6 steps to deal with rock bottom teams

In the process of building a team it sometimes happens that things go totally wrong. This article will handle a crisis methodology for teams that are broken. It’s not for optimising the improvement of normal teams, even not teams that are going down. It’s for teams that are rock bottom.

How do you see when a team is rock bottom?

There are different symptoms of rock bottom teams. First of al internal:

  • Employees are deeply unhappy within the team & express a significant trust problem
  • Conflicts escalate quickly or are avoided by meta-conversations
  • There is no clarity (anymore) about goals, roles and procedures
  • As a result, nobody is accountable or held accountable for their work
  • Consequently the performance of the team is far below expectations

Second of all external:

  • The team has lost understanding of its role in the bigger picture and this fails to connect with the business strategy
  • The team is not taken serious anymore by its stakeholders
  • The negative reputation of the team becomes a self fulfilling prophecy that spreads trough the organisation

Six steps to deal with rock bottom teams

  1. Listen

Start by listening to the individual team members, their opinions, their ambitions and concerns. Create a connection with the team members and show your commitment by giving them your dedicated attention.

2. Fire the team lead

This might seem bold and goes against the belief that everyone’s potential can be developed and every relation can be fixed. It also gives the impression that the malfunctioning of the team is the team leaders fault. So let me clarify.

Team leaders, and especially senior ones, have undeniably a big and determining impact on the climate of a team. This is specifically so in organisations with a strong hierarchical pyramid. Given that the team is rock bottom, the team lead has at least allowed the team to go this way.

With the team lead gone, off course the search for a new team lead starts. Don’t even think about creating a self-steering team at this phase. A broken team needs strong leadership to get back on track.

3. Review the team’s shared identity

With what’s left of the team when their leader is gone, work on what connects them. Before tackling the dramatic relational issues, you need to create some positive, or at least constructive, energy.

It is important that this is done by a facilitator from outside the team, and with the n+2 present to hold the team accountable. The presence & commitment of both ‘external people’ is crucial. You might think it’s better to leave the n+2 out for confidentiality reasons, but in a rock bottom team you’re way beyond that point. If the team is important enough, he/she will find time for this.

Guided by a facilitator and held accountable by their n+2 you need to get the team talking about their added value and what they stand for. Start with the individual core identity of every team member, complemented by customer feedback and aspirational identity. Let them make it explicit, share it and reflect on it. Then, support the team in creating a new, or updated, shared identity. What’s our added value and core identity as a team?

4. Check-in

Organise monthly check-ins with the team members. Examples of what needs to be checked-in about can be found in Hay Group’s Organisational Climate Survey. These check-ins allow you to stay connected and to take some quick actions, get the low-hanging fruit.

5. Let the new team lead review structure, roles & governance

Now is the time to let the new team lead enter the scene. Yes, indeed, only after the shared identity is created. This is a given for him/her, something he/she’ll have to accept as it is. It is owned by the team, and therefore needs to be respected. The role of the new team lead is to review or set up a new structure, roles and governance system that will function as a backbone. It is something that needs to happen in close collaboration with every team member, but owned by the team lead. This will allow him/her to put his stamp on the new team culture, and be disruptive if needed.

6. Define simple guiding principles for team life

So now we have a shared identity, a new team lead who installed a reviewed structure, roles and governance system. Now, and not sooner, is the time to open some boxes from the past. What happened, how did it impact the team, what has guided us in our decisions and what should (have) guid(ed) us? What you do here is acknowledge that, however troublesome the past has been, the team has a huge backpack of experience that it still carries with it. You now use that experience to define simple principles for collaboration that will guide the team in the future.

This is tricky business. Often the stakeholders of the team ask for these boxes to be opened in the beginning. But what will you do with this with no trust, no connection, no clarity? Not much. That’s why the moment to open the boxes should be chosen carefully. As in step 2, this should be done in presence of an external facilitator and the n+2. But it should never be one of these two to open the boxes. Instead, they should create the right environment that motivates the team members to want to open a box of their own choice, if and when they are ready for it.

The result should be 5 to 7 simple guiding principles. They are no instructions, but give more direction with room for individual applications. They are not pushed, but created from the collective wisdom of the team. But most of all, they should be a choice. And with that choice, either you’re in, or you’re out. Team members with issues or a disturbing influence on the team will have to pick a side here. When not complying with the principles, give support, corrective feedback or when everything else fails, make a choice for them. In or out. Be consequent and empowering or start all over again…