If you are a good manager who has got a team performing well, it’s a certainty that at some point, you are going to be asked to take charge of an underperforming team. Managers careers are only as good as the results of their team, and so if you have a track record of getting results, the expectation is that you can get these results from others. This is likely to come in one of two ways. The first is due to your work being recognized internally, your company ask you to take on a new team that is important, but that has not been able to deliver the required results. The other is that you are taking a new position with a new company, having been hired to replace an underperforming manager and turn their results around.
The biggest mistake a manager can make when walking into this scenario is trying to duplicate what they have done before. What worked in one team or industry, will not always work in another. So, what should you do when you find yourself in charge of an underperforming team?
Do not do anything too big right away. The big bosses might have some opinions and so its easy to go in with some pre-conceived notions. Maybe the view of those at the top is that the team is incapable, they all need to be fired and replaced. But perhaps the team are completely capable but were held back by a poor manager stuck in a world of how things were done 20 years ago.
Its vital to listen, observe and understand how things have ended up in this situation. Do not rush to judgement until you have a full picture. Many companies and managers are so quick to rush towards action that they end up treating the symptoms and not the cause.
Assess team dynamics
I never understand why this approach isn’t common practice. Its vital that the manager and team have space to have very clear and open dialogue. The manager needs to explain why they are now in charge of the team, be transparent as to the challenges and issues that have been highlighted by leadership leading to the change in manager. And what the expectations are moving forward.
The manager needs to understand the dynamics at play within the team. Why do the team feel the challenges have arisen? Do they think there is no problem? Are there process or capability issues? What are the interpersonal relationships in the team like? Do they all like each other and get on?
Likewise, have the team been playing to their strengths. Imagine that you have 4 salespeople in an underperforming sales function. If they all had good track records in previous firms, but 1 made sales by interacting face to face, another purely via telephone, another via email and the final one via social media. If all 4 have been forced to only do things face to face its likely 3 of them aren’t performing as well as they could. You can measure a team on input or output. Most KPIs are focused on input which is why so many employees hate KPIs. By providing flexibility on input but holding a team accountable for the result, a team is likely to be more proactive and feel empowered.
Build trust and provide support
You can’t have a productive team without trust. If the team feel like you are going to jump on them for any mistake, or that you will throw them under the bus if someone questions why something hasn’t gone to plan, your team will never be fully productive. Trust takes time to build. You need to show up to meetings, provide support and help, be a good coach and listener. Showing an interest in your team as individuals is critical. Arrange a team lunch because its someone’s birthday, let them come in 2 hours late one day because its their kids school play. By having their trust and support, you will get this back multiple times over.
Establish clear goals and objectives
The next step is to set a very clear direction for the team, with goals and objectives that can not be misinterpreted. They need to be specific and concise and tied into the overall objectives of the company. As I have stated in other articles, its scary how many employees do not understand how their job helps the organization achieve success. If an employee feels that what they do, truly makes a difference. There is a significant increase in their level of engagement and productivity.
Train the team to achieve the goals
Whenever there is a change in direction, way of working or strategy, the biggest risk to this not being achieved is that the existing team have never done it that way before. A manager needs to be prepared to support and educate the team on how to move in the new direction. Provide constant candid feedback to your team on what has gone well and what has not. If something has not gone well, be clear as to what did not go well. Then help the person to do this better.
It also helps to reinforce behaviors aligned with the vision and values you are trying to instill in the team. If you want a team who try new things and not be afraid of failure then praise an individual when they tried something even if it failed. Likewise, by rewarding good performance from individuals in the team, you reinforce your expectations of what good looks like to the rest of the team.
Be prepared to make hard decisions
The truth is that as a manager you can do everything right, but there may still be someone who just can’t deliver what is required. This is likely to be for one of two reasons. The first is that they just don’t buy in to the new way of doing things. Some folks are incapable of change, a fixed mindset can be ingrained. The second possibility is that sadly the person just does not have the ability. You can do your best, and provide opportunity, but opportunity does not equate to ability. In either of these scenarios you have a decision to make. If a person is unable to deliver and you have done everything right, you can either keep that person and let results suffer, or you can replace them.
Being a manager is not for the faint hearted. It is tough and leading a team that is underperforming is a challenge for even the most effective managers. But if you want to continue to grow and progress your career, taking on the challenge of an underperforming team and succeeding in turning them around, is a great way to do it.
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Spot on Lee. I’ve been in this position several times and agree with your approach. The biggest challenge I experienced was managing the expectations of my managers, who often expected a guns blazing, get immediate results approach. I think it’s important to step back and observe first to find out what the real issues are before planning any remedial actions. First impressions are rarely a true reflection of a situation.