How to refocus your team and improve team performance

Project fatigue, disillusionment, apathy, procrastination—whatever the reason behind it, dips and drops in your team’s motivation can be gut-wrenching with deadlines looming ahead.

Fluctuations can and do happen during projects, but the catalysts are easy to spot—even if you think your team has hit the point of no return, it’s never too late to refocus and finish strong.

When your team’s energy and motivation are slipping, you can stop a downslide by knowing what you’re aiming for, what you’re looking for, and how to kickstart a course correction.

What you’re aiming for

Calling any a group of people a team doesn’t automatically make them one. In a classic Harvard Business Review article, Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith explain that teams are a distinct type of working group because members share a common purpose and collective accountability. Working groups function according to rules and performance expectations—but performance and success are the eventual result of individual efforts; there’s no framework for teambuilding and deeper collaborative outcomes.

Successful teams operate by evolving a step further; they share aspirations, engage in joint efforts based on mutual accountability and trust, and actively apply techniques that lead to good performance and stronger connections. Successful teams are engaged in their work (plugged in, productive, and passionate) and actively nurture the wellbeing of the group and its individuals. By improving the project culture there is a greater likelihood of improving project success, this is what sets apart a team from a successful team.

Surefire ways to spot happy, high-performing teams

Certain observable factors are known to create strong teams, setting the stage for performance management. MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory discovered that communication patterns determine a team’s ability to perform; the degree of energy, engagement, and exploration put into communication are quantifiable, predictive indicators of a high performing team.

“35% of the variation in a team’s performance can be accounted for simply by the number of face-to-face exchanges among team members,” reports MIT’s Alex Pentland.

Characteristics of high performing teams

  • A common purpose and goal (of personal resonance for each member)
  • Communicate openly and effectively
  • Foster mutual trust in the team and among individual members
  • Manage conflicts transparently and strive to support good morale
  • Clarify roles and styles of leadership
  • Value diversity of experience and viewpoints
  • Apply effective decision-making processes
  • Cultivate a positive, supportive environment

These dynamics blend together by influencing engagement.

Team effectiveness – what you’re looking for

Successful team engagement is based on numerous dynamics occurring in several areas: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, interpersonal relationships, workload and scheduling, management styles, and personal degrees of interest. Kevin Kruse explains that, “Engaged employees lead to better business outcomes,” because they are more inclined to use discretionary effort. In other words, they are ready to go the extra mile.

“Engaged employees lead to better business outcomes”

In most cases, team engagement isn’t an either/or binary state. Think about it as variable positions on various spectrums, which together result in an overall degree of engagement.

Imagine that there are engagement points across the following ranges:

Interest and momentum  >  Stagnation and procrastination

Balance and working within capacity  >  Overload

Trust and enthusiasm  >  Disillusionment

Security, confidence, inevitability of success  >  Insecurities

Red flags and employee motivation issues

Physical and emotional burnout

  • Routine/daily grind. The initial challenge and enthusiasm fades. Drudgery.
  • Feeling of no or slow movement toward an end goal; no discernible end in sight
  • “What’s the point” perspective toward iterations, client feedback, etc
  • Disheartened attitude from knowing that work is going to be scrapped or used as a stepping stone for others.

Expectations and perceptions

  • Individually diverging or unspoken expectations, rather than mutually-determined expectations
  • Misconceptions about the team leader, management, or the organization
  • Personal problems and issues with others and/or management
  • Worry about changes with the organization; insecurity and fear of being blindsided

Social dynamics

  • Poor professionalism at the top; management handles situations badly, which trickles down and infects the organization.
  • Cynicism and infighting; toxic behavior patterns
  • Gossip cliques and backchannel complaining
  • Issues with procrastination, slowing of work speed
  • Resentment and irritation if gestures of recognition are off-base or too little, too late

How to kickstart a course correction

You might be facing two different (and potentially overlapping) situations that cause motivation and focus to dissolve:

  • Systemic, ongoing struggles in one or more areas
  • Project-specific issues.

Systemic team motivation loss

Teams challenged by chronic lack of focus or engagement may need help altering their internal dynamics. These systemic struggles typically reach critical mass due to personal and group problems in multiple engagement areas, for multiple team members.

Taken to the next level, systemic team motivation issues can be exacerbated by organizational problems, even resulting in project fatigue. This typically occurs when too many projects are in production, usual employee workflows are directly impacted, and business goals and processes are not showing improvement. It can quickly turn into opposition or total disengagement, and requires a blend of strategic adjustments to business processes, project culture, and goals—change management.

Project-specific motivation loss

If a normally engaged team is burning out on a particular project, it might be time to jolt the system and hit the “reset” button by helping them reconnect to their team identity. If the project itself can’t be changed, you should focus on what you can control—your attitude toward the project and toward one another.

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Saving the day at the point of no return

Managers who focus on their team’s strengths have more engaged employees than those who focus on weaknesses. And, managers who are engaged themselves tend to inspire it in others, helping to lead to project success.

A happy, self-aware manager is more likely to be tuned in to situations and see opportunities for injecting change. They can set the tone for interactions by how they handle problems and shape expectations. To help your team refocus and feel motivated again, be the one who steps out and rewrites the habits that have become “rules” of the game.

Turn yourself into a catalyst—the secret power of the change agent

There’s a saying that if you want to change others, first change yourself . The concept of a change agent comes from the fact that people tend to mirror those around them and follow strong leading in social structuring. This requires change management at the personal and organizational level.

Consciously choosing behavior and strategically altering team, organization and project culture takes discipline. Change agents take on the job of modeling behavior until others do, too, or creating new approaches to scheduling or other processes and getting others to buy in. They know that “being the change” drives change.

How do you adjust the tone and dynamics of team communications? By remembering that people are geared to frame their reactions around your actions.

In other words, identify bad habits in your own communication patterns, shut them down, and introduce new ones. Observe your team’s interaction styles and note the tone, wording, frequency, and mannerisms used. Are you encouraging to one another or continually stirring up stress by transferring it down the line? Are discussions inclusive and patient? Respectful? Blunt? Secretive?

Try communicating more often or less often, or in different formats or environments. Shake things up by introducing situations that aren’t associated with ingrained patterns.

Praise publicly, provide feedback/criticism privately. Remove fear of negative responses when sharing ideas. Mix up your team’s routine; arrange for designated times or nonstandard tasks that allow team members to unplug and do something completely different together, which gets them to create new forms of interactions that subtly carry over into their regular work

Balance optimism and realism

When a leader works in a bubble, they can inadvertently become idealistic and out of sync with their team and what the front lines of a project looks like. This is especially tricky for transformative and charismatic leaders, since they tend to focus heavily on optimism and vision more than the details of work and relationships. On the flip side, those who are too immersed in the details may struggle to inspire and nurture team bonding.

The key is using self-awareness to discover balanced solutions that are in touch with the team and project, and then actively maintaining a balance optimal for their needs.

Create a culture of recognition

Everyone wants to be respected and appreciated, and we often have different underlying desires that keep us going through a tough project. When a team is slogging through tight deadlines or feels overworked or unseen, recognition can boost morale and strengthen their sense of team identity and support from management. This is a great way to improve team motivation, that takes very little effort from management. Make appreciative communication patterns a habit among the team, and avoid superficial assumptions of what really matters and motivates.

Most people prefer intangible forms of recognition; perks and monetary enticements often mean less than a simple “thank you” during a staff meeting. In Make Their Day! Employee Recognition That Works, Cindy Ventrice says that people crave praise, thanks, opportunities, and respect far more than gifts, awards, and privileges. Missing the mark in how to best express gratitude can counteract the intended message, so it’s worth rethinking your plans in order to send the right message.

Be observant and make a daily routine of recognition—and see if you can get your entire team to join in.

Create team charters

Teams are much stronger when they’ve created a group identity and bonded over a common purpose that can help them stay focused. Team charters are big picture plans that shape direction, roles, expectations, and guidelines for communication. They are great references when the going gets tough or the team needs a boost. This team performance management technique is really useful when trying to achieve project success.

Learn more about team charters and how to turn your team into a happy, high performance machine by checking out Simple steps to unleash your team’s full potential by Holly Davis.

Highlight the problem and solve it together

If you’re seeing unwanted downturns in focus, you’re probably not alone. Call a team meeting and directly discuss the situation, asking the group what they’d like to see changed or improved. Agree that you want to keep each other motivated, and that everyone gets to have a say in solving the problem. This is a helpful way of avoiding team conflict early on before it develops further.

If the issues are significant, some team members may need a chance to get things off their chests before they can discuss solutions. Have the courage to hear what’s said and the patience to listen to everyone’s input, then work together on a plan to erase those distractions and restore team motivation.

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