Why Some Teams Never Measure Up


In our work, we frequently hear leaders talk about the struggles they have with their teams. To some extent, teams should struggle, since they are often working on some pretty tough issues that seldom have easy answers.

There are several factors that are often identified as key reasons why teams are unable to be productive. Think about teams of which you have a part. What do you think these reasons might be?

In some cases, team members will disagree with or just plain not like another’s point of view on a given subject. Although that can create some feelings of discomfort or awkwardness, it is rarely a source of complete dissonance among the team. In fact, good teams promote a variety of perspectives, in order to examine the issues at hand more fully.

At other times, the personality differences can get in the way, and create a situation where certain members simply don’t like some of the other members. Taken to extremes, this can indeed be damaging. Strong or “strange” personalities can be aggravating to deal with, but once again these irritations are seldom the root cause of a team’s ongoing struggles.

Reason One: Poor Composition

I would like to offer a couple of issues that I most frequently identify as being at the core of teams that are unable to fulfill their expectations. You will likely have encountered these before.

The first is this. Team membership should be based on contribution, not position. Too many in leadership positions have this principle flip-flopped in their heads and structure their leadership team based on a each member’s organization position. A number of leadership teams with whom we have worked have been built this way, with the team being comprised of the leader and his or her direct reports. There is nothing wrong with that as long as everyone is contributing and adding value to the team. But when people believe they are entitled to either sit around in silence or chronically complain because of where their name appears on the organization chart, big trouble is inevitable.

In their functional job positions, people are expected to contribute to the organization. In their leadership team positions, they must also be expected to contribute to the team. One of the mistakes team leaders most frequently make is the failure to make it clear that team members are expected to add value and contribute to the outcomes of the leadership team, as well as the company or business unit. And if certain members have been made aware, yet continue to neglect their obligation to contribute, the leader must be prepared to take appropriate action, whether that might be coaching, developing, or ultimately removing them from the team.

I remember reading about one senior executive, who had a front-line worker on her team. Why do you suppose she did this? It was clearly not for window dressing reasons, just to show how interested this company was in all it’s workers by letting them attend senior team meetings. It was because this guy brought to the table the thoughts, opinions and suggestions of the people in the trenches. He was able to help the team make better decisions. And he was able to take uncluttered messages directly back to his peers, before the political filters at each level kicked in. He was a valuable contributor and earned the right to be on the team.

Reason Two: Unclear Purpose

The second reason for a struggling team often precedes the first. It is that too many teams lack a clear purpose for why they exist as a team. They do not know what they should contribute or how they are supposed to add value to the organization, by working together as a team.

There is a prevailing myth – that a given number of people meeting together regularly must be a team. In reality, this is a more accurate description of a group and might even apply to a mob. A team must have a clear purpose, that is their own value proposition to the rest of the organization. And of course, truly effective teams must be staffed with the best people available to fulfill that purpose.

I have observed companies with incredibly high expectations for results. They are very intense and demanding cultures. Yet in some of these, when the senior leadership team (which is structured based on organizational positions) convenes, the majority of their time is spent reporting what is happening in each of the functional areas of the business. Their purpose, by default, is for each member to read out his/her results to each other and the CEO, and state the actions they will be taking in the near future. After appropriate challenges by the boss, they adjourn until the next scheduled meeting. There is little team interaction, and no collaborative, synergistic idea generation. How ironic that they are so demanding in their business operations, but so passive in their work together as a “senior team.”

The above example is more descriptive of a work group sharing information. What they are doing is clearly important, but as an executive leadership team, they must have a greater reason for meeting than this. There is too much experience, brain power and needs in the business to settle for so little.

When purpose is not clear, there is another predictable result. Teams end up cramming so much into their agendas, that little gets done on any particular topic. (For senior teams, this can be especially exasperating, given all of the issues facing their business on any given day.) When this occurs, members constantly wonder (or complain privately outside the meetings) if they are spending time on the right things. They are also unsure when closure on any item has really been reached. So a lot of time is spent outside the team or at subsequent meetings, clarifying previous discussions or re-opening decisions that supposedly had already been made. Kind of like continuing to offer evidence after the jury has already rendered the verdict. This is not the most efficient or satisfying way to run a business! Teams need to be clear on their destinations and committed to staying on course.

Your Responsibility on a Team

If you find yourself as a member of a team that seems to be stuck in neutral or worse yet, constantly bickering about almost everything rather than accomplishing anything, take a minute and reflect on the structure and purpose of that team. You will likely find that one or the other needs some attention.

As a contributing member, you have a responsibility to surface the need to discuss barriers holding the team back. You will have to step up and find a way to help the team acknowledge those obstacles and get everyone’s commitment to address them. You cannot be a silent co-conspirator, by ignoring tough issues or choosing not to get involved in dealing with them.

If you are a team leader, you will need to start providing more leadership. You must ensure the members understand why the team exists, its goals or purposes, and its importance to the larger organization. You will also need to ensure that people are clear on your expectations of what they are supposed to do for the team, and the values, norms, and operating principles by which their behavior on the team should be guided. And you must hold them accountable for contributing directly to the outcomes the team is responsible for delivering.

It’s hard enough working in teams when purpose is clear and everyone is a value-adding contributor. But it can only be a frustrating effort in futility when either or both are lacking. The very best of teams regularly re-examine their purpose, and consistently give each other feedback on their levels of contribution (both quality and quantity). Start that practice on your teams right now, if you have not already. Don’t fall into the too common trap of focusing solely on the work to be done and avoiding the dynamics encircling the team itself. It might feel more comfortable, but neither you personally, nor your collective team will ever achieve what you are truly capable of.

Copyright 2003 International Leadership Associates