Improve team performance

Want to improve team performance, but don’t know where to start? From experience, it might be you who is hindering growth. Like many other talented professionals who shy away from having difficult conversations, you may be accepting substandard performance from the members of your team as a result.  If you are going to make it successfully up to equity partner and beyond, you will need a high-performing team working for you and a high-performing team doesn’t happen by chance! If you are going to lick your team into shape, you have to be prepared to overcome your personal hurdles and have a difficult conversation about performance with individuals from your team and the team as a whole.  To help you have these conversations (and therefore improve team performance!), you first have to recognise how you may be letting your team members get away with poor performance in the first place. Here are 6 ways that you may be.

1) Not feeling comfortable delivering negative messages to your team

A great team leader is as comfortable in delivering negative messages as they are positive messages. Look around you at the partners and people in your firm who seem to be good at getting difficult messages across. What do they do well? How do they start the conversation? How do they gain permission to get across a difficult message? You may find that it helps by asking your team permission to have a difficult conversation. For example: ‘We’ve got the latest WIP report in for our team. Is it OK if we are honest with each other and talk about the root cause of our WIP being the highest in the firm?’ I used to work for Procter & Gamble, and they used to use the following metaphor to gain permission for a difficult conversation: “Can we put the moose on the table?” Another way of doing this, which is perhaps slightly easier for us non-P&G’ers to understand: “Can we talk about the elephant in the room?” Usually, many professionals don’t feel comfortable having difficult conversations just because they have gone very badly in the past. To improve team performance, however, you need to quickly get over this if you are to progress to partner. Here are a few things to bear in mind to help you do this:

  • There is no guarantee that your next difficult conversation will go badly.
  • The more ‘positive’ examples you gain of having difficult conversations, the easier it will become for you to tackle these conversations moving forward.
  • Practice makes perfect.
  • It is far better to praise in public and criticise in private.

To take this further take a look at our Progress to Partner Academy self-study course How to Give Negative Feedback without it being a Career-Limiting Move

This course and others are in Progress to Partner Academy . Our members also get access to all our self-study courses, including:

  How to Excel as a Line Manager,  How to Delegate Like a Pro and Leading Yourself and others through Change

2) Procrastinating and avoiding difficult conversations with your team, until forced to act

Do you find yourself suddenly having ‘lots to do’ when you know you have a difficult conversation to have? If this knocks the nail on the head then, like many, you are procrastinating to avoid having the conversation altogether.  What’s frustrating about procrastination is that it creates more problems than is necessary.

For example, if there is an issue, the sooner you have the conversation and the sooner you nip the problem in the bud so that everyone can learn from it and move on. When you add in procrastination, however, this causes stress for you which affects your own focus and productivity (not to mention mental health), and when you finally have the conversation with your team member about it (because you can’t avoid it), it causes more upset and confusion for them, not to mention a potential seed for resentment moving forward.

To put this into context, one of my clients contacted me after a very difficult meeting with her partner. In this meeting, her partner put her on formal management procedures and used a series of examples to justify the management action, however, most of these examples were at least 6 weeks old.

Consequently, she had difficulty accepting the validity of the examples, as she couldn’t get past the “why did he not talk to me at the time?”. Long story short, difficult conversations become easier the ‘fresher’ the topic area is to both parties so stop procrastinating.

3) Lack of expectations or objectives being set

Very often difficult conversations and particularly low performance happen when expectations of what is expected by you are not set. Your team will initially welcome a level of direction, as contrary to popular opinion they actually do want to do a good job. Stating the obvious, most professionals in a firm do not aspire to ‘mediocre performance’. (Even if it feels like it at times!)

By setting expectations or formal objectives, you have something tangible to benchmark your team members’ performance against. This tangibility can often be the difference between a difficult conversation going well or retreating into a slanging match. It also makes difficult feedback easier to swallow if someone can clearly see where they have not met expectations.  

4) No negative feedback (or limited feedback) given to your team

How often do you give your team feedback? Would you say it is mostly positive or negative? Do you ever give constructive criticism? When your workload is high, it is often easy to skip the review and feedback part of project management.

The result of this can be very detrimental, however, as it doesn’t do anything to improve team performance. If you only find yourself praising your team, that’s great – however, your team will welcome feedback on how they can lift their performance even higher. Don’t fall into the trap of giving feedback sandwiches, otherwise, your team will never hear the positive but always focus on the negative.

 Progress to Partner Academy members get access to  “How to Excel as a Line Manager.” It’s a great course that will help you to understand the role and purpose of a line manager  and what it takes to motivate your direct reports. You also become practised giving feedback in a way that results in behavioural change. Check it out!

5) Always giving your team member another chance to make it up to you

If you are going to become a successful partner you will have to be prepared to make difficult decisions. That’s part and parcel of the role. In fact, your partners will be evaluating this ability so if you are always making excuses for poor performers in your team or giving your poor performer a ‘get out of jail free’ card, then this is doing you far more harm than good. Formal performance management procedures are there for a reason so don’t put off the inevitable.

They are not particularly pleasant to be put on (or to manage them) – but better that a team member sorts themselves out or potentially leaves the firm, rather than them dragging your numbers and reputation down with them.

A team member should not be surprised that they are being put on formal performance management. If they are surprised, then you haven’t been giving them enough feedback on their performance or talking them through the consequences of not bucking up their ideas.

6) Wanting to always be liked by your team

This is a tough one. No-one takes on management responsibilities to gain a ‘feared’ reputation or to become actively disliked. However, your aim is that you need to be respected first and liked second.  You will always be respected by your team for having tough conversations. If you have them in the right way, you will still be liked at the end of the conversation. However, if you duck and avoid the conversation, you may still be liked by not respected by your team – which is a recipe for not being taken seriously by your team.

Look to improve team performance 

If you see yourself in any of these examples above, then you may be letting your team members get away with poor performance. Not only does this affect your team, but it also affects your chances of making partner.  The partners at your firm will be looking at your ability to address and manage difficult situations, so instead of attempting to get out of them, look at these moments as opportunities to improve team performance and prove yourself as partner material.

Need more help with changing your leadership style and managing others?  Take a look at our self-study courses:

All these courses (and more) are available to premium subscribers in our subscriber-only site Progress to Partner . “How to Excel as a Line Manager.” It’s a great course that will help you to understand the role and purpose of a line manager  and what it takes to motivate your direct reports. You also become practised giving feedback in a way that results in behavioural change. Check it out!

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