10 Steps to Improve the Performance of Any Team – Even in a Down Economy

by Carl Robinson, Ph.D.  © 2008

When the economy is down, some bosses regress when it comes to being effective leaders.  Because they are afraid, they focus too much on “demanding” higher levels of performance rather than inspiring and leading the way. They stop thinking about motivating and slip into “command and control” mode and begin beating up on people.  “Just do it or you’re out of here.”  I venture that you wouldn’t be reading this if you were one of those types. Nevertheless, I don’t know any executive who doesn’t want to maximize the effectiveness of their teams on all levels: executive, mid-management and workgroups.

Casey Stengal, the fabled baseball coach, once said, “Gettin' good players is easy, gettin 'em to play together is the hard part.” How do you get talented people to work well together at optimum effectiveness? I will outline 10 steps I've learned working as a coach/consultant in the trenches with senior teams from a broad range of businesses: Hi-tech, pharmaceutical, medical devices, manufacturing, financial services, forest products, business services, etc. No matter what the industry, they all have the same basic concerns... getting people to play well together at maximum effectiveness.

1. Individual team members must want to work well together. Superstars with oversized egos who are used to working on their own and furthering their own agendas, no matter how smart, will invariably subvert the needs of the group to advance their own needs and desires. Therefore, you really must hire well and choose people who not only like working in a team, but also have a track record of doing it well. As Jim Collins discovered from his research for the book, “Good to Great,” half the battle is getting the "right people on the bus." (Refer to my executive briefing titled: 11 Steps for Selecting Top Management Talent). If a team member is not a team player and can’t be coached into one, either move him into a solo contributor role or move him out of the organization and find a better player.

2. You need to establish clear enough goals for the team. I say, “clear enough,” because goals can change in a rapidly changing economy. However, the most frequent complaint I hear from executives is: “We're all over the map. I need more clarity about my priorities.” Without goal clarity, it's difficult to galvanize the attention and direct the energy of a team. Interestingly, one mistake that many chief executives make is to think that they personally must come up with the goals for a team. In fact, I've found that if an executive enlists the aid of her direct reports in goal setting and prioritization, there will be much more buy-in and enthusiasm.

3. Establish group norms or a code of conduct. Once again, engaging in a conversation about the behaviors and attitudes team members want to abide by helps corral and focus their energy and builds trust. When people know the rules of the road and, most importantly, abide by them, they learn to trust each other and they're more inclined to take risks. In addition, it's important to recognize and accept that conflict will happen and that it's not necessarily a sign of something going wrong. However, conflict has to be managed effectively. By establishing a group code of conduct, you can proactively plan for how people should and can behave when conflict happens.

4. People need to be able to fail and make mistakes in front of others to be able to take risks. One executive who headed up a research organization of a bio-tech company rightly noted that if you want to be creative you have to allow for failure. As I’ve noted in previous briefings, the research on creative thinking has found that highly creative people come up with many many ideas, of which, only a few are useful. The trick is to seek cause rather than to assign blame when things go wrong. Take risks, fail, figure out what went wrong, learn, try other options until you get it right.

5. Once the team decides on a plan of action, everyone must support it. Debate the issues beforehand and once the team decides to go with a plan… no one should passive aggressively or overtly subvert the plan. One executive team I coached came up with the following code of conduct:

“We will agree or disagree about directions, issues and opportunities. And, after having been heard, we will each fully commit to the outcome!”

6. Enforce accountability. If you don’t enforce the code of conduct and hold people accountable, there will be the natural tendency to ignore the rules when it suits the needs of the individual. Executives need to know that they will lose their job if they transgress too much.

7. Expect that everyone on the team should and will act like a leader. On high performing teams, team members don't wait for their boss or other team members to speak up. People offer their opinions, challenge each other, hold each other accountable, and, most importantly, praise each other.

8. Celebrate incremental successes. Virtually every executive team I've ever worked with has put on their list, "We don't celebrate enough." They get so busy just doing, that they overlook this important human need. No matter how experienced you are you’re still human. As one very seasoned highly successful executive said, "We all need an occasional ‘atta boy’."

9. Strive for continuous improvement. Periodically convene the team and ask, “What do we need to be doing more of, differently and stop doing to close the gap from where we are to where we want to be?” Top teams don’t rest on their laurels. There is always room for growth.

10. Laugh together. High performing teams enjoy each other and frequently kid each other, banter and crack jokes. This happens most often in teams where the team members have trust in each other, can be vulnerable and generally like each other. If you're not enjoying yourself being a part of a team, why do it? We live in an amazing country where smart people are in demand. Most smart people can pretty much choose where they want to work. Choose to work with people you respect and have a chance of enjoying. If you're not happy... don't make others miserable by burdening them with your unhappiness. Either change your attitude or strive to improve the situation or get another job.

Call me if you want to learn how to do a better job of assessing and selecting top talent.

Call me if you want to learn more ways to improve and maximize the effectiveness of your executives and teams: executive level, mid-management or workgroups.