Category Archives: Teams

Still the Team’s Solution

“You are still going to use the team to solve their own problem, but you are going to provide leadership to make it happen,” I said.

“So, how am I supposed to pull them out of their malaise,” Rory asked.

“First, you have to be crystal clear with the work instructions.
People will follow general direction with general responses.. If you need specific output, your work instructions must be very specific.”

“So, this is on me,?” Rory clarified.

“Yes,” I said. “That is who I am talking to. You are the leader, this is on you.”

“Okay, what does it sound like?”

“First, does the way that you state the problem have any bearing on the way we approach the solution?” I smiled.

Rory nodded.

“Be crystal clear about the goal. The first step is to make sure there is no ambiguity about what the solution looks like. Then announce there may be several ways to get there. And, it is up to the team to generate those ideas. In that declaration, you have silenced their inner critic and opened the door to explore new paths to solve the problem.”

“I’m listening,” Rory said.

“With only one idea, everyone is a critic. With multiple ideas, we can discuss the merits, workability and effectiveness. Your team will not get there without you. That is your role.

A Question of Confidence

“Why do you think your team is underperforming?” I asked. “I’m not sure,” Rory replied. “Well, let’s start with what you see,” I nodded. “If you stand back and just observe, what do you see?  What do you hear?” “Okay, if I just report what I see, the team second-guesses itself. They know the goal. They each stand around watching and waiting for someone to make the first move. Somebody eventually does. Then, there is the big question – Are you sure?  Asked in that way, everyone stops.” “Without direction, isn’t it prudent to ask that question?” I wanted to know. “Yes, but it’s not a question of clarification, it’s a question of confidence,”  Rory explained.  “Every member of the team is looking for the down side, to protect themselves, protect the team.” “Protect the team from what?” I probed. “Protect the team from failure, I guess.  I am a pretty easy going manager, so I know people are going to make mistakes, but, even still, when there is a setback, they can tell I get a little testy.” “It’s a natural reaction.  When we touch a hot stove, it’s a good idea not to linger.”  I squinted to look inside Rory’s eyes.  “Getting testy comes with the territory.  It’s a gut reaction to let us know something is wrong. The question is what do you do about it?” “What do you mean?” Rory asked. “Do you let the team wallow in ambiguity, wondering what you will do with your disappointment?  Or do you circle the wagons and work your way out?” “My question is the same,” Rory said.  “What do you mean?” “The team came up with one way to proceed, but didn’t have confidence in the direction.  You and I both know there are at least a half dozen different ways to get the job done, any of which will work just fine.  The team is afraid they will pick the wrong one.  This is not a matter of methodology.  This is a question of confidence, confidence to explore, confidence to debate, confidence to disagree, then agree and commit.  The question is what do you, as the leader, do about it?”

The Best of Intentions

“But everyone understood that we had to land the project for the team to get their bonus,” Lindsey protested.

“No, you understood that. The team understood something different. If they gave it their best and worked really hard, the team would get the bonus. So, they worked really hard and gave it their best. The only person who was in position to make decisions was the manager. The team didn’t get their bonus because of their manager.”

Lindsey was quiet. “So, we set up a system that, in the end, created a divide between the manager and the team.”

But, the Team Missed the Deadline

Lindsey had a puzzled look on her face. “I don’t understand. The team missed the deadline. We lost the project. If not the team, who do we hold accountable for the result? And believe me, this was a big deal. There was a big team bonus riding on this project.”

I started, slowly. “Who knew about the project first? Who had knowledge about the context of the project among all the other projects in the company? Who had the ability to allocate additional personnel to the project team to meet the deadline? Who had the authority to bump other project schedules to meet this deadline? Who was in a position to authorize overtime for this project?”

“Well, the Memphis team Manager,” she replied.


“That’s it?” Rose looked puzzled.  “But, I work with a bunch of engineers.  I am their manager.  The engineering team looks to me for advice, guidance and direction.  Given a problem, they look to me for the solution.  You are suggesting that I just ask questions?”

“Rose, how did you land this job as a manager of a bunch of engineers? Was it because you are so good at solving engineering problems?” I asked.

“No, I am not even an engineer, though I think I have an aptitude for it, that’s not my area of expertise.”

“Then, how did you land this job as manager of engineering?”

Rose stopped to think. “This is the third department assigned to me in as many years. The company has a trouble spot. They make me the manager. I come in and get things organized, figure out the team, who is strong, who the ringleaders are, who needs to go. For about a year, I work with the strongest team members and pick one to take my place.”

“So what’s your plan here?” I wanted to know.

“Same thing,” Rose nodded. “Get things organized, figure out the team. Pick the strongest one to replace me. It will take about a year. I have already been told not to get too comfortable, the company is already working on my next assignment.”

Interested in the Work

“There must be more,” Alicia repeated. “If it is NOT Joe’s role to motivate his team members, then how is he supposed to make sure the work gets done? I understand Joe will be held accountable for the results of his team. It has to be more than who he picks to be on his team?”

“Yes, there’s more, but would you agree that it matters who Joe selects?”

Alicia nodded, “Yes.”

“And as Joe selects his team, with your help, as Joe’s manager, what are the criteria that he must select for?”

“First, he has to look at their skill set.”

“And can we train those skills that are necessary?” I asked.

“It depends, some things we want general experience, but we would certainly train on our specific methods,” she replied.

“And what else? Remember, if it is NOT Joe’s job to motivate, what must he interview for?”

“Well, then, they have to be interested. I mean, interested in the kind of work that has to be done.”

“Okay,” my turn to nod. “And tell me, Alicia. If Joe is successful in finding a candidate with a high level of interest in the work we do here, how much time will Joe have to spend motivating his team?”

Authority to Select and De-select

“So, it’s not me, but, Joe is supposed to motivate his team?” Alicia asked.

“No, that is not Joe’s role, as a supervisor,” I replied.

“Okay, so if he is NOT supposed to motivate his team, how IS Joe supposed to get the work done?”

“Alicia, when you hired Joe to be the supervisor, how did he put his team together?”

“Well, Joe had never really hired anyone before, so I helped him screen candidates and I made recommendations.”

“And what if Joe didn’t like your recommendation?”

“Well, Joe is an adult, and he had the final say. If there was someone he didn’t want on his team, I didn’t force him,” she explained.

“So, that’s the first answer to your question of how Joe is supposed to get the work done. While you may help and qualify candidates for his team, he has the authority to veto any appointment?”

“Yes,” Alicia nodded.

“And if, in his judgment, as a Supervisor, he feels that a team member is either not doing their best or that their best is not good enough to complete assignments, does Joe have the authority to deselect that person from his team?”

“Well, yes, I mean he can’t just fire someone, we have a process for that and it requires some approvals from HR and such.”

“But Joe has the authority to deselect someone from his team?”

Alicia continued to nod. “Okay, but there has to be more,” she coaxed.

Accountable for Output – Who?

Alicia was trying to make complicated sense out of this. “Each day, they are required to show up for work and do their best,” she muttered. “I don’t get it. It’s too simple. What if we are not getting the results we want?”

“If Joe’s team shows up every day and does their best, what could they do to get a different result?” I asked.

“Well, Joe could have them do something different, reassign a route, load the trucks differently to make fewer trips, double check the load for missing items.”

“Exactly, but who is responsible for making those decisions and assigning those tasks?” I continued.

“Well, Joe is,” she replied.

“So, the team shows up and does their best. It is Joe who we hold accountable for the results of the team.”

If Not Bonuses?

“So, if not bonuses, how do I get my team motivated to perform, to get the results we are looking for?” Alicia asked.

“It’s NOT your job, as a Manager, to motivate your team, cajole, persuade, or manipulate,” I replied.

Alicia was almost startled. “I’m not? It seems like that’s what I spend half my time doing?”

“Do you remember the contract that Joe has with his team?”

Shaking her head, she protested, “Yes, but that’s just a logistics crew. They drive trucks.”

“What’s the contract?”

“Joe’s contract? He just tells the guys, that he expects them to do their best. That’s it.”

“Yes, that’s the contract,” I confirmed. “Each day, they are required to show up for work and do their best.

Driving Team Behaviors

“And what about you?” I repeated. “How much of your responsibility, as a Manager, have you abandoned, thinking a bonus will be an effective substitute?”

“What do you mean?” Alicia asked.

“I mean, setting the context for the work, making task assignments, making sure the system is appropriate for the work, adjusting the system for the work. How much of that goes out the window when you put a bonus system in place?”

Alicia was quiet. Finally she spoke. “I guess when we put the bonus system in place, we think it will do a lot of my job for me. The reality is, the bonus system may work against me.”

“Here is what I find,” I replied. “Companies put in bonus systems, because they don’t have managers who are capable of being managers. As their managers stumble around, ineffective, companies try to drive team behaviors with bonuses. What a mess.”