7 Hard-Earned Lessons In Leading A Dysfunctional Team

From resisting the urge to micromanage to making yourself replaceable, it’s often the most trying times that teach us the biggest lessons.

7 Hard-Earned Lessons In Leading A Dysfunctional Team
[Photo: Flickr user ajari]

My most brutal adventure at work was also most brag-worthy.


I was in charge of turning around a team that was highly talented but consistently, and mysteriously, underperforming. High turnover rates and missed deadlines were problems we tried to address with different leaders over a span of three years. At the end of 36 months of trial and error, I was offered the opportunity to take a fresh perspective on this puzzle.

Among others, my challenge, however, was that this department operated outside my area of expertise: I led business designers and product managers, and this was a team of quality assurance experts. I was their interim manager for nearly two years. It was a bumpy ride and the root-causes for their low performance is a topic for another story. But I learned approximately ten thousand lessons in leadership; here’s seven of them:

1. Make their careers not their task lists

This team’s responsibilities had a steep learning curve. I had no time to become a master of their domain. So, I had no option but to resist my urge to micromanage their tasks. Instead, I had to shift my focus to managing their dreams, their careers, and their future. The result: I graduated from being a task-master to a leader.

2. Make their days at work meaningful

Often, your employees spend more time at work than away from it. Make it worth their while to show up each day and give it their best shot. Work hard to help them trace the lines between their actions and the impact on your organization. Don’t use the size of your organization, or the lack of data as excuses for your inability to do so.

3. Make it easy to have the hard conversations

Establish disciplined routines for informal conversations with individuals on your team. At these discussions, don’t launch into an interrogation with closed questions such as: “Why is ___ delayed?” Instead, try open-ended queries, like: “How are things?”

More important than the nature of your questions, however, is to set a predictable cadence and pick the right ambiance. Even the sidewalk is a better option than a conference room—which sets a stodgy tone to the dialogue. The habit of talking frequently and casually takes the anxiety out of scheduling “the talk” with “the boss” when trouble is brewing or has boiled over.


4. Make them exceed their expectations first (not yours)

A GPS needs to know where you are and where you want to go before it can give you directions. In a similar vein, before you unveil designs for another individual’s work-life, you must plot their starting point, and their desired destination.

Your aim should be to thoughtfully and incrementally build an individual’s confidence in her ability to succeed at tasks seemingly out of her reach. Her growing bank of confidence will give her a foundation upon which to tackle bigger feats. Also, yes, you need to design multiple career pathways for your team. Everyone won’t be able to, or want to, tread the same route.

5. Make a framework that detects and rewards early-warning signs

When things went awry, I couldn’t jump in at the first sign of distress and save the day. I had to switch from being the “problem-solver” to the “problem-preemptor.”

Additionally, I had to lean on the team to design the checks and balances. These included: triggers for interventions, budgeting time and resources to conduct peer reviews, and celebrate the near-misses, and continuously fine-tune the warning system. My role was to ensure compliance and reward their improvements in the quality of outputs and productivity.

6. Make it safe to talk about failures

Leaders have to walk the thin line that separates being vulnerable from seeming weak. Too much self-deprecation unnerves your team. A focus solely on wins encourages your crew to cover-up their weaknesses. The latter scenario creates blind spots because you can’t fix or manage the problems that you can’t see.

Carve out equal amounts of time to discuss wins and losses. You have the option to adjust this allocation based on the size of the victory. The bigger the success, the more time you can carve out to discuss the mistakes and recoveries along the way.


7. Make yourself replaceable

I was an interim leader, so from the start it was my goal to find my replacement. While incidental in this scenario, I now approach all my leadership positions with this mindset. Invest in your team’s training to quickly ramp up their competence and confidence. There is no substitute for a team that you can trust, that has the courage and the chops to spar with tough problems, especially in your absence.

Try one or all of these seven rules of engaging your team and watch them do extraordinary things. And when in doubt: talk less, listen more, and act generously.

Natasha Awasthi is a business designer who untangles messy problems by discovering unexpected patterns—in behavior, processes, and technology. A self-proclaimed Jedi-in-training, she writes not only about business, but also about embracing her creativity and bungling the art of channeling the force. Find her on Twitter at natashaawasthi or email her here.