Authored by Lawrence Polsky

Teams get off course. It happens. Even with good people and the best intentions. Sometimes a new CEO comes in and needs to turn things around to boost profitability; sometimes a C-level executive needs to change the product mix or the team can’t get its head and heart around the new approach; and sometimes the team (for an unknown reason) is simply not as productive as they could be and needs to improve results. In these and many other cases like them, it is not so complicated.

The challenge is sorting through the business reality and personalities to discover which ones of these 11 items are at the root of the problem.

Whether it is a pharma company, a software company, or any other kind of company with really smart knowledge workers, it is the same thing every time: one of these 11 items is out of whack.

I have helped dozens of executive teams in technical and scientific organizations around the world turn around their performance. The challenge is sorting through the business reality and personalities to discover which ones of these 11 items are at the root of the problem.

By reviewing each of these items, like a checklist, my hope is that you will see right away how to turn your team around. It may be they need a small tweak or push. Or it may be more complicated. Whatever the case, you can use this list and the suggestions below to turn around your team today.

1. Mission, not a Job

– The first place to start improving any team is aligning around a common cause. For work teams, this cause is articulated in the team mission. Top executives are not simply working at a job. They want to be accomplishing something. They want to be having an impact. They want to make something happen. In every case I have seen where the team is, of course, they have a mission that is either misunderstood or too narrow. This is the first place to start with any team turnaround. When I ask each executive on a team that is not achieving desired results what the team mission is, there are usually as many different answers as there are people on the team. How can such a team succeed? They can’t. They are not aligned. So ask your team members individually what the team mission is. I guarantee that you will be surprised at what you hear. Then work as a team to craft a common language and understanding. It doesn’t matter if it is perfect. It matters that everyone is headed to achieve the same thing.

2. Motivated by the Team Mission

– Once the mission is clear, the next place to look is at the motivation of the team in completing the mission. Do they care about the mission? If they don’t, your team will be mediocre at best. There will be 3 groups of people on your team. The first group will intuitively be interested in the mission – they are in the right job. All they needed was the mission to be clarified.

The second group is not so interested in the fulfillment of the mission – probably because it doesn’t fit with their career goals. These people should be removed.

The third group will be the majority of people. This third group can and will be motivated by the mission if you, the leader, take the time to regularly talk about the mission, why it matters, and how it connects to the daily tasks. In general, most leaders need to talk about the team mission more: in meetings, in coaching sessions, in emails. People need reminding to help them remember the bigger picture, especially when they are encountering problems.

3. Fit

– Just one person on the team who is a bad fit can drive a whole team off course. They take too much of your time. They create unnecessary conflict. Make a dry-eyed assessment of your team’s technical, interpersonal, and leadership skills. If they are lacking, reassign or remove them.

4. Clear up Confusion

– Now that people are aligned and motivated to achieve the team mission, you have to look at how collaboration happens on your team. Some teams require little. Others require more. However, all teams need the leader to clarify who should be doing what, especially in the gray zones.

One leadership team brought me in because two people who used to be collaborative started undermining each other in front of their customers. It looked like personal animosity, however, it turned out that they needed clarity on their roles. A new strategy rollout confused some of their responsibilities. Once that was cleared up, they were friends and collaborators again.

Another executive team, when listing their priorities had extensive conflicting priorities across the team. Once aligned on priorities, they went from crawling to running. Make sure you review and revisit who should be doing what, and that the expectations of collaboration are clear. Make sure that priorities are clear and consistent across the team. When there is confusion, there is no alignment. Without alignment, your team is a group of people running in different directions.

5. Trending Towards Ideal Stress Level

– There is no ideal stress level. Everyone has their own sense of how much work is too much work, and how much ambiguity they can tolerate. Yet if people don’t feel like they are close to their ideal, or at least trending in the right direction, they will not be effective.

I’ve seen time and again how stress/workload balance prevents teams from reaching their peak performance. This step requires you the leader, to ask everyone on the team individually, “How is your stress level?” and “What if anything, can we do to improve it?” Then, LISTEN VERY CAREFULLY. They are going to give you gold. They will tell you the things that are getting in the way of them being able to stay focused and productive.

It doesn’t matter if you can address all of the items. It doesn’t matter if the things they mention require you to change or them to change. Pick one for each person, and do what you can to support them overcome it. Repeat and continue. This question should be a regular part of your communication with your team members.

6. Get Connected

– A team is only as productive as it is connected. I don’t mean everyone has to personally everyone’s’ family. Connection means linked. They need to be linked. The tighter you are linked, the more likely you will work together to create great results. For example, a CEO brought me in to help his top team innovate more. After much analysis, it came back to something simple: the team wasn’t connected. They were in their functional silos, managing the success of their functions, and didn’t know what each was working on, and they didn’t communicate much about their various projects and therefore. Once they started doing this and understood how to leverage each other, innovation, improvements and profitability headed up.

7. Get Meetings Right

– Every executive team I have helped improve tells me along the way that their team meetings can be better. The most common problem is that the leader usually sets up team meetings as “report outs.”

Most of the time is used for people to report out happenings. Yet most of the team members tell me that they want more time to address problems and discuss longer-term issues with their colleagues. Yes, they should be doing this on their own, outside of the team meeting. However, the team meeting sets the tone for this kind of dialogue. Often they need the culture set to one of discussion in their team meetings before they will go out and do this outside of the meetings. So ask each person “What can we do to improve our team meetings?” and then implement the ideas.

8. Create Community

– Beyond connection is community. I don’t mean you need to all love each other like a family. Although most high-performing teams feel that way. They really care about and are interested in each other. This usually stems from a common desire to succeed together, a common commitment to the team mission. However, it is more than that. It means making time so people get to know each other beyond their work role.

“Teambuilding” fun events alone won’t do it. I have seen many teams who know and like each other but still work in silos. You need to do more. Create opportunities to share successes as well as mistakes and learnings, encourage people to teach others what they know, and enable people to learn about all aspects of your team’s business. Doing these things creates a community where your team wants to take risks together and have fun doing it.

9. Get Conflict Right

– No conflict. Poorly managed conflict. Conflict avoidance. Too much confrontation. Behind-the-scenes conflict. All of these conflict cultures derail the team. This item is the hardest item to address because you, as the leader, is creating this culture and often are unaware of your blind spots around conflict.

When clients use words with me like “I can feel an undercurrent,” “People are resistant to…,” “so and so don’t get along too well,” this all means they need help getting conflict right. To get conflict right there are 2 steps. One: get help from a trusted resource (internal or external) to sort through what is happening, and work it out. Two: develop your own and your team’s ability to handle conflict.

10. Aspiring to Improve the Executive Team

– Successful teams have one thing in common. They are always looking for ways to improve. Even when they are doing very well. In fact, the teams that get the most benefit from team coaching are the successful teams because they are motivated and open to learning from the get-go. They succeed because they have the ambition to succeed. And with that ambition comes a continual aspiring to get better.

As a leader, one of your key jobs is to focus people on improvement. To make it simple and not overwhelm people, work with your team to pick one area for improvement. This will take much debate because most people, when asked, can list many areas to improve. They will say communication, attitude, conflict, work-life balance, and many things like this. If you can pick one and focus the team on achieving one area for a few months, your team will rally together to improve. Three months later, your team will be turned around,

11. Be the Goldilocks Leader

– Leadership is an art, not a science. Just like Goldilocks, leading only works when you find the “just right” approach for your team. What worked in your last job in your last company may not work here. Most of your team will not tell you the whole truth about how your approach is impacting them.

It may be that you check in too often and people feel micromanaged. Or maybe you are not around enough and your team feels that you are not supportive. Maybe you are too tough on your team’s ideas and results. Maybe you are too easy on them. I’ve seen the whole gamut and each destroys team performance when it is not “just right” for the team. To achieve it is a process of trial and error. But I guarantee you, even if you are slightly off, it can send your team into a tailspin. Take the time to every 6 months ask each team member, “What can I do to be an even better leader?”

A list like this one makes it seem simple and easy to turn around a team. That is why I created it: to simplify the task for you to turn around your team. Sometimes it is as easy as going down the list. However, many times these items are tangled up together. I am confident that if you systematically look at each item and address it, your team will turn around in no time.

About the Author Lawrence Polsky

Lawrence Polsky is a co-founder of Teams of Distinction, a world-renowned firm focused on creating and enhancing organizational cultures, and building teams that collaborate with near-perfect synchronicity. He spent 20 years in OD & Learning, teaching thousands of professionals worldwide.

His lifelong education in human behavior began at the age of 9 at the kitchen table. With a Master’s in Organization Development, and post-graduate work focusing on the impact of emotions on communication, problem-solving and relationships, Lawrence prides himself on bringing his kitchen table wisdom to boardroom roundtables.

He has helped leaders improve results at technical and scientific companies such as Facebook, Pfizer, Dell, Intuit, Bayer, and NASA. You can reach him at [email protected] or (609)333-0653 –