Team Rehabilitation

Sometimes, you realize you’re in charge of a team that’s burned out, lacking trust, or in a rut. Perhaps you joined the organization or had to step in for a leader who left. It could also be that you had a part in that. If you choose to tackle it instead of closing your eyes and hoping things improve, I salute you. Before giving up on the team, here are a few things to help you right the ship. This “rehab protocol” is based on working with many teams and summarizes the basic three-stage approach you can start with.

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Air It Out

The first phase of any improvement is ensuring everyone realizes the situation and what’s at stake and is committed. If you lack trust, especially internally, or were burned by previous attempts, it won’t help to put on a smiling face and egg them on, saying everything will work out this time. You must acknowledge the situation and teach them to speak about issues openly.

Often, when we start this, leaders think their role is to scramble between everyone involved and “bridge” between issues. Alice doesn’t trust Bob? You’ll do the handholding in conversations (or worse, pass messages back and forth). That’s a lousy foundation on which to build your renewed team. Instead, let the team talk about issues and voice concerns.

An offsite where we designate a specific session to “spilling it” is a good start. Don’t speak for others, but help them communicate. Anyone who refuses to be candid about concerns will harm future advances. Yes, this requires some great coaching and conflict-resolution skills. This is partly what executive coaching is all about.

Decide On Changes

Have you ever sat in a retrospective or a kickoff that was essentially a bunch of hot air? Perhaps some issues were raised, maybe an ambitious goal was set, but nothing material was decided. If things didn’t work the last time, what would make it any better this time? The team should start by deciding together on actual changes to its operating procedures.

For example, consider the issues mentioned during the airing-out session. Instead of letting them remain pure rants, what would the team like to see done differently? What values or guidelines can you agree on to ensure collaboration improves?

Don’t get too ambitious at this point, though. Teams that promise they’ll never let an issue fall between the cracks again, always have everything ready for every meeting, etc., are just playing make-believe. Agree on changes that require effort but are doable. Think now about how the team should behave when things go wrong rather than winging it when it inevitably happens.

This change might involve input from peers and stakeholders, especially if they were also burned in the past by the team’s performance. But even if not, they should definitely be made aware of the new agreements. That will turn them into partners as well. Also, merely showing how you’re trying to improve helps others notice the improvement.

Start Turning the Flywheel

Now comes the most tedious part but also the most satisfying. Don’t drop the ball now. You’ve done the hard work of airing out issues and getting people’s hopes up again with the changes you’ve agreed on. This is where you start slowly turning the flywheel and gaining momentum. Your goal is to start with baby steps to begin practicing what your changes look like in real life and make progress that gets everyone excited.

A major part of gaining momentum is jumping at any opportunity to apply your agreed-upon changes or debug them. For example, if someone fails to perform an agreed-upon behavior (like speaking up about an issue), don’t just shrug it off and continue because it didn’t result in a significant problem. Instead, take the time to discuss it and show everyone this is important. You’re essentially installing an Andon cord, and people have to believe that pulling it is noticeable and means things will be addressed.

With each iteration, discuss which parts of the agreement are working out, which need more work, and which might require another discussion. Celebrate progress. Don’t take any obstacle too hard, especially if you can demonstrate it was diligently looked into. Keep at it; eventually, you’ll see how you can triple impact-per-engineer and lead a team worth leading.