Five Common Team Performance Problems

Gerald A. Hutchinson Jr, PhD & Jeff Penley, MS

In our work with management-, functional-, cross-functional-, and project-teams, we have noticed five common functional problems that sabotage a team’s performance:

  1. Inadequate critical-thinking about cause and consequence. Many teams get into a groupthink pattern and do not sufficiently challenge one another to think rigorously or with an eye on innovative solutions. This pattern robs the organization of the potential to make positive change.  Marginal improvements, band-aid solutions, or re-work will waste time and money and create future problems.  Remember the old saying– “There is never enough time to do it right, but there is always time to do it again…until there isn’t?”  You can avoid that blunder!
  1. Slowness in Decision-Making. It is not just that decisions are slow…timing itself is not always the issue if the OUTCOME of the decision is worth the wait.  The problem is that decisions take an unnecessarily slow amount of time, and must pass through gatekeepers that do not share urgency or adequate engagement to pass approval.  Speeding decisions along gives opportunity to tackle other challenges.
  1. Mission Creep. Mission creep can mean the goal of the project expands. It can also mean that clarity of what the team is attempting to do is lost or confused, and consequently a project shifts to objectives that are not essential.  The team wastes time (and credibility) because the objective was never clearly stated, and execution to the goal was undisciplined.
  1. Clunky Collaboration. Poor collaboration (aka poor teamwork) often occurs within the team due to ineffective leadership. Another cause of team misalignment is due to insufficient buy-in.  Or, collaboration problems can occur when external team partner’s agendas are not fully understood or aligned with the team goals.  Getting talent to click is a responsibility of the team leader, and must be intentional. It cannot be left to chance or assumed.  NOTE:  There are clear behavioral science methods about how to overcome “clunky collaboration” (aka “dysfunctions”), and we know how to structure behavior to overcome these challenges.
  1. Insufficient Accountability. Getting to “Done!” and moving on to the next problem can often occur due to a lack of keeping people accountable. When accountability for deliverables is not maintained, productivity slips and project completion is delayed, incurring opportunity costs.

These problems (and many others) can be overcome with an agile team-management guidance-system.  We call ours Excellerate™ to mash together Better+Faster.  If you’d like to find out more about how we integrate solutions to these challenges into our system, contact us:  Gerald Hutchinson or Jeff Penley.

Gerald Hutchinson PhD has over 25 years of experience working with hundreds of teams and leaders.  Excellerate™ has been developed on this knowledge-base of what makes good teams work and what conditions make for poor teamwork.


Getting a Grip on Success

Some key principles:

Purpose leads to Priorities. When you know what your Purpose is, you can establish your Priorities.

Priorities lead to Plans. Priorities make you use judgment to choose some actions and activities over others.  Sometimes making these judgments is difficult, as they create dilemmas when either choice seems correct.  Hey, nobody said this would be easy!  But choose you must, if only due to time available to execute.  Once you have your Priorities in order, you can make plans to achieve them.

Plans lead to Practices. Plans establish a sequence of activities attached to goals.  Plans and the activities that they include are supported by Practices—habits and disciplines—that force you into the mental, emotional, spiritual and behavioral domains that position you to do the things that will achieve your priorities.

Practices lead to Performance. Practice what you want to sustain. Habits born from practice build mastery.  Mastery creates momentum.  Momentum creates mojo.  Mojo makes you shine in your performances, to show your own unique talented way of doing what you’ve been practicing.

Peak Performance requires Periodic Resets.  Books have been written about peak performance, “flow,” and “clicking.”  This knowledge-base is worthwhile to consume and use.  But you can’t sustain peak performance all the time.  Taking time-out allows you to re-set Purpose, Priorities, Plans, and Practices and to re-gain Poise, the state of living in grace.

All that said:

Personalize your own Path Forward. Your path to success will be as unique as you are.  That said, “steal with pride” the wisdom of others who have become more successful than you—in any domain.  There is no need to re-invent the wheel.  If you use it, you will end up making it yours anyway.  Everyone rides a bike in their own unique way!

Punch through the MembraneWant something different?  Then step forward, breathe, and punch through the invisible bubble of status quo that surrounds you.  Only when you punch through that almost invisible film—like a soap bubble—will you realize that you are the one that has been creating the bubble that keeps you locked in to your routine.

What Do Managerial Leaders Do?

A list of generic tasks to help emerging leaders understand the scope of their responsibilities:

Defining Value Delivery

  • Determining customer objectives and agenda
  • Defining “value” in terms of customer expectations
  • Understanding the effort required to create value

Setting Function or Project Goals

  • Determining urgency and importance
  • Understanding interdependencies with other departments
  • Ensuring alignment of effort with other departments

Planning for Goal Accomplishment

  • Breaking Goals into segments by role, resources, sequence
  • Establishing tasks to accomplish for each segment
  • Assessing resources available to accomplish tasks / goals
  • Allocating resources (human, time, capital, and material)
  • Defining metrics to assess performance and progress
  • Contingency planning for possible alternatives

Delegating Responsibilities

  • Determining time/quality demands for tasks
  • Establishing person-task fit
  • Establishing Expectations & Performance Measures
  • Gaining buy-in
  • Establishing agreements for progress reviews

Managing Performance

  • Determining necessary degree of oversight to assure success
  • Maintaining sufficient oversight
  • Review / Assessment of progress
  • Reinforcing direction and performance standards
  • Improving the sub-par performance
  • Reviewing accomplishments for “lessons learned”
  • Recognizing and rewarding good performance

Critical Decision-Making

  • Differentiating Urgent, Important, and Un-important Priorities
  • Using Sound Judgment
  • Considering incremental and transformational change
  • Recruiting thought partners to help guard against hubris

Productive Cooperation and Alignment with Internal Partners

  • Accessing feedback about degree of own support of partner areas
  • Gaining knowledge of partner areas’ workflow, constraints, & oppty’s.
  • Leveraging knowledge of partner areas to improve efficiency
  • Ensuring self and personnel operate to support company goals

Working with Customers-Vendors-Suppliers

  • Maintaining Relations
  • Managing Negative Relations
  • Leveraging Opportunities

Increasing Consistently Good Performance

  • Capturing Standard Procedures and Best Practices
  • Defining routine expectations vs. principles for non-ordinary scenarios
  • Documenting processes

Reducing Waste

  • Consistently reviewing metrics with critical eye
  • Asking for employee input (remembering WIFM)

Developing Opportunities

  • Staying alert through networking for new opportunities
  • Taking initiative to improve

Reviewing Unit (Department) Progress

  • Intervals of time (i.e. quarterly, annually) or by project timeline
  • Formal vs. Informal
  • Among Department employees
  • For Executives & peers

Strong Culture Creates Opportunities!

Strong Culture creates Opportunities!  Based on a sample of 350 organizations, low performing cultures had an average New Product Development score at the 22nd percentile of the Denison Organizational Culture Survey ratings, whereas high performing cultures scored at the 69th percentile.

Do you want a more vibrant, dynamic work environment where people take initiative and seek out opportunity to solve problems?

Manage Culture by Structuring ways to Increase Clarity of Understanding & Alignment of:

  • Mission (Why are we here together?)
  • Objectives (What are our goals?)
  • Communication (Make sure what is important is talked about)
  • Metrics (What is important?)
  • Practices (What are the best methods for success?)
  • Incentives (What do folks get from good performance?)
  • Leadership (Initiating Action, Building Teams,  Maintaining Standards, Encouraging Performance, Making Meaning, and Shaping Performance)
  • People (character, attitude and skills).

Pay attention to the Structures of Culture.  If you are not getting the results you want, then look at the structures that affect Clarity of Understanding and Alignment.


Culture and Climate Defined

Culture is the system of permissions and taboos of an organization, often seen through behavior and values.  While there are usually attempts to shape culture, it most often is simply an adoption by employees of the values of the founder(s) and the current executive leaders.  It will always exist in matters of degree along these dimensions:

  • Hierarchical / Authoritarian vs. Egalitarian / Democratic
  • Tightly Structured vs. Loosely Structured
  • Rigid (bureaucratic) vs. Flexible (ad hoc)
  • Formal vs. Informal
  • Tolerance for Ambiguity vs. Need for Controlled Certainty
  • Passiveness – Aggressiveness
  • Task-focus vs. People-focus
  • Standards for Quality (some industries require more precision than others)
  • Standards for Performance [perfectionism] (some organizations just have higher standards than others)
  • Honesty / Integrity vs. Opportunistic Misrepresentation
  • Manipulative & Covert vs. Open & Transparent
  • Individualism vs. Collectivism
  • Solution-Focused vs. Problem-focused vs. Blame-Focused
  • Earning vs. Entitlement

Climate follows the values and behaviors of individual leaders.  Because most managerial leaders possess some if not most of the values of the headquarters, climate can can be thought of as sub-culture, or “culture on a smaller scale,” such as in a functional department or on a project team.

While a functional department may have many of the same ideals and goals of the corporate culture, it can sometimes be substantially different due to the influence of the local managers-in-charge, as well as the demands of the function.  A marketing department will have different sub-culture from the logistics department.

The further distance a unit of an organization is from the main decision-makers, the more likely it will be to have its own sub-culture.  This is merely due to the lessened interaction with top management which reinforce the values/culture of the organization.

Climate can be assessed as matters of degree of these factors:

  • Tightly Structured vs. Loosely Structured
  • Tempo or Pace of Work
  • Hierarchical / Authoritarian vs. Egalitarian / Democratic
  • Rule-Abiding vs. Rule-Bending
  • Standards for Quality
  • Standards for Performance
  • Task-focus vs. People-focus
  • Obligations of Managers to Employees
  • Norms about the “balance” of work-life

Keeping Time

If a company wishes to get professional work from its employees, then it needs to treat them as professionals. An over-focus on marking attendance and keeping time often results in employees playing the “time-at-work game” in which simply being at their desk for the requisite eight hours is more important than being productive.

If you wish to get professional work from your employees, then they must be treated as professionals. The definition of a professional is someone who demonstrates near-impeccable work behavior. They have great concern for their work output, they focus on being productive, and they think about how to accomplish their goals when they are not at work. If we dig deeper into what makes a professional, we would conclude that they have an attitude of poised competence and friendly collaboration; they exemplify high ethical standards, and demonstrate integrity to the values of their organization; they look, sound, and smell attractive; they show courtesy, promptness, and good-faith to their company and their clients; and they resist the urge to engage in behavior that would be questioned as anything but professional. You may have your own additional criterion for the behaviors and standards of professionals.

One of the frustrations of expecting professional work from professionals is that some people have a different orientation to timeliness than others. For instance, sometimes professionals “come in late to the office” or “stretch out the lunch hour,” or “leave the office early.” These time-problems may occur for each and every professional, with reasonable justification. If these behaviors only occur occasionally and the employee’s performance otherwise lives up to expectations, then it should not be a concern. But when it becomes a pattern, and it actually harms their ability to perform their job (such as when others need to speak with them but they are unavailable), then the issue must be addressed by their direct manager.

Prevention is always a better tactic than dealing with a problem once it has occurred, so let’s think about that ANGLE first.

Make sure that the expectations are clearly understood. While policies may be written in an employee handbook, it is much more important that these sorts of things be expressed directly in a face-to-face meeting by the manager. Managers may have different explicit expectations from what is in an employee policy, but the manager must know the effect that these different standards have on the organization. To the degree that the employee hears their manager emphasize the standards directly, the more they know how important they are, and why.

Explain to your employee what exceptions-to-the-rule are allowable. You will need to define these exceptions, such as unusual traffic situations that delay getting to work, the need for a long lunch to accomplish the occasional errand, or the need to leave work early for special situations outside of work, such as celebrating a child’s graduation, attending to a family-member in the hospital, etc.

If an employee is not abiding by the expectations, or seem to be exploiting (bending, not breaking) the rules, then it is time to move to the next step.

Have a crucial conversation. Ask the employee to your office. Explain that you need to talk to them about what may be going on with their time habits. Ask them for their perspective on their pattern of behavior. Explain your concerns. Be compassionate, yet firm. Despite their rational excuses, clarify the standards that you hold and let them know that you expect a different behavior. Ask them what they need to do to achieve those standards. Let them know that they will be under additional, but not micro-managing scrutiny for some period of time (say, 3-6 months) until it is demonstrated that they can abide by the performance standards.

Make a plan with the employee for the time problem including consequences if they relapse. Have the employee agree to the plan, making sure that it is not a plan that they believe sets them up to fail.

Verify compliance. On occasion, ask them to self-report on their behavior. At random intervals, call them during periods when they have had a time problem with a question that is relevant in the context of your performance-relationship with them so that you are not simply viewed as “checking up on them,” which will be seen as intrusive and demeaning. You will not be able to check all the time, so do not worry about that. Just check randomly, and let it go at that. If it is a problem, you are likely to hear about it from other employees or notice it yourself.

Exercise consequences if you have done the above steps and the employee slips back into the old pattern. Ideally this will not involve termination, because time-problems are not often that egregious. However, note that the need to exercise consequences suggests that you have an employee that is unable or unwilling to modify their behavior to fit in to the expected standards. This is not s good sign for long-term match between the employee and the employer. In any case, the employee is likely to be angry or upset. So the conversation may turn towards the employee’s overall attitude about working for the company.

If a termination is appropriate, realize that others may be angry that the employee was let go, while others may be relieved that a slacker got what they deserved. Remember, that you cannot disclose information about such occurrences, even though the standard announcement email should always be sent out: “John Doe will be leaving the company effective X date. We wish him the best in his future pursuits.” Whatever you say, some will second-guess your decision, but it is unlikely that your integrity to company standards and your expectations will have gone unnoticed. If leaders do not maintain high standards, no one else will.

Weak Links

People that surround the leader say a lot about who the leader is.

Weak links undermine credibility and power.  Weak links leak momentum.  Weak links have little passion, and thereby the capability to get things done.

Strong links shows the leader can handle strong people.

But the leader not be “tough” to handle strong people.

The leader just needs to know how to yield when it is time, and when to be firm with solid rationale when that is called for.

10 Signs of Healthy Organizational Culture

1. Decisive leadership, when needed.
2. Sincerely listening and responding (when appropriate) to ideas and suggestions from even the youngest trooper.
3. Training subordinates to assume their leaders’ duties and responsibilities.
4. Mentoring at all levels.
5. Everyone looks to improve everything.
6. Training to push the organization/team to ever higher levels of operational excellence.
7. Fixing problems, not blaming people.
8. Strong egos and turf battles are held in check.
9. Fostering, recognizing, and rewarding teamwork.
10. Healthy competition (or coop-etition, to coin a word)

Motivating People*

From the Keep-it-Simple School, in this case Hertzburg’s Motivator-Hygiene Research:

To be motivated for productive work, people need two things:

  1. Positive conditions that fulfill people’s need to be “the best of themselves.” These can be called MOTIVATORS.
  2. A minimum threshold of factors people feel will support them, or at least not get in their way of being motivated. These can be called HYGIENE FACTORS.

Examples of MOTIVATORS:

  • A challenging job
  • A feeling of Achievement
  • The satisfaction of having Responsibility
  • Growth in their ability, knowledge, and/or career
  • Advancement, or the possibility of advancement
  • Earned recognition or admiration from their boss and others
  • Enjoyment of the work itself
  • Enjoyment of being productive

PROBLEM:  People can be become UN-Motivated!  WHY?

       Lack of opportunity for meaningful achievement
       Elimination of motivators

When people are UN-Motivated…they become DIS-Satisfied.
When people are DIS-Satisfied, what do they focus on?

They focus on things that have nothing to do with productive work (aka, the HYGIENE FACTORS)!

  • Work rules (company policy and administration)
  • Competence of supervision
  • Seniority, Titles & Status
  • Working conditions
  • Job security
  • Wages
  • Fringe benefits
  • Fellow employees
  • Their Commute requirements.

When they are thinking about these things, they are wasting time!

Can you do anything about it?  Yes!

The work environment (set up by management) influences work outcomes:

In an environment of achievement, responsibility, earned recognition, and growth, those focused on the hygiene factors will start to focus on productive work (and the Motivation factors they can get from working).

Feeding Motivation-seekers is easier than turning around those who are already disgruntled.

On Being Organized

Adapting my thinking from something I learned from Steven Covey, the issue is one of “time-focus.”  These focuses are developmental:  you must become skilled at each level before being able to have skill at the next level.

The 1st Focus of Time Management comes from the urgency to simply get things done.  You identify tasks then create “checklists.”

The 2nd Focus of Time Management comes from the urgency to make sure there is time for everything.  You schedule activities in a calendar.

The 3rd Focus of Time Management comes from the urgency to make sure that Important things get done first.  You assign priorities to activities that are consistent with your goals and values.

The 4th Focus of Time Management comes from the urgency to build capacity for the long term.  You work on improving practices and processes to get more done with less effort.

The 5th Focus of Time Management comes from the urgency to develop people so that they can build capacity.  You leverage relationships so that people help you get things done in a win-win manner.

If you find yourself overwhelmed with what lies before you, it is sometimes helpful to drop back a level or two and get a grasp on accomplishing your priorities. However, if you stay back too long, you will reduce the capacity to build more buffer; thus it is essential that you find ways to elevate to the 4th and 5th focus from time to time.  This may require a “retreat” so that you can advance beyond firefighting.