It’s only 11 a.m., but you just snoozed your Slack and email notifications, put your phone on silent, and decided you "needed a break" — maybe you'll take a walk, or go to the kitchen, or hide out in an empty conference room.
It doesn't matter, as long as you're away from your computer and people.
How did you get here? Your day started just fine. You rocked your morning routine and you brewed a fresh pot of coffee. You even prepped a to do list for your day, so you could lead your team effectively, with a clear rundown of the main action items you needed to knock out.
Then all hell broke loose.
It's a no good, very bad day
Before you’d even had your first sip of coffee, one of your direct reports messaged you about a project that is now severely delayed that they were supposed to be responsible for.
During what ends up being a somewhat heated discussion, you learned this employee felt like they were put in a position to fail. They told you they didn’t have the time to handle this project, and they used this exchange as their “I told you so” moment.
You knew in your heart, that was an excuse. You weren’t sure how to say that, though, so you opted to address... well, maybe never. How productive would that be?
Then, not even 20 minutes later, someone else from a different department reached out to you — and not to ask about your weekend. Instead, she told you one of your employees jumped the gun and started working on a project that her team was already handling.
They're remote, so you hop on a video conference call with them to better understand the issue. Immediately, you see this peer is upset. Her team was understandably confused and coming to her about why your team member is working on their stuff — and she didn’t know what to tell them.
Your were sure your employee had the best intentions, but since that was the first you had heard about it, you didn’t know what to tell her.
"Great," you groan to yourself. "Now I look like an idiot."
You didn’t know what your team was working on, and this added one more meeting (or more) to get to the bottom of what’s going on.
Then (finally) it was time for your first (scheduled) meeting of the day — a one-on-one with your most challenging employee. You put these at the beginning of your day to get them over with.
But before you could even ask how they were doing today, this person lays into you about how stupid it is that leadership decided to restructure again.
They can’t believe that people aren’t thinking with their heads and can’t understand why they should have to put any more work into their day to make the restructure work on top of what they are already doing.
No matter what you said, this person refused to help and walked away from the meeting thinking you’re just as useless as leadership.
Afterward, you tried to center yourself:
"OK, so this wasn't the best way to start my day. But hey, the world isn't ending either, right?"
As if on cue, your boss called your cellphone.
Oh no. When he calls you on your cell, you know it’s urgent and... well, usually not good.
As soon as you pick up, your boss immediately starts barking orders and demanding why your team’s project was so late and why your employees were working on the wrong projects or not even at all.
He wasn’t yelling at you, but was definitely frustrated and venting that your team is not up to par.
Finally, the conversation ends, and you hang up.
Which brings us up to where you are right now:
Your team is pushing back on their responsibilities.
Your team is working on random projects.
Your team isn’t motivated and won’t work on things they don’t agree with.
In general, you feel pretty disrespected. No one is listening to you and when you try to exert some dominance, you get treated like you’re “the man” and nothing happens still.
What do you do?
Do you call each one of them up and bark orders at them like your boss did to you?
Or is there a better way?
You have too many fires to put out with your team
If you know anything about me and/or IMPACT, you know the answer to this already —there’s definitely a better way to drive outcomes on your team. But first, know you’re not alone in feeling the frustration of managing a team that is disjointed and/or not producing.
You can turn the ship around, so to speak, but you will need to change what you’re doing. If you’re not willing to change, then you might as well stop reading.
However, if you’re willing to be open to the idea that you are part of the problem and need to look at what you’re doing that’s causing your current situation, then keep going. We’re addressing exactly what you need to do differently.
"Wait, how am I part of the problem?"
Obviously, you’re open enough to read this far, but you still may be thinking, “My team is the one with issues, not me. Why do I need to change?”
Here’s a hard truth. You need to accept that your team is a direct reflection of you and your leadership capabilities.
This encompasses hiring the right people in the right seats, retaining the right people, firing those who are not a good fit and hitting your team’s performance metrics. Most people in this situation are not hitting their performance metrics and/or they’re churning employees left and right.
The easy excuse is to blame your people. It’s also extremely surface-level and you will never fix your problem if you continue to do so.
Below, you'll find a list of common scenarios that can create challenges for leaders who are trying to manage their team effectively. It may seem rather harsh, but I assure you my intent is not to kick you while you're down.
Instead of reacting, I want you to read through each of them and ask yourself to honestly consider whether or not it's something you're guilty of. ("The first step is admitting you have a problem," right?)
OK, without further ado, here are the most common reasons why your team may be underperforming, or you're experiencing high turnover rates:
You aren’t providing enough guidance on what they should be focusing on, so everything is a priority. When everything is a priority...well, you get the rest.
Your team doesn’t understand how the work they do matters in the company. You don’t spend time educating on the big picture. They just need to focus on what they’re responsible for. This leaves your top performers unfulfilled.
When your team has a big goal to achieve, you are the one that has to own how things get done. You might solicit input from your team, but ultimately you make decisions on how the team will hit the goal. This completely takes away ownership and innovation from your team.
When an employee comes to you with feedback, you minimize it, brush it aside or worse, do nothing with it letting the issue they brought up fester and never get solved. Nothing kills initiative like someone making you feel like your ideas don’t matter.
You have an employee who is gossiping and sabotaging company culture that you aren’t doing anything about because they are the only one getting results. You know it’s a problem but you feel like you’d have a bigger problem if you let them go. This is the last person you should want to retain on your team because they’re driving everyone else out.
In simple terms, you have created an environment of compliance, not commitment, in any of these scenarios.
(Again, if you see yourself in any of these, don't stress. I have been guilty of all of these at one point or another, which is why I know the pain you feel so well. I’ve also gotten out of it, so face these truths head on right now. It will pay off.)
"What's the matter with seeking compliance from my team? Isn't compliance a good thing?"
A compliance environment is one where you are the dictator of all that happens in your team. This doesn’t mean you yell at your team like a drill sergeant. (Although it can.) It means you unnecessarily insert yourself and kill the autonomy of your team.
Maybe you do it because you’re nervous things won’t happen unless you’re there. Maybe you do it because you thought you were being helpful.
But people who like challenges and thrive when pushed are bored to tears in a compliance environment. The ones who like being told what to do are the ones who stay.
Is that the team you want?
Do you like having a revolving door of employees?
Do you like the feeling of constantly training new team members up, diverting focus away from helping your other employees and hitting your team performance metrics?
Of course not.
That’s where you are at today, but it doesn’t have to be where you are tomorrow. And you can make the pivot by creating an environment of commitment, rather than compliance, within your team.
Creating an environment of commitment
In contrast to compliance, a commitment environment is one where your team members do their work because they want to, not because they have to. They are motivated because they feel empowered and see how the work they do matters.
They feel a sense of pride in what they deliver because they had full ownership of it. Even when you are asking more of them, they understand why and are willing to put in the extra work.
How do you create this environment as a leader?
1. Define the "what"
Start with aligning your team’s purpose within the overall company.
At IMPACT, we have annual company goals and key metrics everyone is working toward. Each team plays a part in accomplishing those key metrics and sets quarterly goals to move the ball forward. Everyone knows what we are working on and we all stay focused.
This eliminates any Sally Sues you may have on your team from working on a project that has nothing to do with your team. Instead, Sally Sue can now see what the focus areas are for the team and how her talents can help — but more on that in step three.
2. Define the "why"
It’s one thing to have goals, but if the team doesn’t understand why they exist, you’ll get feedback from the Johnny Appleseeds who think leadership is stupid. You team needs to understand the big picture of why they’re doing what they’re doing.
For example, at IMPACT we restructured in June this year as an iteration to our last restructure in December.
If we had said a passing comment in our all hands meeting about a restructure and left it at that, it would not have been a pretty picture. You see, we employ adults. Adults who are smart, hard-working, loyal, and incredible human beings.
By not offering a transparent explanation of why — which by the way, they had all been interviewed and been part of developing what our restructure was going to be (again, more about that in step three) — we would have made them feel like we were treating them like children.
It may be easier or faster to just tell people to get something done, but when you hold back the purpose, then they have no purpose. You are left with order takers.
3. Let your people figure out the "how"
Once your team knows what they should be focusing on and why, you’re only job from there is to provide some guardrails and help remove impediments. This means offering some guidelines to the solution you’re looking for, but not dictating what the solution is.
Going back to our restructure example, we knew we had some issues with the old structure and knew we wanted them fixed by the third quarter.
Some guardrails we provided were that clients could not feel any turbulence whatsoever and, however the new teams were formed, they needed to be able to solve for end-to-end responsibilities.
We then talked to a few of the biggest proponents of a new structure and got their ideas on paper. And then we took those ideas and talked to everyone else, and iterated each time based on the feedback.
Although leadership helped coordinate feedback, everyone built what we have together.
Our paid media team is another great example. The paid media specialists used to be on separate teams, but came together as part of the restructure in June. They had to hit a certain revenue goal in June and were looking at a pretty big gap at the start of the month.
The guardrails we gave were to ensure their current clients didn’t feel underserved, that we weren’t making other clients feel like we were just selling to them and that they didn’t work themselves into the ground to hit it, making it unprofitable and not a worthy challenge.
Rather than go to all their meetings and tell them exactly what to do, we stepped back.
They knew exactly what they needed to do and why, and the only ones who were going to figure out how to reach the goal was them.
In 30 days, they exceeded their revenue goal by developing a tripwire product that eased the friction in the sales process, consequently speeding it up and leading to a full program at a much faster close rate than we’d ever had.
They found efficiencies within their processes to ease the workload and open up capacity to take on more revenue.
They hosted live Q-and-As on Facebook to build demand and worked with our sales and marketing teams to create SOW templates, website page descriptions, and pillar pages to make it super simple to sign up a new client.
I would have never have thought of all of that, and even if I had, I certainly would not have been able to get everyone to do it within 30 days. But they owned it and they are proud of what they accomplished, as they should be!
I didn’t need to think of anything. I just needed to help set “the what” and “the why,” provide the guardrails and support and let them do their thing.
Let’s back up to the very beginning with No Time Tracy who was upset with you for making her manage a project she didn’t think she could do. In this situation going forward, who cares if she manages the project? That may sound flippant, but seriously, what you care about is that the project is completed correctly and on time.
By aligning it with the goals of the company and team, explaining why it’s important and providing any guardrails, next time the team can decide how they’ll handle the project.
Maybe they’re divide and conquer. Maybe a different project manager will manage it while No Time Tracy takes her other work to make it feasible. Whatever they decide, they decided it and will buy into it.
Your job is to hold them accountable to it and help them when needed.
Systems to keep your new environment thriving
This all probably sounds hunky dory, right? In theory it makes total sense, and maybe you’ve had a light bulb moment today. However, how do continue the commitment environment as you get slammed with all kinds of priorities and challenges from the team?
Here are a few ways to ensure your team has the support to stay autonomous and continue working on the right things:
One-on-ones: Use this time to break down impediments. Oftentimes, impediments are self-imposed, and you can help your employee see this for themselves with good communication. If it’s not self-inflicted, you can use your time helping your team resolve these smaller issues before they become giant, “OMG we missed the deadline on this project!” problems.
Team meetings: Continue to reinforce the team goals and priorities on a regular cadence (usually weekly). Talk about impediments as a team. Celebrate your wins. Facilitate brainstorming to continue progress.
Communicate up: Keep your manager informed of your team’s progress. Even if you work for someone who would be uneasy with this approach, once your results start speaking for themselves, they’re buy in too.
"OK, I think I've got it... but where do I start?"
Start with understanding “the what” and “the why” yourself. Meet with your management if you don’t feel confident to articulate it to others.
Once you understand, you can start with the steps outlined above.
It may seem daunting, but you can start tomorrow. You’ve already started in realizing you need to make some changes in your management style.
Now it’s time to align your team and enable them to do what they do best.