How To Fix A Broken Team

Date posted:
Mon 18 February 2019

In this guest post, Paul Fitzgerald from Wundamail details how to fix a broken team.

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We talk regularly about the importance of strong teams, and the many ways for leaders to make sure their teams stay strong. But how do we define ‘team’? And what makes a good one? Well, generally speaking, we’re talking about a group of individuals with a broad range of skills and talents all working towards a common goal. As the team moves forward they benefit from their own individual contributions and those of their peers. The team becomes stronger, more closely bonded, and productivity is improved. Everything's right in the world. Simple, eh? Well, maybe….

We know that it’s crucial for everybody to share the same levels of commitment and focus, we need them to be able to trust each other, to communicate well and to work with honesty and accountability. Collaboration is good, conflict bad. Personality is constructive, where ego is corrosive. Organisations spend millions and invest countless hours in moulding their teams, in an attempt to unlock the potential of good team dynamics. Building the team, and getting it right is even more important for start-ups, without the comparative luxury of time and history on their side, or a surfeit of cash to invest in a lengthy hiring process. Whatever size the business, innovation, strong decision making, better engagement and ultimately, increased productivity, become the most important targets for all leaders and managers.

Building teams isn’t easy either. There’s a lot to consider. Leaders firstly need to hire the right people with the right skills. The team needs to have a diverse knowledge and experience base for the job. They need to have the right mental energy to be able to support each other, to grow the team and to achieve the vision of the business. This group of individuals need to be able to challenge and listen to each other. We need people who are willing and able to ask the right questions, and to give the right answers. The manager’s role in this is to give guidance and support, offer feedback and encouragement. And with the right management, the team bond grows closer, and they become more switched on to how they each work. This is the dream of team managers the world over, but it’s not always like this. If only…

What if the team breaks?

Things go wrong. People go wrong. Stuff happens, and for lot of different reasons. Teams, like everything else, can get broken if not handled in the right way. So what should managers do to save the day? How to fix the broken team? And where to start?

Firstly, leaders need to lead. That’s not as stupid or as obvious as it sounds. Really, we could be forgiven for thinking that if a team is broken, if something’s gone wrong and the dynamic of the team is broken, it could be the fault of that leader. Surely, it’s in their role to head these thing off as soon as they pose a threat? The change and the ‘fix’ should start at the first moment the cracks begin to show. These things don’t happen overnight, and ignoring potentially destructive issues will only make them grow into even bigger issues, and even bigger cracks will form. So it’s essential that managers manage. Closely monitoring the team’s progress, seeking and giving feedback, and giving strong direction are crucial. If the team’s broken, the issue could easily land at the manager's feet.

Obviously, as the manager, the problem could be you. It could be your style of management, your personality or attitude to the team. Check that first, to be sure.

So ok, let’s talk about what to do. The first thing we all need to recognise is that fixing a broken team won’t be easy, and it could well be a painful experience for some, if not all of the team. If the problem comes down to personalities, fixing it could unearth some ugly truths and some pretty bad feelings. These painful moments are a necessary part of the fixing process. A price we have to pay to get the team back in line again and working together. So, from the very beginning of the fixing process, the whole team should be onboard with the fact that absolute honesty and plain speaking is needed from everybody.

Speaking of honesty, a clear set of ground rules should be established from the off. The whole team should be encouraged and feel safe enough to take ownership of their mistakes in an open manner. They may need supporting to ‘own up’ to their own faults, and that’s a tricky route to negotiate. We may need to clear the air, and people should feel comfortable doing that, and in knowing that they won’t be criticised for doing so. It’s all for the sake of the future, and everybody needs to know that. These rules might not suit everyone, some people might find them difficult, but they are the basis of fully open and honest communication and exactly what we need in the task of fixing our broken team.

Next. Let’s avoid the blame game. It doesn’t help, and only creates more negativity. It’ll slow down the fix, and lead to more problems further down the line. Unless it’s an extreme breach of contract or gross misconduct, blame serves no useful purpose.

Okay, again this sounds obvious, but the best way to fix a team is by using the team. Bringing the whole team together will strengthen the bonds between its individual members. Discuss the problem. Go as deep into it as you can, and discuss ways of fixing the problem. Giving everyone some autonomy on finding the solution builds confidence and strength. Let them share the solution by sharing the problem. It’s never a good idea for managers to take opportunities like this - and it should be seen as an opportunity - and try to find solutions alone. It removes trust, as well as the opportunity for the team to learn. And it could split the team even further.

Also, take the time. If there’s an issue with one of your teams, think of the consequences in the long term of not fixing it properly. These things can’t just be sorted in an hour or two. It takes planning and time. You may need to move people around or even remove them altogether - nobody said this was going to be easy, right? You may need to bring extra people onboard. Different solutions to different problems, obviously, but really, all management decisions should be well thought through and planned, so this should be nothing new. It’s the manager’s job to see the bigger picture, after all, and there’s a consequence to everything.

Once the team have agreed on the fix, stick to the plan, carry it through, and start again with a clean slate. It won’t help to leave the team thinking that something they said in the heat of the problem could come back to bite them at some point in the future. Fix and move forward as a team. Don't look back.

We’re not robots. We make mistakes, we make bad decisions and sometimes we don’t think things through. Nobody can get on with everybody, either. The strengths of our teams are based on human nature. So teams may break from time to time. It’s only natural.

It's a real management skill though, to know how to make the repair, to rebuild and start afresh, learning as you go. As long as issues and problems aren't ignored, the damage can be limited by remembering these few tips.

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