Seven things you need to stop doing if you want to strengthen your team
Peak performance is idiosyncratic.
Each person’s version of it
is uniquely formed and is an expression
of their traits and life experience. Everyone’s path
to success is somewhat different.
By Kimberly Paterson, CEC
Effective leaders know you’re only as good as the people you have around you. That reliance is a powerful motivation for supporting your team members in reaching their full potential. Yet, despite the best intentions, many managers are guilty of behaviors that stunt rather than encourage the growth of their people!
Employees often underperform when leaders fall on opposite ends of the “support” continuum. Too little support leaves employees uncertain about expectations, their value to the organization and the quality of their work. They may also be reluctant to speak up when they see a problem or need help. Over time they lose motivation. Too much support is equally damaging. Employees become overly dependent on the manager, undermining confidence, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.
Do you wonder if you err on either end of the spectrum? Do any of the following behaviors feel familiar?
- Solving the problem. Most leaders attain their level of success because they’re good at solving problems. They see an issue and are compelled to fix it. When you allow yourself to fall into the role of fixer, you rob the employee of the chance to grow. Problems are an opportunity to learn or strengthen skills. When people are given the space to solve them, their confidence and independence increase exponentially.
If you want to build your people, the next time they bring you a problem, shift your focus from fixer to coach. The process will be easier with some employees than others. Let’s be honest, some people want you to be the fixer; it is the path of least resistance. Resist the temptation to solve the problem.
Be mindful that the amount of coaching the employee will require depends on their capabilities. For some, it will be enough to send the message that you trust them to figure out a solution. Others will need you to guide them by asking questions that lead them to possible next steps.
- Setting unrealistic expectations. People need to feel effective and successful when undertaking activities. When there is a mismatch between what people must do and what they feel they can do, they become anxious, and their performance suffers. When people are asked to do work that consistently falls short of their capabilities, they become bored, and their performance suffers. The key is aligning expectations and abilities.
The more common challenge that managers face is team members falling short of expectations. When that’s the case, managers must uncover what’s driving the gap.
Start with the facts. Does the person have the capabilities? Have those capabilities been demonstrated, or are they untested? Has the employee shown evidence that they’re able to learn? Probably the most important is, are they willing to learn?
Reflect on the role you may be playing. Have you communicated expectations? Too often, we assume our expectations are obvious and don’t take the time to communicate them directly and clearly. Are you expecting the person to perform based on their potential or where they are right now? Are you assessing them fairly?
- Waiting too long to address a performance problem. Once you label an employee disappointing, there’s a tendency to focus on their faults. You scrutinize the work and person more closely. You meet more frequently and provide more explicit guidance and feedback. The actions intended to boost performance and prevent errors have the opposite impact. No matter how tactful you think you are, the employee senses your lack of confidence in their capabilities. Self-doubt sets in and performance deteriorates further.
Interrupting the cycle isn’t easy and is seldom effective. The best chances of improving the employee’s performance depend on the right intervention and early in the process. Strategies for a successful intervention include:
- Schedule a meeting in a neutral, relaxed location.
- Position the meeting as a two-way conversation to talk about performance and how you can build a more effective working relationship. If the relationship feels tense, you may want to say that you’d like to work on reducing that.
- Use the meeting as an opportunity to come to a mutual agreement on the symptoms of the problem.
- Build a mutual understanding of the specific job responsibilities in which the person is weak. Be prepared to share evidence.
- Gain a shared understanding of what is causing the problem (e.g., lack of skills, time management, different performance standards than the manager).
- Explore how your behavior might contribute to the problem from the employee’s perspective.
- Agree on the next steps, such as skills that may need to be acquired and how you will both work to improve your relationship. Part of the discussion should also be the level of supervision the manager will provide. Research shows that the more involved the employee is in setting the plan, the greater the likelihood of success.
If you’re considering an intervention, be realistic. If in your heart you’ve already decided the employee can’t do the job or was just a bad hire, there is no point.
- Tolerating poor performance. Little does more to hurt team performance than the leader who turns a blind eye to employees who consistently underperform. Whether it’s shoddy work quality, missing deadlines, or allowing others to carry an unfair share of the load, poor performers have a significant impact. Your best people end up being overworked and ultimately resent that they’re asked to compensate for weak colleagues. Even more important, your actions send the message that despite your words, subpar performance is acceptable.
- Using yourself as the benchmark. Whether it’s conscious or not, managers often fall into the trap of comparing their people to themselves. “This is how I would do it.” “This is how I learn best.” “This is how I like to be managed.” The problem is that most people aren’t like you. Peak performance is idiosyncratic. Each person’s version of it is uniquely formed and is an expression of their traits and life experience. Everyone’s path to success is somewhat different. Relying on a standardized approach to managing and motivating your people won’t help you get the best results. Pay close attention to the individual’s strengths and their path to excellent outcomes.
Tom Landry, two-time Super Bowl champion and one of the most winning coaches in NFL history, illustrates the power of focusing on each player’s strengths. While competing teams were reviewing game footage of missed tackles and dropped balls, Landry studied the winning plays. Landry’s instincts told him that each person would improve his performance most if he could see in slow motion how his personal version of excellence looked. He created a highlight reel for each athlete that featured when he had done something easily, naturally, and effectively. Landry reasoned that, while the number of wrong ways to do something was limitless, the number of right ways for any given player was not. It was knowable, and the best way to discover it was to look at plays where that person had done it excellently.
- Showing you’re the “smart person.” Your knowledge and experience can be intimidating. When people on your team think you always have the answer, it’s easier and safer to ask you than risk getting it wrong or being seen as not knowing. You build dependency instead of fostering the employees’ ability to learn and think for themselves.
Another aspect of this behavior is constantly justifying your value. Even when someone’s work is sound, do you feel compelled to make it better? While the need to improve may feel like an admirable trait left unchecked, it can be destructive.
Consider this example: John asked his team to develop a strategy for onboarding new staff members. The project was a first for the team. They worked on it for weeks and were enthused about their final product. John was impressed but couldn’t resist the urge to take the plan to the next level. By the time John was finished adding value, the plan no longer belonged to the team. Their buy-in and ownership in the plan were lost. Next time they’ll be trying to anticipate what John wants instead of investing their hearts and creativity into the assignment.
Be conscious of when it’s in the best interests of your team to hold back on what you know and allow your team members to be the smart people in the room.
- Underestimating your top performers’ need for development. If your organization is like most, your best people are the busiest. They’re the individuals you count on, and they often bear a disproportionate share of the work. What commonly happens is that their professional development and the work they find meaningful are sacrificed to the urgent issues of the day. According to a 2022 McKinsey & Company study, lack of career development is the number one motivation for people leaving their jobs. Invest the time in ensuring that your best people have a solid career development plan and the opportunity to make it a reality.
The value of tapping into potential
Take a hard look at where the untapped potential is on your team. Find ways to help your team members build their skills, expand their comfort zones, learn without fear of making mistakes and bring all their talents to the table. Not only will it make them happier and more productive, but it will be a huge win for your business.
Kimberly Paterson, Certified Executive Coach and Master Energy Leadership Coach, is president of CIM (www.cim-co.com). CIM works with organizations and individuals to maximize performance through positive lasting behavioral change. Her clients are property and casualty insurance companies, agencies and brokers. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Follow Kimberly on www.linkedin.com/in/kimberly-paterson and twitter.com/CIMChangeMinds.