How Great Leaders Manage Underperforming Teams




  • April 14, 2016

    Congratulations! You’ve earned a reputation as a highly effective leader. Now, your organization has thanked you by giving you a challenging new assignment that no one else can seem to figure out.


    You’ve been assigned to lead a team that has a track record for underperforming, and it’s your mission to get things turned around.


    Some may view this as being punished for a job well done. Others may take this as a true leadership challenge. An opportunity to have real impact on themselves, their team and their organization.


    Whether you view it as a positive or negative, however, your job is to make it happen. So where do you start? Here are a few ideas to help design your approach to transforming this team from underperformers to superstars.


    1. Don’t do anything big right away. Listen. Observe. Collect data. Don’t rush to judgment and implementation before getting a deep understanding of all of the factors that are at play. After a brief assessment, leaders will often jump into action only find that they‘ve successfully addressed symptoms of a much deeper issue. That said, there may be some obvious, low-hanging fruit that can be acted on quickly to generate some momentum and performance out of the gate.


    2. Consider a new leader assimilation process. I’ve never understood why this approach is not more common. Creating space for a new leader and their team to come together to engage in dialogue at the start of the relationship can help establish trust, transparency, and set expectations going forward.


    3. Understand the dynamics within the team. Getting to know each person as a unique individual can open a lot of doors for understanding the team as a whole. Understanding strengths and opportunities for each person can tell a lot about how and why a team is functioning the way it is, and help develop your strategy going forward.


    4. Work to build trust through vulnerability but don’t try to push it. Trust is the foundation of all productive relationships. The challenge is that it takes time and shared experience to develop. You can’t force it. That said, you can take proactive efforts to begin the trust building process from the start. One way to do this is by showing up. Show up to team meetings, to events the team is engaged in, and be a part of the conversation—wherever it’s happening. Express interest just by being there, and show your team that you’re actively engaged.


    5. Determine what type of team you really need to drive success. Are you a group of individuals whose activities aren’t interconnected? Or a true team whose success is reliant upon everyone working together? There’s a big difference between a relay team and a soccer team. Knowing what kind of team you need to be to achieve your strategic goals is table stakes in determining the best way to organize.


    6. Be clear about why you’re there and what you want to accomplish. Regardless of the circumstances that brought you to lead this underperforming team, the fact of the matter is you have a job to do. People are going to look to you for direction, guidance, and feedback. Once you have your sea legs, you are going to need to steer the ship.


    How Great Leaders Manage Underperforming Teams7. Clearly link team activities to the organizational strategy and goals. I’m surprised at how often I speak to employees in various organizations who can’t explain how their day-to-day activities contribute to the bigger picture. Help your team members clearly understand how they are adding value to the larger strategy. Illustrate the impact that not delivering has on their peers, customers, and other stakeholders. This can have a profound effect on their behavior.


    8. Educate and train the team to be able to successfully deliver what you need delivered. Whenever a leader asks people to behave differently, whether that be due to a change in strategy or something else, sustained change may be hindered. Members of the team either do not have the knowledge and skills to deliver in the new environment, or they don’t believe they do. In these cases, leaders must remain alert and be willing to provide support to team members as they explore new ways of working.


    9. Recognize behaviors that align with your vision. Provide detailed and timely feedback so people know what right looks like. Sustaining positive behavior through reward and recognition helps ensure that team members understand what right looks like. Recognizing performers also reinforces your expectations to others on the team.


    10. Be prepared to make some tough decisions. At the end of the day, you may do all of these things and some folks still won’t deliver. In these situations, you have to be prepared to make some termination decisions for the good of the team.


    11. It’s a marathon not a sprint. You’ll have to be persistent and commit to your plan. It can take some time for team members to begin to see that the new way of doing things actually works, and it’s not a threat to them.


    12. Develop your own support network. A lot of times leaders spend so much time and energy focused on others that they forget to take care of themselves. Finding a support system (be that a mentor, peer, a formal executive coach or some combination) can make the transition into this leadership challenge much more fulfilling and beneficial for everyone involved.


    Being a leader is not for the faint of heart. Leading a team that is underperforming can challenge even the most effective leaders. It may seem daunting now, but this is your chance to test your mettle as a highly effective leader. Take the opportunity to embrace the challenge; not only for your own career, but to help make a meaningful difference for your team, and your organization as a whole.


    I’d like to thank Mr. Tomas Hanna for pitching the original idea for this article. As an OD professional (and a client), Tomas supports many leaders in many diverse situations to be their best. Thank you Tomas.

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