Overcome the Obstacles to an Effective Team

Overcome the Obstacles to an Effective Team

There are a lot of things you can say about building an effective team, but "easy" isn't one of them. The ways in which a team can go wrong are as varied as the people who comprise them. The important thing to remember is that a team isn't so much about the people who are in it, as it is about the task at hand. Keeping this in mind can be helpful when things get sticky.

Fortunately, few of the obstacles are impossible to overcome. Here are the most common ways in which a team can fail, along with practical tips for turning problems into solutions.

Your Leader Is the Weak Link

Ideally, a leader is the person who points the team in the right direction. Sometimes, though, a leader just isn't up to the job. In that case, says Zachary Green, senior scholar at the University of Maryland's Burns Academy of Leadership, "people with informal authority need to take up the slack." But isn't that insubordination? Not as long as you behave appropriately.

One's first allegiance should not be to the immediate superior, but to the organization's mission. If a leader has weaknesses that undermine your team's effectiveness, it is not only your right, but also your responsibility, to compensate for those weaknesses with your own strengths. This doesn't mean that you sit around all day plotting the overthrow of your boss. Rather, ask yourself how you can best serve your leader and organization, and then follow through.

Personal Conflicts Are Taking Over

From time to time, it's inevitable that personal issues will get in the way of teamwork. For instance, if John and Sue have a big fight, it's likely they'll shoot each other's ideas down, no matter how good they happen to be. "This is all about ego needs and has nothing to do with the work that needs to get done," Green says. This must be addressed and dealt with, or else John and Sue need to leave the team.

Only a Few Carry the Team's Load

Sometimes it's easier just to hang back and let the team's real go-getters take over. The problem with this scenario is that no one or two people can carry the entire team's workload for long. Sooner or later, the shining stars will get a clue about what's going on and will stop killing themselves to get the work done -- and the entire team will go down as a result. "Some people get a sense of gratification from being needed all the time," Green says. "But obviously, one person can't meet everyone's needs."

Self-Interest Is the Name of the Game

Who hasn't encountered the colleague who's always on the lookout for number one? Often, the problem is more complex than one difficult employee. On a team, Green says, this problem is likely to to build critical mass, until several people are bucking for a promotion, often at the expense of everyone else. "They withhold information from the team and then catch the boss alone," he says. "What happens is that the team's fiber of trust gets eroded."

Sometimes, all you need to do is open up a dialogue with the people who are disrupting the team. If that doesn't work, they'll simply have to leave. Jim Jose, an organizational effectiveness strategist and leadership coach based in Tucson, remembers a member of a team he was leading whose self-serving behavior was wreaking havoc on everyone else. "I called her on it," he recalls. "I told her, 'Here's the standard I expect, here's the standard your teammates expect, and if you can't operate on that level, you'll have to leave.'"

She eventually did leave. Immediately after her departure, Jose called his team together, sat them down and told them they had 30 minutes to come up with a plan to increase the team's performance. "They came up with 'Take care of ourselves, take care of each other, avoid listening to gossip, and deliver quality goods and services to our customers,'" Jose says. "That's a super team mantra."