelings as real though perhaps unintended.

A shared vision gives your team purpose. A cohesive and aligned team with clear ownership of crucial areas makes everyone feel included and valued. Staying focused unlocks productivity and progress. Accepting feelings and resolving disputes builds trust and respect and creates a safe place to work, learn, and grow. A safe, inclusive, productive work environment breeds high-performing teams—teams that are open and adaptable to innovative ideas and deliver breakthrough value for our customers. It takes commitment to sustain high-performing teams, but doing so is well worth the effort.

Eric Aside

Want personalized coaching on this topic or any other challenge? Schedule a free, confidential call. I provide one-on-one career coaching with an emphasis on underrepresented, midcareer software professionals. Find out more at Ally for Onlys in Tech.

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  1. Tony Tony

    Nice article, Eric! Love what you said about removing incompatible people can quickly improve the situation. Only question is, what if they are not removed (out of your control)? how do you handle clash over approaches with the single person incompatible with team? thanks!

    • I.M. Wright I.M. Wright

      A team member that is incompatible (for whatever reason) subtracts from the productivity of the team. Since other teams always need help, often the best solution is to assign the incompatible teammate to work with a more compatible team. That team will welcome the help and your team will thrive with the issue removed.

      • Tony Tony

        Thanks Eric! Really flattered to get your reply:-) Just a quick follow-up:

        What are your options if you don’t have the direct power/control on this (like re-assigning to another team), because the incompatible person might be your peer and all other team-members share same feeling toward that person yet manager doing nothing (due to various reasons). For folks in that situation, what would be your suggestion? Thanks a lot!

        • I.M. Wright I.M. Wright

          While managers lack complete control over team dynamics, they are remarkably influential. If a manager isn’t committed to maintaining a high-performing team, it won’t remain high-performing for long. Thus, if a manager won’t reassign an incompatible team member after multiple peers express concerns, and the team isn’t empowered to make that change themselves, then the team has little chance of maintaining its performance level regardless of that particular issue. Managers do make a big difference.

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