Improving an Unhealthy Team

Posted on January 29, 2014 by


432895_96500112For those of us in leadership roles, the team we lead is often a number of teams comprised of individuals.  It’s a team of teams.  This is often very different from leading just a team of individuals.  It adds a whole layer to our leadership that is not quite the same.

Inevitably as we lead teams, we will deal with a team that is not functioning well.  The causes of a team being unhealthy vary, but the result is always the same.  When a team doesn’t function well, it simply won’t fulfill it’s purpose.  I’d like to take some time in this post to talk about how to deal with a poorly functioning, or unhealthy team.  From my experiences, these are some steps I’ve learned to work through in trying to help the team get to a healthy place.

1. Identify the immediate issue.  Usually when it comes to our attention that there is a problem, there is one issue that acts as the catalyst, bringing the deeper problems to the forefront.  Don’t assume that this is the problem.  It usually isn’t.  It usually happens as a result of whatever the problem is.  It’s the sneeze from the cold, and it’s very important to figure out what is going on right now and deal with it, but also to use this as a jumping off point.

2. Look for the pattern.  If a team is unhealthy, the causes may be much deeper than what you see on the surface.  Look for the patterns pointing to deeper issues.  For example, if a team of volunteer leaders can’t keep people around, there is a pattern, and why people keep leaving will show deeper issues.  The more patterns you find, the more information you have gathered to help in the next step.

3. Discern what the real problem is. This is often the hardest step, but also the most important.  It’s easy to see the little things going on, but difficult to know the reasons.  If you can figure out the reasons, you have a shot at fixing the problem.  If you don’t, all you can do is put a band aid on the gapping wound.  Most often the deeper issues are relational.  One person may be abrasive and unteachable.  Sometimes there is a culture of mistrust that has developed towards one or multiple people on a team.  Maybe there are unresolved issues between two people on the team that now play out in the whole teams interactions.  Finding these issues is essential.

4. Fix the problem.  If there is one thing I’ve learned in fixing team problems it’s this: there are only two ways to fix the problem.  Either the people have to change, or you have to change the people.  Learning this made things much easier for me to work towards a good end.  Once you’ve learned what the problems are, it is imperative that you make clear to the team what you think the problem is, and what needs to happen.  After that you really are letting them choose which of these two it’s going to be.  I think we always need to give people a chance to change, but when people don’t, they are choosing to not be a part of the team.  You just have to be the one to tell them usually.

5. Reset the standards.  Once you’ve fixed the problem (either by helping the team to change or by changing the team), it’s import to help the team stay at a healthy place and avoid the same old mistakes.  Make sure that you put these three things in front of the team.

  • Who are they called to be?
  • What are they about?
  • What are they aiming for?

6. Follow up.  Regular check-ups with the team and individuals are important to help them continue on a healthy road and show them that you both care and are serious about what’s taken place.

Here are a couple other thoughts to help.

  • Make sure communication is very clear on all points.
  • Keep a record of conversations, with dates, that you can go back to if needed.
  • Pre-work always helps avoid issues.
  • The better your relationships are with the individuals, the higher the chances for a good outcome.
  • Be prepared that change always has a price, and it takes time.

Lastly, as a backdrop to the way we think about teams, remember that it was so important to Jesus that we function well as a team, that He is recorded as teaching on it twice (John 13, John 15), and praying about it (John 17) in the last time He spent with the 12.  It’s worth the work.