Creating Positive Pressure — Correcting Team Dysfunction

In a company of over 200 people, I start looking at team pressure when I see my leaders look wide eyed. The leaders are my pulse on the organization and when I note a sense of overwhelm I look directly at the functionality of their teams and redirect them to this as well. I want everyone to be successful and I depend on them to be shining stars. Sometimes this requires a little tough love and some positive and supportive pressure.

In a functional team, everyone takes responsibility for their part. They “own” it and see it through from the big picture to the tiniest detail. They say “yes, we can do that” and they delegate and train others to work together towards the larger goal. There is positive pressure that stays evenly contained within the team, meaning everyone feels a sense of pressure to train others, to delegate, and to track their team’s progress. In a functional team every single person has clear goals and a sense of positive pressure to complete their work. Functional teams don’t just “happen”. They take work and time and attention. It is a full-time job as a leader to track the work and train the people doing the work. Thus, when the leader starts doing all the work themselves they can no longer track and train the team and that is when it is clear that pressure is rising up and is no longer contained.

In a dysfunctional team, only the leader feels pressure instead of it being shared. There is a lot team shoulder shrugging and “checking out” and waiting to be told what to do and how to do it. The response is “I don’t know”, “there isn’t enough…”, “I wasn’t trained to…”, “I can’t”. Pressure starts to “rise up”, meaning that that the leaders start to take on more work because they are absorbing all the pressure themselves. By taking on more work they then can’t focus on managing their teams and setting goals for them because they are doing the work for them. This is a vicious cycle that will not end well. Over time this erodes the workflow and creates an environment where the direct line employees have nothing to do when the department leaders are running around frantically doing the job of 10. The irony of this predicament is that this is often the time when the leaders come and ask for more staff because they are “overwhelmed” and “can’t get it done”…. Meanwhile their teams are asking for more responsibility and more challenging work and are waiting for direction. The leader is overwhelmed because they aren’t using their team resources effectively.

ASK questions. If the leader is saying there isn’t enough time to complete xyz, go ahead and ask one of their front line team members what they are working on for that day or week. You may hear “I’m not sure”, “I wish there was more to do”, “I’m waiting for more assignments”. This discrepancy in pressure can be eye opening as to the overall team dynamic.

How do you correct a dysfunctional team dynamic? Create a pressure cooker (albeit counter-intuitive)

When you see pressure rising and you suspect the issue is not workload but instead team accountability, give the leader an aggressive short-term team goal and hold them to it. You might think “Seriously? My leader is overwhelmed and you are asking me to give them MORE to do?” Yes, that is exactly what I am advising. Why? When you give an aggressive short-term goal you will see the response of the leader and the team and you will be able to quickly identify where and with whom the dysfunction lies. You will see how leaders delegate (or don’t). You will see the leaders that do it themselves and you will see those that focus on training their direct reports. You will see frustration from people that want to quietly work vs. building a system. You will see the people that focus and get it done and those that try and avoid the task at hand. You will see the overall dynamic of the team and the skill of the leader which will tell you very quickly what needs to be corrected. You will also give the team an opportunity to accomplish a goal and see for themselves that it CAN be done together — it teaches everyone they can depend on each other to move things forward.

Keep them moving — When a leader is in a tough spot they need a prompt to move…. Move up, move to the side, move down or move out. Bottom line though is that they need to move. Any of those options are ok, though I always hope that everyone will choose to move UP. A pressure cooker is essentially a firm prompt to help them help themselves.

It’s not about the work — It is about the WAY we work

When you put people in a supportive pressure cooker you will see what they can do and you will see the way their work changes for the better. They are forced to figure it out and learn different skills in the process. Remember: People WANT challenging work. They want to impress, they want to hit their goals and they want to be a part of a healthy team. They want to leave work feeling they accomplished something. It is our job as leaders to give them the opportunity to create an environment where this is continually offered and expected. You want the people that embrace the challenge.


1. Ask questions. If a leader is overwhelmed check in with their team. Are they overwhelmed too? If so, you may have a staffing issue…or a systems issue…or a training issue. If not, you may have a team pressure issue.

2. Give the leader an aggressive short-term goal and hold them to it. You will see a thousand things in the team dynamic by simply “holding a line”.

3. Expect your leaders to be the gatekeepers of pressure. Their role is to contain the work and the energy of the team. They are to make sure their teams are trained and invested and effective. The role of the leader is to keep the pressure contained in their teams and evenly spread out.

4. Delegate work as if people want to be challenged…..Because they do. Every person seeks meaningful employment. They want to be challenged and constantly improving themselves. By doing work for them, the leader is not allowing that person to show their skill base and develop professionally.

5. Train your team members — they are the next wave of leaders. Train them do their jobs better, train them to do what you do, and train them to “own” their part of the bigger picture. The people that own their work completely are the ones that will be promoted the fastest and will become the next leader.

“A woman is like a tea bag; you never know how strong it is until it’s in hot water.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

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