5 tips to help manage an underperforming team


Have you got a team that is underperforming?  Is poor teamwork producing lower results?

Are there frustrations that inhibit individuals’ effectiveness?

Martin Marris highlights some top tips that could help to make your team more than simply the sum of the parts.  

A high-performing team consistently achieves better results, adapts more quickly to change, and can solve problems faster and more effectively than the same individuals working separately.

Teams are of course made up of individuals, so each individual will still need to be managed in terms of having clear goals, good feedback, recognition for their achievements, coaching/support where skills are missing and so on.  However, there are additional issues that team leaders need to consider in order to reach and maintain top team effectiveness.

So here are 5 specifically team-related tips for moving your team towards true high performance.

Tip 1 – Identify what the underperformance is

This is not as obvious as it sounds.  Remember that results (as measured by sales, customer satisfaction, percentage of repeat business, etc.) are the outcome of high performance.  Performance is what the team members actually do.

So if sales are low, what is the performance issue?  A low call rate?  Not asking customers about their wider needs?  Not building rapport so customers are reluctant to talk about needs?  Not explaining to customers the benefits of recommendations?  Not sharing key information within the team?  Or something else?

Tip 2 – Identify what you mean by “teamwork”

It is quite common for all members of a team to agree that more effective teamwork is vital, but for each one to have a different picture in mind of what that actually looks like.  This often leads to the leader feeling frustrated at the perceived lack of cooperation, and team members feeling frustrated by thinking they are doing the right thing but the boss is still not happy!

There are many different team models which in themselves can be highly effective, but are appropriate for different tasks.  It is important that you and the team members have the same vision of the type of teamwork you are aiming for.  By using examples from the fields of sport or music you can help your team understand what is needed.

The following list moves through highly effective but increasingly complex models of teamwork.  Read through the examples, and identify which is closest to the way your team needs to work and also what is unique about your team’s profile and way of working.  Then discuss with the team how they see it, and what they can do to collaborate more effectively.

  1. Golf or athletics teams perform individually for the most part, with their results added together to produce a team score.  Here members can work more or less in their own way, and even at their own pace, as long as they achieve the results.  The team focus is on sharing tips, experience and ideas, and maintaining individual and team morale when the results are not as good as hoped.
  2. Relay teams also mainly perform individually and focus on the same mutual support; but in addition they have crucial points of handover or coordination that must go well.  For example, passing on correct and timely information from sales to support or credit control teams; or figures handed over at month end.
  3. Orchestra members, in addition to supporting each other, need to be working in coordination not just occasionally but pretty much continually.   Here the team will need to move together from one task, topic or phase to the next.
  4. Football teams/live jazz bands are also coordinated, but work together to allow for the unexpected.  A particular opportunity, whether an audience reaction or a mistake by the opposition, will be seized on and responded to quickly.  For example, a surprise action by a key customer or a competitor may require a fast improvised response from several team members together.
  5. Doubles tennis teams additionally have the challenge of flexible roles.  They don’t have the luxury of saying “I’m really good at serving, so I’ll just do that.” They have to receive, and to play at the front when their partner receives.  So for example, with customer A one individual may take the relationship lead and a colleague takes the role of product expert.  With customer B, who has different technical and interpersonal needs, they may decide that swapping roles would maximise their effectiveness.

Tip 3 – Identify what is missing from the team interaction

In what sense is your team a genuine team, rather than simply a collection of individuals doing the same job?
This is sometimes not an easy question to answer.  However, high-performing teams, whatever model they are based on, share certain characteristics that distinguish them from average teams.

Remember that most teams are mixed.  They will currently be doing better on some characteristics than on others.  If your team can identify which characteristics are fairly well developed and which need more work, they can start moving towards higher performance and better results.

So here are some of the characteristics of high-performing teams for discussion with your people:

  1. How far do team members get involved in decisions, setting goals/targets and agreeing performance criteria?  Could they be saying, “The boss tells us what to do, and then tells us how we did”?  If they are not ready to participate in this way yet, start taking steps to prepare them.
  2. How far do team members feel a sense of shared responsibility for the team results? Could they be saying, “As a team we didn’t hit our target, but I hit mine – so it’s not my problem”?
  3. How far are team members prepared to embrace change and try doing new things or existing things in a new way? Are they looking for opportunities to improve, or are they stuck in the past? Could they be saying, “We tried that before, and it didn’t work”, or “I really can’t see why we need to start doing it differently”?
  4. How far do team members have a clear and shared sense of the purpose of the team?  How easily can they articulate why the team exists from the point of view of the customer?  Could they be saying, “As long as I do what I’m supposed to, that’s OK.  My boss doesn’t need me to understand why”?
  5. How far do team members raise issues (positive and negative) early, before there’s a problem?  Could they be saying, “We could avoid problems if we addressed them earlier – but at that point, before it’s a problem, it seems too trivial and we feel the boss sees it as a waste of time.”?

Tip 4 – Identify and discuss differing views within the team

High-performing teams do not necessarily agree on everything, but they do discuss, listen to each other and take each other’s views seriously.  With almost any issue you can find a diversity of views among your team members.

Weak teams often strive for consensus by excluding or attacking members with different opinions (commonly known as ‘mobbing’).  The result is that people still disagree and have good alternative ideas but simply learn not to voice them.  This typically leads to resentment, a lack of commitment within the team and a loss of valuable ideas.

The leader’s role is to help the team learn to analyse, weigh up and reach decisions together about how to move forward.  Diversity is essential for creativity, so help the team to value individuals’ quirks and different approaches to issues.

You can encourage this by acknowledging each contribution and taking each one seriously.  Be rigorous about never allowing disagreements to become personal.  Keep their focus on the issue, not the person, and summarise or rephrase arguments in a more objective way if necessary.

Tip 5 – Identify and recognise successes

You are aiming for improvement over the long haul – and sometimes it is a long haul!  Don’t leave it till you achieve the final outcome to recognise success – look for, and even plan, milestones along the way.  Small positive changes in behaviour, small improvements in results, should be recognised and celebrated.  This makes it much more likely that the changes will be repeated and will become part of the new team culture.

Martin Marris

Martin Marris

And make sure that you are giving recognition to the right thing!  Managers have been known to talk up the need for teamwork, but only give recognition for achievement on an individual level.  They can also make success a priority, but actually focus on the failures.

Turning an underperforming team into a high-performing one takes time, skill and patience on the part of everyone, not only the leader.  But there are many spectacular examples of where it has worked well.  And the manager doesn’t have to be a world-class leader.

What it takes is commitment to some key principles and a focus on small but consistent improvement.

Martin Marris is Director at Strategic Direction

Do you have any more tips for managing an underperforming team? Please share them

Author: Jo Robinson

Published On: 14th Sep 2011 - Last modified: 22nd Dec 2023
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