Building an Effective Team: Seven Steps to Move Out of Chaos


I recently began coaching an up-and-coming manager we will call Nathan. The organization sees great potential in this manager, and they have put him in charge of a department that has been underperforming despite having talented people in place. During our first meeting, Nathan went over his goals with me, and they were ambitious. Too ambitious.

I stopped him to ask Nathan what level he thought his team was performing at now. He admitted that he didn’t have confidence that they could work well together, and he was worried about some of his best people burning out. Nathan believed his team could produce incredible results, but he first needed to take the time to create the structure and order his team needed in order to meet those expectations.

Before you promise something you cannot deliver, take the time to identify where your team is now. We often identify teams in one of three states:  chaos, stability, or high performance. While most all team leaders want to strive for a high performing team, it is essential first to make sure your team is at least in a stable state and not in a chaotic one.

If your team is performing inconsistently, is overworked and burned out, is mired in dysfunction, or you don’t have confidence in the team’s ability to work together,  then the team is in a state of chaos. As much as you’d like to get your team to high performance, you first need to move them from chaos to stability. Follow these seven specific actions to transform your team from chaos to stability.

Your team must know and understand the overall corporate goals and direction and how they relate to it. Large organizational goals can be nebulous and how the day-to-day work of individuals on the team fits into the larger picture may not be immediately apparent.

Talk through goals and clarify what they mean to your team as a whole and as individuals. Tie team and individual work product to the corporate goals to show them how they make a difference.  Create team based goals and not just individual based goals. In addition to having a single point of accountability, consider sharing the decision making responsibility among team members for select projects to create a team focused effort with joint accountability.

Communication:  Develop Information Sharing and Communication Approaches

Facilitate the building of trust among your team by standardizing what information gets shared and how. Create a common practice of sharing as much information as possible and improve communication by clarifying how and where to share it. Examples could be email, shared drives, regular updates in meetings, or chat channels.  Resist the belief that knowledge is power and that hoarding knowledge ensures more power for the individual. Share reporting, insights, and observations on how decision making happens so the team can better influence and partner better throughout the organization.

Roles:  Define Roles and Responsibilities

Having unclear roles or responsibilities can be stressful for team members and generally creates chaos. Take the time to map out the tasks that your team needs to complete to consistently produce results, then assign each task to a role. During this process, any gaps will become clear.

Collaborate with your team and incorporate their ideas to achieve buy-in.  This process also helps clarify what people need to stop doing so they can focus on their primary responsibilities.  Continue this discussion until what team members say they do matches what they actually do. Reinforce these responsibilities during your one-on-one conversations and provide on-going adjustment, feedback, and clarity as conflicts arise.

Performance:  Develop and Communicate Clear Expectations and Performance Objectives

Ensure that team members understand the expectations by defining how and when tasks get completed. By setting ground rules for each job, you can help your team work effectively and efficiently.

This activity sets the quality level for every task-- the number of allowed errors, pre-reads needed, material due dates, and the level of personal initiative expected by team members.

Accountability:  Hold Yourself and Others Accountable

The first step in creating accountability within your team is to demonstrate it by holding yourself accountable first. Your actions are highly visible to your team. If you gloss over any missteps on your part, your team will know. Create a schedule to follow-up on tasks and let your team members know you will be checking in with them.  Deliver on what you commit to and expect your team to start doing the same--no excuses. Ensure assumptions aren’t made about due dates, roles, and other considerations vital to successful completion. Provide solutions instead of identifying problems.

Rules:  Define Personnel Policies and Behavior Norms

Provide your team with policies that structure their work. Perhaps you have additional flexibility or needs from your team, including, hours of availability, how to handle severe weather, data management, or disciplinary actions. Each potential area needs to be defined so that team members understand and can refer to team policies.

It’s equally important to address behavior norms. These may be expectations for people working from a different location or what a timely response to an email is. Be sure to help your team understand acceptable work styles and appropriate attitudes.

Process:  Develop Technical and Workflow Processes and Procedures

Successful teams rely on repeatable processes to achieve results, and documenting and defining these will prevent any breakdowns that can be caused by personnel or business changes.

Work with your team to document and develop any processes or procedures they currently use and any that need greater definition. By problem-solving together, your team may identify areas in which work can be automated or eliminated. Take the time here to engage in some cross-training and collaboration to increase people development, build greater team trust, and reduce risk.

This step provides a roadmap that will guide individuals and your team as a whole to be consistent and reliable in their results.

Managing a team is an amazing experience that can produce moments of intense pride and yet also deep frustration.  As you strive for high performance, first identify where your team is at--are they in a chaotic state, a stable state, or a high performing state.

If they are in a chaotic state, use the above seven steps to build a strong foundation to elevate their performance to a level of consistency and stability.  Be transparent with the team that this is the goal and allow them to rise to the occasion. Most teams want to be high performing and are looking for the path forward.  Show them the way with these seven steps and lead them to great success!

Originally published on HR Gazette