Identify the actual reasons behind your team’s failure, and enable their future success.
Certainly, being let down is a terrible feeling—be it in your personal life or at work. The resulting combination of disappointment, sadness, anger and frustration is potent. We have all felt it. And it’s tempting to wallow in these negative emotions. But you have to find a way to address this. This is especially important for leaders. At Ndiema, we say that we are only as good as our team.
So, If you think your team hasn’t lived up to their promise, holding a grudge against them isn’t good for anyone. Beyond your personal feelings, the future of the entire team is at stake—and it falls on you as the manager to take charge of the situation and turn things around.
So, my message today focuses on how to deal if you feel that your team may be letting you down—and how to address the root causes and come together more strongly.
As a leader, you may attribute the team’s failure to meet your expectations to incompetence or a poor work ethic. However, in my experience, it is far more likely that other problems are holding your team back: lack of communication, ambiguous messaging, disengagement and demotivation, inadequate training, or unclear feedback. Which means that there’s a very good chance that you are also part of the problem. A team’s sub-standard performance is, at least partly, a reflection of its leadership. This is a difficult truth for any leader to face but it is something we must learn to accept and tackle. Holding people accountable is key to any collective success—but you must make sure your team has everything they need in order to make this possible. Without this, blaming them for falling short is simply unfair (as well as unproductive).
If you are feeling let down in some way by your team, here are some of the things you can do to identify and work on the issues:
1. Define and communicate your expectations
Go back to the fundamentals. First, clarify, in your own mind, your top expectations. Next, these must be communicated—in no uncertain terms—to your team. Do not take it for granted that they already know, because what seems obvious to you may not be obvious to someone else. Only when your team has a clear idea of your expectations can they live up to them.
In the Harvard Business Review article, What to Do If Your Team Is Letting You Down, Anne Grady outlines a telling story:
‘I was working with a CEO who was frustrated that his team often failed to meet deadlines. When I asked why he thought that was, he explained that it was because they were lazy. When I met with the team to ask why they were often late, they explained that the culture of the organization was built around quality. They had been told that mistakes are not an option. They were so afraid to make a mistake, they strove for perfection instead of progress. The CEO thought he was holding his team accountable. However, he had not clearly communicated that meeting deadlines was just as important as producing quality work.’
2. Have difficult conversations
It is up to managers to deliver messages that may not be very easy to hear—or to say. Despite its importance, many of us shy away from this aspect of the job because such conversations are tough for everyone involved. If you find yourself always becoming “very busy” and cutting meetings short when it’s time to point out areas of concern, then you may need to work on your feedback skills. Without regular check-ins that provide constructive criticism, your team will be unable to course correct and improve their performance.
In 6 clues that you are letting your team members get away with poor performance, Heather Townsend suggests getting the person’s buy-in before having heart-to-heart chat, offering the following example: ‘We’ve got the latest WIP report in for our team. Is it OK if we are honest with each other and talk about the root cause of our WIP being the highest in the firm?’ This is a great way to set the right tone, making it clear that the focus is on finding a mutual solution to the problem—not on blaming the person. Remember to always have such dialogues in a private setting.
3. Be specific
Make sure your expectations and feedback are marked by clarity. Too often, we cloak our messages in vague language, which leaves things open to interpretation—and each individual’s takeaway could be different. For instance, if you’re assigning deadlines, avoid ambiguous phrases like “as soon as possible” and “when you have a chance”; instead, opt for specifics such as “5 pm on Thursday”. This enables your team to understand exactly where the task stands in terms of priority and urgency.
Adopt the same strategy when highlighting your expectations: ask for specific behaviours instead of intangible concepts. Grady warns that different people assign different meanings to words:
‘You might want employees to act with integrity, but that can mean different things to different people. One employee infers that he or she should not gossip or spread rumors while another thinks it means following through on promises. Getting clear about expectations means that everyone is on the same page.’
4. Appreciate the positives
Could a lack of motivation be the reason your team is failing to do their best? When positive contributions at work aren’t celebrated or even acknowledged, people do not feel valued. And, as any psychologist would tell you, people repeat behaviours that are appreciated. So, giving credit on an ongoing basis is crucial for creating an excellence-oriented mindset. Along with pointing out areas of improvement, appreciate your team’s hard work and celebrate the wins, big and small. Plus, when you are generous with positive feedback, your team will be far more likely to accept and act on your negative feedback.
5. Train the negatives
If a team member is underperforming, ask yourself if they might need support in the form of coaching or mentorship. People are often hesitant about asking for much-needed training because they think it makes them look inept. As leaders, it falls to us to ensure that our teams feel comfortable enough to ask for help when they need it, and that we actively check in with them from time to time. This is especially important in the case of new hires and recently promoted team members.
6. Play to your team members’ strengths
Are you allowing each individual to do what they’re best at and truly shine? It’s quite possible that the reason someone is letting you down is because their talents aren’t correctly aligned with their responsibilities. So, what comes across as ineptitude could simply be a case of mismatch. This is why it’s crucial for you to have a deep understanding of each team member’s aptitude, skills and disposition; only then can you ensure that each person is positioned to harness their unique strengths.
7. Manage team dynamics
Even as you figure out what works for each team member, you need to think hard about the team dynamics at play. Are they really coming together as a cohesive team? How do they work together? Are they looking out for each other? Are they supporting each other? Do they share responsibilities? Importantly, do they share credit where due? Many times, if this is broken, then teams can’t achieve their full potential. And it is absolutely your responsibility as the leader to constantly look for ways to ensure that your team is able to come together effectively.
8. Know what is important to your team
While you may have certain expectations, it is very important that you also understand how your team feels about them. Are they equally excited and inspired by the same things as you are? Do they share your vision? Is there something that they are looking for that you don’t feel is important? You must be able to appreciate what is important for them, and work towards it. Without that, your team will falter. This comes from much more conversation and wherever possible, making your team a part of the decision-making process. What should this team look like? What are its defining values? What should your key objectives be—for the week, the quarter, the year? Instead of answering these questions unilaterally, opt for brainstorming and discussions that include your team members. When people are involved in setting their own goals, they are inevitably more invested in meeting them.
9. Build personal relationships
Sometimes, the reason behind disengagement can be as simple as feeling disconnected. You have to go beyond work to build relationships and get to know your team. This isn’t something that you can ignore. In fact, as part of our employer value proposition, we call out the fact that ‘when you join Ndiema, you join a family that stands by you’. This is what we see as a differentiator. We want to get to know our people and use that to be able to partner more effectively.
In 12 Simple Things A Leader Can Do To Build A Phenomenal Team, John Hall talk about how easy it actually is show your team that you care:
‘Recognize that your team members have personal lives. It’s easy to take small steps to celebrate birthdays, weddings, or other significant moments in their lives. If you see an opportunity to help a team member outside of work, it pays to take it. It helps build loyalty with your employees, and they tend to pay it forward with other team members.’
So, the next time you feel let down, take a long, hard look at the entire team—including yourself. Do the due diligence and identify the real gaps. Do not rely on your own assumptions because, as research has shown time and again, these are usually unfounded. Enable your team to live up to their full potential by making sure you’re checking all the essential boxes for success. To borrow from John T. Mason in his article 3 Things You Need To Do When Your Team Lets You Down:
‘It’s inevitable you are going to be let down by a team member, or even an entire team. However, your reaction to this let down will set the tone going forward, and will either alienate you, or make them wildly loyal.’
I look forward to your thoughts.