A version of this article was first published for my HR Column on Troy Media.
Leading a team requires a skill set that is completely different from that of managing your direct reports. I have worked for leaders who were great at galvanizing a team but really ineffective one-on-one, and amazing bosses who were terrible team leads. Actually, most of the people I’ve worked for fall into the second category. This is because leading a team is a complex and difficult task. When things aren’t going well on the team, the common solution is to get people together for a team intervention. The hope is spending time together delving into and trying to understand personal styles will fix things. Team building workshops can be powerful tools to improve working relationships, engagement, alignment and business results - in the right circumstances. But it’s also important to know when not to use a team intervention to try and fix a problem. There are 3 situations when team interventions are best avoided.
When you have a dysfunctional relationship with one of your direct reports. Team workshops are not the appropriate place for you to try and resolve issues with one person on your team. It’s like deciding to have an argument with your significant other and inviting your family and friends over to watch. I have had to sit in the room when this was in play, and I can tell you how uncomfortable it is. In over 20 years of practice, I have never seen or heard of a situation where a boss-employee relationship was mended as the result of a team intervention. More likely, you will both say things in public you will later regret and the chasm between you will widen. Whatever you need to do to resolve a poisoned relationship you need to do behind closed doors.
When it’s all about one person. Sharon, the president of a business unit, was struggling with the level of conflict between her team members. She was tired of constantly being called on to step in and mediate. She desperately wanted to get people on the same page and working together. Talking with everyone in preparation for the offsite it became clear to me one person was the source of conflict and dysfunction. When confronted with this, Sharon admitted John could be difficult but she didn’t realize - or didn’t want to admit - his full impact. The offsite went ahead and within the first hour everyone knew spending 2 days together locked in a room was not going to propel them forward. In the end, Sharon made the difficult decision to replace him, and he has gone on to find a situation that is a better fit for him. It was the right call, just too late. If you have one person on your team who is at the epicentre of your team’s dysfunction, don’t fool yourself into thinking a day of team building exercises is going to make a meaningful difference. All you are doing is sending mixed messages and delaying the inevitable.
The organization is in flux. Fred, a director of marketing, is getting a lot of pressure from his team to get them together for an offsite. His team members all like each other and work pretty well together, but they are struggling to make decisions and getting bogged down by conflicting priorities. They feel they don’t understand where the company is going and what is important. They are anxious to get in a room together and have a high-level conversation with Fred about long-term strategy. Fred knows big change is headed their way and is reluctant to start a conversation about strategy, knowing it is likely to shift in the next few months. Fred is right to push back on his team’s request at this time. Not only would the offsite be a waste of time and energy, his team is likely to feel betrayed when it comes to light he knew the effort would be futile but proceeded anyway. If you know there is imminent change that will re-set the business strategy or team leadership, hit the pause button. The foundation for an effective team is clarity of purpose, and when that purpose isn’t clear even to the leader, it just gets muddier.
Before you jump head-first into a team building session stop and ask yourself, ‘is this really going to resolve the issue?’ If the answer is no, move on.