– Thoughts on Strategy and Management

What to learn from Poor Teams

Recently, I wrote an article about High-Spirit Teams for our Management Portal: How to build True Team Spirit. This article briefly discusses the benefits of team spirit and describes processes and success factors for building team spirit. In this post, I want to focus on the opposite site – on non-performing teams.

As desirable as it is to form a spirited, high-performing team – all those teambuilding efforts will not always yield success. We all know about teams that do not match the description of a committed, motivated group of people that continuously exceeds expectations with impressive results. Not every team will be a top-performer. Here is what we can learn from them.

Literature and consultants provide us with many ingredients for team success, such as value of each team member, empowerment, active listening, autonomy, storytelling, team events, and celebration of success, SMART objectives, committed leadership, and many more. However, I am convinced that all these things may or may not lead to the expected outcome. Of course, it will be much more difficult to build a good team without any of these measures. But there is no guarantee for success.

To my experience, team success depends largely on the individuals involved. There is no doubt, that a good team needs members that bring a variety of skills, experiences and character traits. Thus they can take on different roles and complement each other. However, if the team is too heterogeneous, if there are too different people forced to work together, the whole team may fail.

Team members need to establish at least some common ground. In my opinion they have to be willing to work together – despite any personal dislikes – and they should all find a common understanding of their goals and the ways to achieve them. This common understanding has to be more than mere lip service; every team member truly has to be willing to follow that.

If it is not possible to establish this minimum basis for co-operation, the team has little chances for success. So what to do if there is a team that is really not able to find together and deliver results? I suggest two things:

  • Don’t force them anymore. Dissolve the team and find an alternative. In Germany, we have a saying: Better an end with terror than terror without an end.
  • Take it as a learning experience. A failure may be a much better chance for learning than a success. The team members should have learned something, as should the one who initiated that particular.

I personally remember being once part of a “team from hell”. It was an extremely heterogeneous group of individuals with different cultural backgrounds, character traits, and professional experiences. More than that, we all had our personal agenda, knowing that the team was just a means of achieving our personal goals. We did not choose each other, but were told to work together in a team.

After not more than half a year, the team took the first opportunity to self-dissolve. We all found new teams afterwards, in which we felt much more comfortable. Here are my personal lessons learned:

  • Even the worst team is able to deliver better than expected results. Nevertheless, this is not an experience I want to endure for long
  • I am able to work together with almost everybody on a professional basis. Besides that, I don’t necessarily have to like these people.
  • I am always willing to help team members and to give support where needed. But I am not willing to cover continuous poor performance of others by taking on their workload in addition to mine.
  • In a poor team, beware of those team members that loudly advocate the team and try to improve moral with a textbook-approach of teambuilding. They may be the first to run away if something better for them shows up.
  • If I am really convinced that a group of people will never function as a real team, I would rather be the one who speaks out that truth loudly, than go on with this unsatisfying state for much longer.

In summary: teams can be a great thing – but not every team in every situation.