When a team is underperforming-missing deadlines, pointing fingers and just generally not getting the job at hand done-there are three common solutions that come to mind. These strategies are ones I've tried myself when I worked as an IT professional in my early career, and I have witnessed other people consistently trying to implement them in hopes of a breakthrough.
Here are the three common solutions:
- Define roles and responsibilities
- Manage expectations
- Build trust
Of course, experimenting with any one of these things can cause some improvement. Yet I've also seen time and time again that these solutions, while constructive, far too often fail to deliver lasting results. I would even suggest that each of these solutions is based on a myth of what actually causes performance breakdowns.
Following are the three myths, why we believe they cause breakdowns and why they don't reliably solve the problem of poor team performance.
Myth #1: Trust can be built outside of doing actual work together.
Trust is critical. Consciously and actively working to build trust and repair it when it gets broken is essential to high performance. However, activities that attempt to build trust outside of the day-to-day work all too often fail. For years, I took clients to high ropes courses and encouraged them to do trust falls and other activities designed to take people out of their comfort zone. But what I found is that while these activities helped people to get to know each other and created a positive shared experience, gains in team performance when actually doing real work were minimal and rarely sustainable.
Here's the problem with attempting to build trust outside of the work context: Just because I trust you to catch me when I am falling in an exercise conducted in the woods, does not mean I will trust you to do what you say you are going to do when we get back to work. Consider that trust is an outcome based on the success or failure of interactions in a specific context.
Myth #2: If things are falling through the cracks, the problem must be that roles and responsibilities are not clear enough.
No matter how hard we try to define all of the specific tasks that each person is responsible for or even identify all of the things that require ownership, there is always something we miss. The problem with defining roles and responsibilities of individual team members is that this just solidifies each person's "box," when the real breakdowns occur in the spaces between boxes. Consider that defining what belongs in the current "boxes" solves the current problem, but you can expect you will need to keep doing this as new things come up that you didn't expect.
Myth #3: We need to do a better job of managing expectations.
If I am trying to manage someone's expectations, what is often required is that I do a good job of anticipating what they will want and need. Unfortunately, over time, expectations tend to be a bit of a moving target.
But there is a bigger problem with managing expectations when you want to deliver high performance. The context behind the notion of managing expectations implies that someone else has complete control over the definition of success. That essentially means you are striving to make "them" happen rather than relating to success as a specific outcome or result that you own and that the team owns.
Which leads us to the real key to improving team performance: negotiate clear agreements based on a specific shared definition of success.
If you want to build trust, work with team members to negotiate clear agreements based on what they need from each other and what they can count on from each other.
Trust increases each time an agreement is kept.
If you want to prevent breakdowns caused by a lack of clarity in roles and responsibilities, define not only roles and responsibilities, but the agreements between people that support everyone in delivering on their promises to each other.
While individuals need to complete the tasks on their lists for the team to succeed, teamwork requires that you are clear about how the activities of the individuals connect.
Pro tip: Invest as much time defining how the "boxes" connect as you do in defining what goes in each person's "box" of roles and responsibilities, and fewer things will fall through the cracks.
If you want to better manage expectations, focus on creating agreements based on shared goals rather than chase someone else's expectations.
Agreements made and kept are the ultimate source of not only high performance, but satisfying working relationships.
Whether you are a team member or a team leader, what will you do now to improve your team's performance?