Solutions to Tough Team Challenges

Leadership | Collaboration

After a past webinar, we surveyed the participants. Our question: What is your current top team challenge? We received a lot of interesting and, indeed, challenging responses. Here are a few of the issues that surfaced. I'm posting them along with suggestions about what actions to take to overcome them.

Individuals won’t take responsibility or aren’t held accountable.

This particular difficulty often crops up when leaders keep most of the team decision making to themselves. When team members feel that their input is optional, they may “opt out” of being responsible. What can remedy the situation is implementing an inclusion and decision making strategy we call, “Levels of Involvement.” Leaders who include team members in decision making set up people to accept responsibility simply by involving them more.

Many times, leaders are people who were promoted for being good problem solvers. As a result, they may fall into the habit of continuing this individual pattern instead of coaching others to become good problem solvers, too. To see more responsible and accountable team members, coach team members to think and act for themselves appropriately, rather than relying on the leader to make every decision.

"My boss has created an environment where employees can go to him and bypass me as their actual supervisor. This is creating trust issues in several dynamics in the department. The 'boss' sees nothing wrong with this. Thoughts?"

This boss is probably acting with the best of intentions – after all, isn’t an “open door policy” a good way to establish trust? Unfortunately, when it supersedes the appropriate work channels it can create problems. I worked with a client where a leader had created such a policy. An employee survey indicated that supervisors felt the policy encouraged employees to circumvent them. Once he realized the true impact of his policy, the leader began asking employees, “Tell me what your manager has said. Help me understand the context -- why do you think I should be involved?” If their manager is on the road or unavailable, the leader then makes the decision -- and he also makes sure the employee writes up a summary and cc’s the manager. If the decision can wait, the leader says, “Put the issue in an email to the supervisor, cc me, and you two ‘own’ the next steps.” This creates accountability and respect for the proper channels, while letting employees know they can indeed go to the leader if necessary.

"One key team member is often kept out of the loop because the other team members don't recognize any value that member is contributing to the team. How can I resolve this?"

Frequently, within teams, decision making is not clear and roles are not clear. So a team member who seems “unnecessary” or even “not contributing” may, in fact, need role clarification!

In the case of someone whom team members see as a problem, the first, best, thing to do is get together and make sure roles are clearly defined and transparent to everyone. What is the decision making process? Get that defined and agreed upon. Then, if there still seem to be questions about the contributions of a team member, open and honest feedback is the answer. It’s like mountaineering – on a team, you’re all tied together. You ascend together . . . and crash into the chasm together. So you can’t afford to have anyone slip through the cracks! You need to give feedback and help that person do the best work s/he can do. You must say something even if it’s uncomfortable or “not your responsibility.” Feedback is a necessary part of every successful team’s culture.

Another idea if you’re having trouble communicating well as a team: work through an improvement process. It looks like this:

  1. Poll the group: Where are we regarding communication? Agree we’re at, for example, a “3.”
  2. Discuss what the issues are. Why are we a “3?” What does our behavior look like? No pointing fingers; try to stay objective.
  3. Decide what you need to do to improve. Don’t try for a “10” right away – how will we get to, for example, a “3.5?” What will it look like? How will we behave?
  4. Agree on next steps and a date on which to reconvene to assess the team’s improvement.

In closing, what is your top team challenge? I was fascinated by the window into people’s struggles that the webinar afforded, and I hope my answers are helpful. Often, issues on teams boil down to one common denominator – the lack of collaboration skills. Members of work teams may be the best and brightest in a given company. At the same time, they may be very used to, even stuck in, a pattern of working alone. They’ve been high-achieving individual performers, and that’s been “good enough.” But as a member of a team, these individual high performers must learn how to collaborate — it’s a critical ingredient to success in the 21st century organization.

Are you facing other tough team challenges? Let us know what you're facing and how it's impacting you. We'll work together to find a solution.

About Beth Yates

Beth has more than 20 years experience working in organizational consulting. She has worked internally in organizations as a facilitator and training designer, and deliverer. She has also consulted as an external partner doing the same work. She holds a degree in sociology.