How to Identify & Prevent Potential Problems in Team Settings

Instructor: Scott Tuning

Scott has been a faculty member in higher education for over 10 years. He holds an MBA in Management, an MA in counseling, and an M.Div. in Academic Biblical Studies.

One of the marks of a great team leader is the ability to anticipate and preemptively address team problems. This lesson provides practical tips for identifying and preventing team problems.

High-Performance Teams

One of the most important skills for team leaders to develop is the ability to anticipate problems and respond to them before they reach a critical stage. Along with a few other important skills, preventing problems before they begin is a hallmark of a high-performance team. High-performance teams are special because they deliver exceptional work products on-time and on-budget.

You will probably recognize some of these great examples of high-performance teams.

Why Teams Succumb to Problems

Mission, Vision, and Values

High-performance teams always have members with lots of enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is important because of it's a jump-starter for self-motivation. The caveat about enthusiasm is that it only works when people genuinely believe in the goal or act out of a sense of purpose. The lack of a well-defined goal is one reason that teams run into problems.

Lack of focus and apathy plague teams that lack a clear and meaningful purpose.

Team leaders can look for several signs as early indicators that problems related to the team's purpose are coming up. One of the most obvious signs is apathy. Apathy is what happens when people don't care anymore. They don't work hard, they don't play hard, and they don't contribute very much. The team leader should identify this in any situation, but they should be especially concerned if it develops in a team member who used to display enthusiasm.

An inability to work well together can be a sign that problems are on the horizon.

The other sign that a team is lacking strategic direction is that its members cannot agree on anything. They disagree about how to achieve goals, don't like working together, and any meetings or discussions quickly wander far off course.

When team leaders see the signs, they should intervene by increasing focus on the shared purpose. Additionally, the leader should ensure that the purpose is clear and that the team is inspired to work toward a meaningful goal.

Leadership Problems

In any environment, leaders will rise. Make no mistake, this doesn't mean that good leaders will step up. When a team lacks the right kind of leadership, someone will always fill the void. When the individual hasn't been selected as the leader, there is substantial uncertainty about how they will influence the team. To mitigate the risk that the team leader will have to forcefully take leadership back from their own team, it is important that they practice shared leadership.

It's important to note that shared leadership isn't actually a purely democratic process. Leaders who share power don't take a vote about every decision. Shared leadership is the process of considering other paradigms, options, or methods.

When team leaders observe members of the team beginning to reach beyond their assigned roles and functions, it is their responsibility to redirect in a tactful but clear manner. For example, they might provide clear direction or reward shared leadership.

Process, Workflow, and Responsibility

Another surefire sign that a team is headed for trouble is when no one takes responsibility for the team's tasks. When a team is functioning cohesively, members take personal responsibility for their assignments, but they also take responsibility for the team as a whole. When team members start standing by, knowing that a problem exists, but do not intervene because it is someone else's issue, it's time for the team leader to step in and talk about shared responsibility.

This problem can give rise to a second significant challenge associated with process and workflow. These two terms described the systematic method the team uses to operate. It outlines the roles of the individuals on the team, and it documents how the team will go about producing its desired work product. Workflow problems are easy to spot because they all manifest in the same way: with finger pointing. Finger pointing results when everyone on the team points at someone else, and no one understood or executed what should have been done. On the other hand, high performers focus on what they can do to fix the situation.

Confusion is a sure sign that the team needs some guidance from the team leader.

In addition to early identification, team leaders can reduce the potential for these types of problems by thinking carefully about process rather than making poor decisions as a reaction. It is also important to provide clear measurable performance objectives, team agreements and clear group norms, as well as adaptable roles.

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