How to Deal With An Underperforming Team?
Sometimes you get a team that outperforms the aggregate of its parts and other times you get an underperforming team that does not produce as expected.
Managing an underperforming team takes patience and objectivity. In this post, I provide nine tips to help managers deal with underperforming teams in the most constructive manner possible. Failing to do so can lead to serious consequences, including:
- Continued underperformance that is neither constructive nor working towards correcting the problems
- Lost stakeholder trust and trust among teammates
- Bad morale infiltrating your team and organization
These issues can be very costly to the long-term stability and future of any team and/or organization.
This year’s Boston Red Sox are a perfect example of an underperforming team. On paper, the team was expected at a minimum to make the playoffs, and on the upside win the World Series. As the 2012 season comes to a close the team has only managed to win 63 games (as of September 10th) and is in last place in the AL East. The media has taken this team by storm, blaming everyone from the players to the manager, and has set the front office and the fans into a tizzy looking for anyone and anything to blame for the team’s struggles. This resulted in the team’s implosion and management’s decision to break the team up. Who knows if it would have come to this if the team’s underperformance had been properly managed from first indication there was a problem. As a result, the Red Sox now find themselves in a long-term rebuilding phase that could take several years to regain their stature as one of baseball’s elite teams.
Below are nine manager tips on how to effectively deal with an underperforming team:
- Validate that the performance expectations were achievable and within reason. If a management team assigns unattainable goals, then it needs to accept responsibility for not properly calibrating expectations.
- Address the poor performance concerns as soon as they are identified. Addressing problems as they develop makes them much easier to resolve. Letting problems fester unaddressed leads to them become even bigger problems.
- Don’t react too soon. Sometimes poor performance can be a performance outlier or the result of outside factors. Give the team a chance to explain their performance struggles and an opportunity to redeem themselves in couple follow-up review periods.
- Identify outside factors that could explain the team’s poor performance. Evaluate the impact each of these factors could have had on the team’s performance and their aggregate impact, so that you have an understanding of how much of a team’s underperformance can be explained by outside factors. However, be careful not to accept these factors as justification for poor performance too soon.
- Set up a commission to understand the factors that led up to the team’s poor performance. Have this group meet one-on-one with the team’s stakeholders, manager, and the team itself. This group should ask each individual to explain what went wrong from their perspective. They should be sure to ask tough questions that will reveal the facts, but they should also offer confidentiality to avoid getting sugar-coated answers. The results should be shared with the manager and stakeholder and used to further evaluate the team’s performance and identify problems.
- The manager should work with the team and stakeholders to help resolve any issues that are holding back the team’s performance. Sometimes small issues can lead to serious performance problems that can easily be resolved without making personnel changes. This is the ideal scenario if the team can get back on-track in terms of performance. Changing personnel can get very expensive and is not a guarantee to resolve problems.
- Sometimes personnel changes cannot be avoided. Prior to the point where personnel changes are necessary, the manager should identify the “keepers” and “droppers” on his team. However, this list should not be shared with anyone and should be open to being altered as information develops. Having this list will allow the team to quickly move on personnel decisions once it decides that the team needs to be reconstructed.
- Once making personnel changes, the stakeholders need to work with the manager to rebuild the group’s reputation internally. To do so, the manager should set up a turnaround process and get buy-in on it from the key stakeholders and the team itself. The following steps should be incorporated into a turnaround process:
- Re-calibrate the team’s goals and expectations based on the new personnel.
- Rally your team to meet these new expectations. This is critical to building team camaraderie and improving team morale.
- Make sure that the key stakeholders and executives understand the team’s goals and expectations.
- After the team gets back on course with its performance and starts to gain credibility with the company, re-institute a promotion process. This will re-instill long-term energy, motivation, and positive morale into the team.
Taking these steps will help a manager get an underperforming team back on-course as quick as possible and at the lowest cost.
If you are interested in reading more on team dynamics and performance, I recommend reading Inc.’s article on How to Build a Great Team with Imperfect People and watching Alex Pentland’s webinar on “The New Science of Building Great Teams.”