Leading a Low Performing Team

Team development is critical for the leader that inherits a poorly functioning team.  The leader needs to understand where the team breakdown is coming from, is it inputs, outputs, or processes?  Inputs are the knowledge, skills, and abilities that each member brings, processes are the structure of the work, and the output is the organizational outcome.  In inheriting a team, the leader must understand the desired output to determine what change is needed to increase team performance.

COMMUNICATION  It would be ideal if early in the process the leader could have a personal discussion with each team members.  These conversations give the leader insight into how each person views their role and understands the team process.  The leader can also use this time to express their vision of optimal performance and develop a two-way dialogue.  Workers are more likely to discuss problems if they feel there is an open flow of communication.  Team members want to believe management values their opinions within the group.

MEMBERS  Once the leader has an understanding of the individual team members, it is a good time to assess the team composition and size.  Does the team have the right people assigned?   The knowledge, skills, and abilities of the members need to be appropriate to the tasks that are required.  If under the leader’s control, it may be that certain individuals need to be added or removed from the team.

SIZE  The size of the group may be dependent on the nature of the work, but if it is too large, then difficulties can arise (Hackman, 1987).  Groups that are too large can suffer from process loss due to problems with coordination efforts or manager span of control.  It is also possible the group is too small, and the team cannot complete the amount of work required with the resources available.  The leader may recommend a change when looking at the size of the group.

TYPE Another step in creating a functioning team is looking at the type of team:  virtual, cross-functional, management, for example.   There are similarities on how groups work, but some problems encountered may be a function of the group size, composition, remoteness, etc.  Being able to understand these issues will put the leader at an advantage in solving the problem.  Virtual team members suffer from feeling disengaged with the organization and need more frequent contact.  Video conferencing can help remote workers, but it may be that a face-face meeting is necessary.  Cross-functional teams may be having difficulties with conflicting priorities or concerns about redundancy in work.  Management teams often have individuals with conflicting schedules and have high-pressure discussions.  Understanding the needs of the different types of groups can provide awareness into solving their issues.

PROCESS Leaders need to consider the process or how work is getting done.  Individuals in the group need to know what is their deliverable, if there are any group interdependency, and how the organization will evaluate their work.  Setting a new culture of team operations is critical in increasing performance.  It’s important to think about how the measurements will impact the attitude and overall culture of the team.  Having listened to the individual team members, leaders understand what has previously been happening in this group.  Being able to have a macro view, but resolve at the micro level is a difficult skill and requires appropriate delegation.  The leader can allow the team members to develop their processes but guide them gently.  The leader provides resources and knowledge when needed.  Working with the team in a relationship of cooperation will strengthen the team’s trust in the leader (O’Hara, 2014).

BLOCKERS  Groups have confidence in leaders who can score an early win (Hackman, 1987).  If the team has been struggling with staffing, then hiring initiatives should be a priority.  Workers like to see that leadership is removing blockers in performing their jobs.  Newly assigned leaders should see if they can determine and quickly resolve the blockers for the group.  If the largest problem is going to take a while to solve, a smaller gain can help the team members view the leader as someone who has the power to get things done.  Finding and acquiring resources is a quick way to obtain cooperation with team members.

LEARNING  The final part of the puzzle is for the leader to facilitate group learning.  Teams that do not take the time to reflect on how to work better do not learn from their mistakes.  The group should have a detractor, who continually challenges the process to be better (Hackman, 1987).  A formal “lessons learned” reflection is always an important learning experience.  This discussion should not focus on an individual’s performance, but the group processes.  Participants should be encouraged to speak freely, and leaders should not try to solve problems during the sessions.  The discussion should focus on the positive as well as the negative.  It’s important that leaders address any group ideas for improvement; otherwise, participants will view the sessions as useless.  Putting the learning process into action is a way for team members to feel they have a real impact on improving the quality of their work.

SUMMARY  If the environment is extremely dysfunctional, then good workers will leave the group.  Attempting to identify these employees before disengagement is desirable.  Leaders need to set the tone and let the team know that real positive change is coming.  Feedback and discussions should be frequent, honest, and open. A leader who provides resources for the group, a clear and compelling vision, and appropriate autonomy should be able to engender change with a team that is currently performing poorly (Hackman, 1987).

Hackman, J. R. (1987). The design of work teams. In J. Lorsch (Ed.), Handbook of organizational behavior (pp. 315-342). New York: Prentice Hall.
“Input output process model”.  (n.d.).  Retrieved from  http://psychology.iresearchnet.com/industrial-organizational-psychology/group-dynamics/input-process-output-model/
O’Hara, C. (2014). What new team leaders should do first. Harvard Business Review Digital Articles, 2-5.


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