Managing a Team That’s in Constant Turmoil? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I was recently hired into a manufacturing company in the engineering department. I am leading two different teams. One of the teams is running smoothly, and the other one is a disaster.

Disaster team is in constant turmoil— to the degree that some members of team are not even speaking to each other. The work output isn’t a complete mess yet, but we seem to be headed that way. I am leading both teams in the same way, so I can’t identify what I should be doing differently. What to do?

A Tale of Two Teams


Dear A Tale of Two Teams,

Wow. The good news is that you aren’t responsible for creating the mess. The bad news is that once a team has gotten off on the wrong foot, it can be really hard to put things right. But there are some things you can do—and everything you learn from this experience will serve you well.

It sounds as if you are on your own when it comes to becoming a better team leader. This is not unusual. Our research shows:

  • Over half of all work is done on teams, and most of us are on five or six teams at any given time. It is how the really complicated work gets done.
  • Most teams are suffering—only 27 percent of people would say that their teams are high performing.
  • Just 1 in 4 people think they have been well trained by their organization to lead teams.

The top obstacles to teams working well are familiar to all of us. Teams fall apart because of:

  • Unclear purpose of team and/or unclear goals
  • Murky roles and decision rights
  • Lack of accountability (some people pull their weight and others don’t), which leads to resentment.
  • Lack of candor and openness, which leads to the death of constructive conflict
  • Poor tracking and no celebration of wins and progress

All of these complications undermine trust and collaboration. Not surprisingly, lack of clarity is the ultimate undermining factor. If you look carefully at your team that is working, you will probably find that its members have somehow created clarity around the team’s purpose, goals, and behavioral norms, and that they know how to solve problems and resolve disagreements. Those areas might be a good place to start with your disaster team. Call out that they are in crisis, and request that you all go back to the beginning and start over to get clarity on all of the above dimensions

It might be helpful for you to know about the study that Google did on teams that work well. They found these to be the most important elements for high performing teams:

  • Psychological safety: Team members feel safe to fully express themselves, share ideas, and take risks free of the fear of humiliation, punishment, or judgment.
  • Dependability: Team members can depend on each other to do what they say they will do, mean what they say, and have each other’s backs.
  • Structure and clarity: Everyone on the team is crystal clear about the overarching objectives of the team and their own individual goals and tasks for the team.
  • Meaning: Each person must find their own emotional connection to the work or the outcomes of the work. It will vary for each individual.
  • Impact: Each individual, and the team as a whole, must have a clear line of sight between their own work, the work of the team, and the big picture strategic goals of the organization.

As the team leader, you can help create or increase psychological safety by role modeling certain behaviors—the behaviors you seek in your team members.

  • Pay close attention to each individual, use active listening techniques, don’t interrupt, and acknowledge all contributions.
  • Be fully present and engaged while with the team.
  • Be accessible, share information about yourself, and encourage others to do the same.
  • Include all team members in decision making and explain your final decisions in detail so that everyone understands your thinking.
  • Show that you will not tolerate bad behavior by stepping in when you see it.

It all starts with you. Creating psychological safety is a tall order, so I would recommend starting with the behaviors that make sense to you and come easily. Then drive for clarity, clarity, clarity. My experience tells me it’s very possible you have one person on the team who benefits from creating chaos and keeping things muddy. You know the adage: one bad apple spoils the barrel. If this is true, it will be revealed as you drive for clarity and you can remove that person from the team. If it isn’t true, clarity will reduce the friction and the team will balance out.

Love, Madeleine

About the author

Madeleine Blanchard Headshot 10-21-17

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a Master Certified Coach and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. She is coauthor of Blanchard’s Coaching Essentials training program, and several books including Leverage Your Best, Ditch the Rest, Coaching in Organizations, and Coaching for Leadership.

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