Is it me, or is it them? Choosing the right intervention

The request comes in, “We are having a team retreat next month and I’d like you to come and provide some team building. It would be great if you could focus on how we can work together better.”  It sounds easy enough. . . some fun activities to understand different work or communication styles.  Piece of cake. . . or is it?  Almost every time this request comes in, there is an underlying, unexpressed and unaddressed concern on the team.
I have learned over the years to ask lots of questions to uncover the real need.  More often than not, there is an individual, maybe more, who creates problems for the manager and/or the rest of the team.  The manager has been uncomfortable addressing it directly and hopes that the individual(s) will “get the message” through the exercises we do.
I am a really good trainer, but I cannot deliver this result for the manager.  The individual does not “get the message,” everyone else on the team wonders why they are going through this, they may guess what the underlying goal is. . . Ultimately, time and money wasted, and the manager and team are still stuck where they were.
So, is training or team building ever worthwhile? Sure, but be clear on what you want to accomplish, make sure the team knows the purpose, and be sure you are choosing the right strategy.
What to do when?  Is it me (the manager) or is it them (the team)?

  1. If you have an employee who is having performance problems, you need to tell them. If you are struggling with how to frame the issue and or how to correct/improve it, invite a performance consultant or coach to assist.  They can help you be clear on what is needed, identify strategies, timelines, and even practice how to say it.  But you as the manager have to have the conversation. It is your job.
  2. If you have employees who are in conflict, you need to let them know that the conflict cannot continue (oh darn, you have to have that conversation again.)  Based on the level of the conflict, you may need to bring in someone to mediate. . . with the understanding that the behaviors cannot continue.  If the behaviors continue after intervention, it becomes a performance issue. (Back to item one!)
  3. If you are concerned about morale, performance, communication of the whole team, you may want to bring in a consultant or coach for yourself first and figure out how you can influence the culture of your team.  What is going on? How long has this been going on?  Is it a structural issue or a training issue? Do the employees have the skills and resources they need? Do they know what is expected of them?
  4. Then, decide if training or team building of some kind can really make a difference. And explain to the team what you hope will be different after the training and how you will assess and support the change.

So how does this work?
Situation 1
You have an employee who is not pulling their share of the load.  Everyone else knows it but no one says anything.  She has been there a long time so how can you bring it up now?  You are frustrated. The team is demoralized.  What is the point of going the extra mile?
Whose problem is it? Yours. Solution: you have to speak up even after all this time.
How do you do it?

  • Ask yourself – does my team know what I expect from them re: performance?  If the answer is not clear, start there.  You might try having the team help set group expectations – buy-in for everyone.  Then, everyone is clear about the level of accountability – it is day one of new expectations.
  • When everyone knows the expectations for performance, have conversations with each employee about how they see their performance.
    • Be prepared to give honest feedback and develop strategies for improvement as needed.
    • Identify timelines for accountability and follow them.
    • Ask your employees what they might need from you to help them succeed?
  • And now, for the really, really hard part . . . have follow-up conversations where you hold people accountable. Be sure to let people know when they are succeeding, and when they are not.  Discuss what will happen if they do not improve.

Who can help? A performance coach or consultant; someone from your HR department. A facilitator.
Situation 2
You have two employees who do not get along. They have different work styles and over time they have gotten more and more irritated with each other. They don’t talk to each other. They gossip with others and try to recruit them to their side. It is interfering with workflow as people have to do workarounds to get information through this nasty bottle-neck.  It is impacting the whole team. Production and morale are dropping.
Whose problem is it?  Yours and theirs – yours because it is impacting the team and the quality of work; theirs because they are the ones who need to solve it.
Solution: You have to speak up and let them know their behavior is not acceptable and needs to change.  You can invite them to find a way to manage – but in all likelihood, you will need to bring in a mediator or facilitator.  (This is not the time to have a team building activity about getting along!)
How do you do it:

  • Decide if you want to start the conversation individually or with them both together – it may depend on how bad it is and how comfortable you are with conflict.
    • Let them know the impact they are having on the team.
    • Ask them if they have suggestions for solving the problem.
    • Offer to bring in a mediator or facilitator to resolve it with them.
    • Be clear that the behavior cannot continue.
  • Bring in a facilitator or mediator (either internal or external to your organization) and be at the first meeting – making clear that you share in this problem because of the impact on the team.  You need it resolved and will attend meetings as needed to help implement a solution.
  • Hold everyone accountable for their behavior.  You might need to be very specific about the behaviors.

Who can help? A coach, mediator or facilitator – check with your HR department to see what they have to offer.
Situation 3:
You are aware that your team is not happy.  Performance is down, absenteeism is up.  You are not sure what is going on and you’d really like things to be better.
Solution: Start with a coach or consultant who can help you get a better handle on where the problem is.
How do you do it?

  • Be honest with your coach about your strengths and your weaknesses.  If you are not sure, the coach may provide some assessments for you and/or for the team.  Be prepared to learn more about yourself.  Are you open to change?
  • Once you are clearer about the areas that need to be addressed, you and your coach can consider the best intervention strategies.
    • What do you need to do?
    • What do you need from your team?
    • How do you present the information?
    • How do you monitor and hold everyone accountable?

Who can help? A coach – internal or external to your organization – but someone with whom you can be honest and vulnerable.  (It should not be someone in your immediate supervisory chain.)
And finally, we get to Situation 4:  Team building, training and facilitation!!!
You recognize that your team has areas that can be strengthened.  You’ve addressed individual concerns and you’ve made some commitments to your own growth as a leader.  You know the direction you want to take and you are prepared to hold yourself and others accountable. You want to see your team collaborate and support each other more. You know this will require a change in culture where they understand they are all responsible for results. This could include: helping a team member who is overworked, catching an error – fixing it and sharing the info with the team member, coming up with ideas to make things work better, hearing team members thank each other, compliment each other and celebrate each other.
How do you do it?

  • Let your team know your plan – why you are asking them to participate, what you want to see and how you will hold each other accountable.
  • Participate with your team – make it clear it is about “all of us,” not about “them.”
  • Know that to make a lasting change, there will need to be more than a single one-hour magic bullet. Let the team know how you see this unfolding.
  • Have a plan for accountability – and/or invite the team to develop a plan.
  • Follow your plan.

Who can help: Coach, trainer, facilitator, you and your team!
When I get to work with a team that is really ready for change, it is amazing and fun for everyone.
So use your time and money wisely to get the very best results possible. And remember, your role as a leader makes all the difference.  When you’ve set the stage, great things can happen.
For more information, check out these sources.
Lencioni, P. The Advantage. 2012. Jossey-Bass.
Patterson, K. et al. 2011. Crucial conversations. McGraw-Hill.