There has been a trend in the past couple of decades to re-name groups of people who work together as ‘teams’. This is a great idea, in theory. It works as long as the group in question consists of people who are able to act in a mature and responsible way, and maintain respectful and purposeful relationships with those around them. But what happens when team members are in loggerheads with each other, are hostile towards their line management, or worse, when they openly resist attempts to engage with them?
You can find any amount of guidance on managing and motivating a team. It rests on the premise that there is tacit agreement in the group about norms of behaviour, and a shared understanding about the vision and purpose of the group. This doesn’t mean the sort of vague and aspirational ‘vision’ of business-speak used by many CEOs and PR people. It means a shared understanding of what the team exists for and where it is headed.
The abundant advice on motivating your team is useless if the team is not a team in the first place. If you are trying to lead a bunch of people that don’t want to be led all the usual advice is a waste of time. It doesn’t matter how much praise, pizza or prestige you lavish on them, and your personal integrity, leadership style and innate sense of fairness is lost on them if the can’t or won’t reciprocate and act like grown-ups.
Successful teamdom relies of a few key assumptions:
That the leader is robust enough to lead
It can be tough, lonely and thankless heading up a group. If things are going well and your team is functioning in a positive way, engaged and with good morale, you probably won’t have read this far. If they are (and you’re still reading), then you’ll receive sufficient validation as a manger to know that your efforts are worthwhile. Nevertheless there will still be times when you’ll have to make decisions alone and risk becoming unpopular, for example by giving news they’d rather not hear.
If you are one of those talented but unfortunate managers who has inherited a ‘team’ that seems hell-bent on proving they won’t be managed, then task number one must be to look after yourself; your own resilience will be tested and you’ll need, as a manager put it to me recently put it to me recently – “a teflon coat”.
There are rules, and they are applied
If you are struggling to motivate and inspire your team you won’t do it by being ‘nice’ or trying to appease them. Before you can win their respect you have first to establish (and apply) the rules of the game. This will mean dealing with misdemeanours as well as giving support and recognition. Destructive forces within a group come under this heading. Despite what some might think (and say), we are not completely free to say whatever we like at work. Persistently acting is a way that causes dissent and distress, though difficult to pin down and deal with, is not acceptable and should not be permitted. Being part of a team or workgroup implies tacit acceptance of the rule that we will respect the dignity of others, whatever their rank or position. It seems to be a perverse truism that handling ‘nay-sayers’ fairly and firmly will eventually win the respect and even the gratitude of others in the group.
At this point I should say that if you have inherited a so-called team that resists and subverts management in this way, then (as you didn’t put the team together and it pre-dates your management of them), you will need the support of the employer. It is my experience that managers who try to bring a recalcitrant group into line so that they can function better (and eventually be happier as well), can become the target of malicious accusations by the group. Sadly organisations seem unable or unwilling to respond robustly to vindictiveness of this type. It may be advisable to ensure that you have the support of the employer, and checking what ‘plan B will be if your efforts result in difficulties of this kind.
That the group is capable and willing
It has been said that the problem is not to motivate people, it is to prevent them from becoming de-motivated. Trying to lift up a group when morale is low is wearing for the leader, but remember that the individuals themselves are often struggling too. Undercurrents of internal strife, lack of trust, personal animosity, fear and hostility will sap the group’s energy and stall any progress. Something (or someone) has been upsetting them and this will need identifying and resolving, in tandem with re-iteration of the rules and clear understanding of everyone in the group as to what is expected and acceptable. This is usually best done by an external facilitator. Though well intentioned, ‘sitting down for an open and honest conversation’ frequently decends into more mud-slinging which can further undermine a manager. The group must be willing and able to work together in a cohesive and harmonious away. They may be unhappy at the outset, but unless you have buy-in from the greater part of the group, the dark side will prevail.
That there is no vacuum
Most individuals at work are there to do a good job. We all want to feel useful and valued. When teams dysfunction it is usually a symptom of wider organisational problems or neglect. If there is a vacuum in the organisation caused by too little information (about impending change for example), confused leadership or conflicting instructions, then the vacuum will be filled with misinformation and even misbehaviour.
It’s not all bad
This all sounds pretty negative doesn’t it? Not my usual style. On the plus side I have seen many groups turned into teams by taking a few positive steps. Team conflicts can be resolved, and managers can earn respect. If the tone of this post is pessimistic it is because I have seen so many organisations failing their managers with too little support in this area.