10 ways to kill a team

Sébastien Dubois / August 20, 2020

9 min read

Great teams are hard to craft but much easier to break.

Broken. Picture courtesy of https://unsplash.com/@jilburr

In this article, I’ll discuss some issues that can quickly destroy a team.

Whether you’re the management/team leader or a member of the team, there are many aspects of team dynamics that you can deeply influence. Be careful because what you do and what you accept can have a long-lasting impact on your team.

Don’t listen to your team

If you’re leading a team, then you need to have enough confidence/trust in the group as a whole. If you don’t listen to what your team says, then you’re a sort of dictator and it won’t take long before people get demotivated.

You might have a solid vision for the future, but if your team doesn’t believe in it or at least share it with you, then you won’t get where you want. For a team to be acting as one, it must be listened to.

Your role as a team leader is to get the best out of everyone, and that starts by listening carefully to what everyone has to say. Including when making project plans!

If you’re part of the team, then your duty is to do everything to be heard. Do share your opinion and your ideas, even if not asked specifically. It’s way too easy to let others decide and criticize later on.

Don’t have empathy

Listening is one thing, but being empathetic is another. This is much harder because it’s not something you can (or should!) fake. Either you are able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, or you aren’t.

If you’re a manager/leader without true and honest empathy, then I must say that I somehow pity you. You might be the perfect corporate drone, but you’re certainly not ready to support the work of others.

The same is true within the team itself. If you’re not truly paying attention to your teammates, then you’re not helping to create a positive and motivating environment to work in.

Personally, even if I keep a barrier between work and personal life, I don’t like being in a team of strangers. It’s weird and feels bad. I care about the people I work with and I’m always listening and reflecting on what others think/feel. It’s indeed tiresome, but it helps to find out how to ask for something, whether now is a good time to have a certain discussion, etc. This eases collaboration and usually helps the team be more efficient. Moreover, I feel more connected with my colleagues and try to help whenever I can.

Set impossible deadlines

Deadlines can be great productivity boosters. Up to a certain point.

If a deadline is impossible to meet, then it puts too much needless pressure on the team. A good project manager must have confidence in the timeline. And for the timeline to be somewhat realistic, it needs to take into account the resources, the constraints, but also the estimates provided by the team itself. This indeed relates to the previous points: listen to what your experts have to say. If you don’t, then why did you hire them in the first place?

Putting too much pressure on a group is a perfect recipe for breaking a team. People that are under too much pressure for too long will either burn out or leave to protect themselves (and rightly so!).

Don’t set clear goals

A team without clear objectives is just a wandering soul, stuck in a dead zone. If you start each day without a clear goal in mind, then you’re going nowhere; the same is true for your team and their career.

Not setting goals at all or setting unclear ones is a great way to quickly demotivate everyone. Teams need to be challenged all the time. It’s good to have a north star to go towards or a higher camp to climb up to.

If you’re in charge, then it’s your duty to gather ideas, create a shared vision, make plans with your team, set realistic goals, and push towards those.

If you’re in the team, then it’s also up to you to try and get clarity. Otherwise, how are you going to move forward with your career? You need to know what you can achieve for the organization to bring value to it.

It might sound silly, but goals really do need to be S.M.A.R.T:

  • Specific: if it’s too vague, then you won’t get where you want
  • Measurable: Goals need to be meaningful and specific enough so that people can remain motivated. Also, you need to have a way to evaluate progress towards those
  • Achievable: A goal that’s too large or too complex can take months to achieve or not even be within reach. People need to be able to witness actual/regular progress
  • Relevant: Goals need to make sense (heh). Nobody wants to do needless work; it’s meaningless and demotivating. Also, to be relevant, goals must take reality into account: available resources, skills, etc
  • Time-bound: If you don’t know if a task should take a day or a month, then it’ll probably take even longer. Goals are time-sensitive and should never be set too far in the future, otherwise, it’s hard to stay motivated for a long time

Don’t track progress

A team that is not held accountable for its work cannot work efficiently. After a while, people will care less and less. If there are no regular progress reviews, course correction is not possible. Delays accumulate and sloppiness becomes the norm.

A healthy team needs to track its KPIs and to try and improve those over time. Great teams go further and focus on continuous improvement. There are always opportunities to improve, don’t fail to identify those.

Don’t innovate

Teams that are stuck in the past are bound to become obsolete at some point.

Processes need to be reviewed regularly and ideas for innovation should be taken into account, even if it decreases throughput for a while.

Without innovation, it’s hard to remain relevant. Techniques that were great 20 years ago might still be perfect, but they might also be completely irrelevant in today’s world.

Things change fast, so you need to keep innovating. And this is true for all organizations.

Don’t pay attention to the bus factor

I’ve discussed the bus factor in a previous article.

As a manager, you should keep track of the important knowledge within your team. There should always be at least two persons knowing about each process/task/ongoing work. Otherwise, you’re not far away from a disaster.

Don’t communicate

Without proper communication, it’s really difficult for a team to be effective.

Communication within the team is critical, but also communication between the organization and the team. The managers in place should make sure that information is passed down in an open and effective way. If you’re in charge and participate in meetings with other parts of the organization, then pay attention to share whatever you learn with your team. Don’t withhold information. Otherwise, you’re preventing your team from adapting to external circumstances and plan ahead.

For this purpose, meeting management solutions can help as they make it much easier to share meeting minutes around and create visibility for outcomes and decisions. Hold a meeting? Take notes within the tool and share the link once you’re done. Clean and simple.

On the other way around, it’s also important for the team to communicate with the outside world and to let others know about what’s going on, decisions that are being made, work that gets completed, and current plans. Without that, great work might remain unnoticed and coordination with other groups will suffer. In addition, people will not get the recognition that they deserve.

Create islands where everyone works on their own

If you have a team of 10, but everyone works alone, then you don’t have one team, but ten teams of one.

I’ve discussed this point in my previous article and I want to insist on the fact that a team should self-organize. A manager’s role is not to dictate how everything should be done and by whom. That just demonstrates a lack of trust in the team’s ability to organize itself and deliver on its own. Command & control is an outdated managerial model. In addition, that way or organizing work puts people in boxes, and that’s bad for many reasons (e.g., career development, creativity, motivation, etc).

If you isolate team members, then you’re creating separate groups that are much less able to help each other. Ultimately you’re hurting the team’s productivity, creativity, morale, and well-being.

Teams work together, not alone.

Do this for too long and people will certainly leave.

Micro-manage your colleagues

Micro-management is incredibly hurtful to teams.

If you second guess everything, continually intervene to determine timing, scope, approach, and/or execution, then you’re killing the team.

Once again, teams should be able to self-organize. If you’re in charge then you may act as a “client” (i.e., you need something), but you should not control how everything is done and by whom.

If you bring your car for a check-up, then you probably won’t stay next to the car the whole time and make comments about everything. Just picture the situation; do you think the mechanic would appreciate you doing that? I guess not.

Team members that are constantly micro-managed tend to either leave out of frustration/resentment or stop thinking and wait for the next instructions to come in. Either way, the team’s losing productivity, motivation, and creativity.

Conclusion

There is a myriad of ways to destroy a team. It’s actually quite simple if you ask me. In this article, I’ve listed a few of those, hoping that you can avoid those and create awesome work environments for you and your colleagues to enjoy.

In the next article, I’ll explore some other issues.

That’s it for today!

PS: check out my Dev Concepts books, join the Software Crafters community, the Personal Knowledge Management community, and come say hi on Twitter!
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