How to keep your team on track

24 Jun 15

Andrew Day on the challenges for managers in preventing or overcoming a ‘derailment’ in your department


As the public sector continues to change, the job of executive managers is to ensure that everyone is on top of their game, motivated and operating efficiently. Too often there are warning signals that the team is being ‘derailed’, which can result in negative results and poor morale. How can we identify the warning signs, what are the remedies and can team coaching help to prevent or overcome a derailment?

No matter how talented or hardworking team members may be, leadership is critical to performance, particularly during periods of change. Yet it is at these times that the team is most at risk of derailing. When a team is under pressure, underlying dynamics can bubble up and a previously effective team can lose its mojo. During restructuring or a change in strategy, a team can start to behave differently and tensions arise as members try to balance organisational goals with individual needs.

This is where strong management provides the compass for the entire organisation. If at some level it is dysfunctional, this will spread throughout the organisation. Conversely, if a management team together sets a clear direction, this cohesion will also spread, creating a winning culture throughout the organisation. People will go the ‘extra mile’ to exceed on objectives.

Improving the performance of a team requires effort, focus, courage to face the issues and expertise, but the returns can be dramatic. Improving the performance of your management team will impact on the productivity of your entire organisation.

Team coaching can help the leadership navigate through tumultuous or unpredictable times, while continuing to run the business effectively. It can help derailed teams to get back to peak performance so they can achieve organisational objectives. A team coach can be a real catalyst for change, helping teams negotiate shifting environments and come to a better understanding of how to manage the dynamics of the group for themselves.

In my experience of working with leadership teams, the most common derailers arise from unresolved dynamics concerning authority, member relations or relations outside the team. Below is a checklist of the top ‘derailers’ – signs that your team is getting off track and not delivering to its full potential. If you see these signs, it is time to take action to build a more productive team: 

1. Power struggles for leadership and controlTensions between leaders and followers can sometimes arise around the way power and authority are exercised within the team. This is common during periods of transition when the executive team needs to make shifts in the way it connects and works together. One way of understanding more about both yourself and the team is to reflect on team members’ behaviours. Teams comprise a variety of individuals, each with their own unique style of relating and contributing.


2. Absence of leadershipIf the group is ambivalent about power and control, the issue of leadership can be avoided. This results in a dynamic whereby no one is prepared to exercise leadership, take up their authority or make decisions. Equally, if left without a clear leader at the helm – perhaps because of an unexpected departure – a team can quickly lose its focus and connection with overall goals and objectives.


3. Idealisation of the leaderAt the opposite end of the scale, teams can sometimes fall into the trap of ‘bowing down’ to a strong and charismatic leader. The leader is put on a pedestal and team members overlook the need to challenge and question. The view could be taken that to be effective, organisations need people with a healthy disrespect for the boss – people who can engage in active give-and-take.


4. Unhealthy competition within the teamSometimes the balance between the task of the team and the needs of individuals within it can get out of kilter. People may be so intent on pursuing their own agenda and jostling for position that they lose sight of what it is they are there to achieve. The desirable form of competition is often referred to as positive, healthy or cooperative competition. Positive competition promotes an ‘everyone wins’ attitude where team members work collectively toward a common goal and the reward is communal. In positive competition, individual team members can compete to improve their place within the team, but in a cooperative manner in which there is mutual respect and interactions do not jeopardise other team members.


5. Group thinkHighly cohesive teams can fall into the trap of ‘group think’. They fail to critique their own thinking and cannot see that the lack of different perspectives may be holding them back. This can result in misguided judgment and a failure to see the risky consequences of a decision. The challenge is to create a working environment in which group think is unlikely to happen. To avoid group think, it is important to have a process for checking the assumptions behind important decisions, for validating the decision-making process, and for evaluating the risks involved.


6. Avoidance of conflict and differenceSome teams are also conflict-averse. They actively steer away from issues they know will cause heated debate or discontent and don’t understand that diversity of views can bring value to the team. Differences of opinion and conflict are inevitable within a team. When managed well, they lead to creative problem solving and better decision-making. A sign that the team is getting derailed is when communication becomes disrespectful and crosses the line, leading to power struggles and more serious relational issues.


7. Interpersonal conflict between team membersPersonalities can sometimes get in the way of progress. Strong characters may lock horns or get into entrenched positions it is difficult to escape from. Such dynamics can significantly undermine team performance. Conflict can cause resentment, hostility and perhaps the ending of the relationship. If it is handled well, however, conflict can be productive – leading to deeper understanding, mutual respect and an improved output for the organisation.


8. Scapegoating or finger pointingA sign of a dysfunctional team is when members are seen to frequently point the finger of blame at colleagues when things don’t go according to plan. They may try to make scapegoats of weaker members or avoid responsibility by blaming others outside of their direct control. Take the view that everyone plays a part in the creation of the pattern around an issue or challenge in the team. Viewing teams in this way allows a move away from a blame culture where individuals or pairs might be singled out as ‘the problem’. All behaviour is seen as communication in the interactions of a team, be it small events such as a missed meeting or a lack of a response to an email.


9. Failure to learn from experienceTeams can sometimes become blind to the fact that they are repeating the same mistakes over and over again without stepping back and questioning the assumptions they are making. Our view is that the most effective teams have the capacity to learn from experience. It’s often stated in the sporting world that you learn more in defeat than by
winning, and equally in organisations if the mistakes are analysed and discussed positively, a new and creative approach can be formulated.


10. Disconnection from the organisationAt times of change, executive teams can become disconnected from the organisation. They are unable to tune into the mood of the business and cannot sense when employees have become disengaged and unwilling to follow the lead they are trying to set. This is where they need to develop communication through the organisation. They need to ensure there is a culture of feedback at all levels to keep teams working co-operatively.<

  • Andrew Day

    Andrew Day is a business director at Ashridge Business School, and has a background in executive coaching and leadership, and internal organisation development 

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