How do you lead a bad team?
May 24, 2010 11:50 AM   Subscribe

You're thrust into a leadership position. Of a bad team. What do you do?

I see three options:

1) I quit
2) I replace bad team members
3) I make my team better

I realize that every situation depends on context, the makeup of the team, etc., but how do you know when one of these options is definitely better than the other? What other options am I missing?
posted by NoRelationToLea to Human Relations (20 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
A leader typically finds the strengths of a team and capitalizes on them to make them efficient. Although the members provide the expertise, a strong leader can bring them together enough to get the job done. Assuming you were given the job as a test of your abilities, #1 and #2 are not options.
posted by JJ86 at 11:54 AM on May 24, 2010

Never set up a team member up for failure. Take the bad people and find things they can be good at and that don't bring the rest of the team down.
posted by furtive at 12:00 PM on May 24, 2010 [2 favorites]

Define "bad team."

Are some or all of the individual employees underskilled? If so, get them the training they need. Are they subverting the team's goals? If so, determine why, and solve the underlying problem. Poor morale? Determine why and solve the underlying problem. Individually skilled but don't work well together? Determine what the source of the conflicts are, and solve them or work around them.

You won't be able to lead this team if you can't come up with a more explicit explanation of what's not working than "they're bad." (Or for that matter a clearer solution than "make them better".)
posted by ook at 12:02 PM on May 24, 2010

You start with the option that's least final, and work down to final options. So, for you:

1. Try to make your team better, through motivation, reassignment of duties, getting obstacles out of their way, lubricating conflict points, and whatever other means are appropriate for the group's specific issues, working with your manager to validate your plans and actions beforehand and track progress. When dealing with issues specific to a person, keep an HR-approved paper trail, and make sure your messages are clear and consistent (as to where they're succeeding, where they're failing, and what they need to do in the future.)

If that fails, it will fail because one or more members just don't want to or cannot change, and you have been unable to route around the damage (perhaps because of institutional or managerial obstacles), so...

2. Try to move those team members out of the way, or replace them entirely, using the methods appropriate as determined by HR and your manager, and ensuring the responsibilities of the team will be fulfilled during the transition.

If that fails, it will fail because your team is not supporting your attempts to improve things, and your company/manager are not supporting your attempts to rework the team as necessary -- or because you're not very good at this. At that point...

3. Let your boss know you feel you've met an impasse. You should already have been keeping your manager in the loop on your activities and progress (or lack thereof), so this shouldn't be a conversation that surprises him or her -- instead, it should be a "Well, we've tried x, y, z, and even that hail-mary you recommended, but it's not working. Do you feel that the problem is with my implementation of what we've discussed, or is this a problem that requires moving higher up to get resolution?"

Your boss may state it's your implementation, and you should be open to revising it at his/her direction. Your boss may go to the higher-ups to remove the obstacles you can't get past. Both of these are good.

However, your boss may also say "oh, well, just deal with it" or "it's you, and I'm going to demote you/replace you with someone else who knows what they're doing." If either of those things happen, think long and hard about it -- at which point you...

4a. Suck it up, or
4b. Quit.

Good luck!
posted by davejay at 12:04 PM on May 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Oh, one more thing: the job of being a manager is, by definition, the type of thing I just outlined. Even if you were put in charge of a perfect team, that team's perfection was either a happy accident or a finely-crafted arrangement by a previous manager, and so you're going to have to work to maintain it so it doesn't drift into suckage.

In fact, the further you get up the chain, the more you realize that the specific issues of the job are difficult, but keeping people happy and effective and motivated is just as hard, and sometimes (like with your new team) harder. But this is what a manager needs to be good at.

So don't look at this like a bad situation you're being thrust into; look at it like a bad situation that your boss is confident you'll be able to turn around. Your boss thinks you can be a manager, or you wouldn't be there in the first place (unless you're a sacrificial lamb, but we don't have any reason to believe that currently, do we?)
posted by davejay at 12:08 PM on May 24, 2010

The third is your real option, if you're asking how to lead a bad team (how can you lead the team if you quit?). You can't bring a hopeless attitude with you into this situation. Stay task oriented and do the best you can with the people who you have. Don't make this about past performance. This is a chance for everyone on the team to start over with a new boss, so don't take that away from them, and don't assume that bad performance = bad people.

It may be that your boss already knew the team was bad when he/she assigned you there, so this could be some kind of test of your abilities. As a positive, depending how terrible things are, chances are that you really have to screw up to make things worse, so there's no direction to go but up.
posted by _cave at 12:08 PM on May 24, 2010

Appreciative Team Building is a wonderful little book. I could not do without it. It contains all kinds of guidance, questions/exercises for your team, and suggestions as to how you can build up your team using Appreciative Inquiry (a positively focused tool for change). Really work with your team in a positive way, building on their strengths, before you even think about giving up on them. Often, a "bad team" is just one that has been poorly managed, is used to doing things in a non-productive way, hasn't jelled and learned to really communicate, etc. You can absolutely turn this dynamic around and come out the other end with a terrific team, in most cases. Good luck.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 12:12 PM on May 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

You really have to define how they're bad. To abuse the Anna Karenina quote, good teams are all alike; each bad team is bad in its own way.

Furthermore, what are the drawbacks to your 3 provided options. If you quit as the leader, will you be seen as someone who cannot lead, and forever be relegated to a team member role? Will you be working on a different project/goal? If you replace the "bad" members, where do they go, and where do you get good members? Are you putting burdens on other teams?
posted by filthy light thief at 12:14 PM on May 24, 2010

I suspect that if you quit without trying, it's going to be a bitch to explain to the next employer and reflect badly on you. Unless you have the next job locked down and in writing, you're probably better-served to put in a good-faith effort to improve the team.

What's wrong with them? Are they jerks? Do they feel overly entitled and slack off as a result? Do they have impossible tons of work to do and people who expect nothing less than perfection on the other end?
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 12:14 PM on May 24, 2010

You forgot the option where you ask yourself if you even aspire to a leadership position. Some people simply don't want it. Don't want to deal with the politics etc. that come with the position.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:21 PM on May 24, 2010

Response by poster: I actually kept things vague because part of me was wondering if there was a generalizable answer here.

Full context: this is fundamentally about an amateur sports team. Some people have improved, or have shown the potential to improve. Others have either no desire to improve, or no ability to do so, or an unwillingness to listen to advice. This isn't a workplace, and I find it interesting that (at least in my mind) my quitting (to join a team with fewer issues, more talent) or my cutting people is a much less viable option if it were a workplace situation, instead.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 12:22 PM on May 24, 2010

A sports team! That certainly changes certain aspects of the advice I'd give.

With a sports team, you have a lot more leeway for kicking people off the team, and there is (or should be) an environment better suited to pushing hard for measurable improvement and calling out bad performance (then working to get it improved.) There's also a lot less paperwork, obviously.

Still, the advice stands. Ultimately, be it sports team or some other organization, the members all have to be good (enough) at what they do as a baseline, and able to communicate effectively, and willing to put in the effort to improve themselves and work effectively as a team. If some members can't or won't do it, you'll have to bench 'em for a while or replace them entirely.


This is an amateur sports team? Ask yourself: what is the goal of this team, and this organization? Is it to win, or to have a good time? If it's the latter, don't get hung up on your own desire to win -- go with the flow and focus your energies on making sure people are having a good time. It's not like these guys are getting paid, so why should they care if you're trying to make them better and win more games, if they're not having a good time in the process?
posted by davejay at 12:34 PM on May 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Do they even WANT to win or improve? I've been on sports teams where the only goal was to have fun and hang out a couple times a week. That might upset some team members who want to excel. If not everyone has the same goals, or doesn't communicate them, that creates a lot of internal tension and the team won't ever work together.

I think a good first step is to sit everyone down and ask them what they want to get out of the experience. If they want to win, why aren't they trying to improve? If they don't want to try, maybe they belong in another league. Once you've defined a "mission statement" that everyone can agree on (win the championship, make it to the playoffs, win half our games), you can start to pinpoint problems and opportunities to highlight individual strengths.

Thinking of this in terms of sports but goes for anything I think.
posted by ista at 12:45 PM on May 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

One question to consider: Is the lack of desire to improve/unwillingness to listen to advice due to the players themselves, or is it due to crappy/nonexistent leadership leading up to your being put in charge? One organization I belong to is experiencing a situation with where the latter is the case; there's a ton of potential, but for want of any real leadership over the last several years nobody knows what's expected of them. It doesn't even occur to many of them to ask if anything's expected of them.

People assume a leader will set the tone and give some kind of direction, and when that's not forthcoming things everyone just sort of drifts along. Long-time members get frustrated and tune out, and new people who come along are unimpressed by what they find and tune out as well.

And on preview, yes: It seems like a key issue to sort out where players fall on the "play to have fun" versus "play to win" spectrum, and make a decision where to try and take things based on that even if it means having difficult conversations recommending some people leave and look for a better match; I'd think it would be difficult (impossible?) to try and make both types happy on one team.
posted by usonian at 1:08 PM on May 24, 2010

I would argue, as jsta sort of mentions, that being "good" isn't necessarily the goal of an amateur sports team. I have been on not-very-good amateur sports teams. When someone came in and tried to "fix" that, it just ruined all of the fun, and I quit.

It could have maybe been better if we had focussed more on improving our skills for the sake of improved skills, but once it was about winning it just totally sucked. I don't want to be on a team that cares about winning, that's not the point of it for me, and is why I'm almost never willing to do team sports, because one annoying person (or over-eager coach) can kill everything good about playing sports for me.
posted by brainmouse at 1:33 PM on May 24, 2010

I would think that members of a competitive sports team would be more inclined to work at being better. The the whole point of playing sports is to win and be the best. I would find it hard to believe that there are players that don't want to win. Although I don't play sports, I work in an office team environment and have had crappy managers that discourage us from doing our best or to improve even when I want to be the best I can be.

I would tend to believe that the players who "have either no desire to improve, or no ability to do so, or an unwillingness to listen to advice" are previously mismanaged to the point of hopelessness. Again, a good manager can inspire them and give them the tools they need to succeed whether it is on the field or in the office. A manager has to know the game and be able to see where things can be improved but they have to also know how talk to the people on their team so those people are willing to give the extra effort.
posted by JJ86 at 2:19 PM on May 24, 2010

The phrase I've been given and use still is "Manage up or manage out". It's a shorthand way of looking at your options; I tend to focus (possibly too much) on the "manage up" part. It's where your training and team-building comes in, finding people's core competencies and giving them tasks that play to those strengths. It also is a good place to find people who's skills compliment each others and get them working towards a singular goal, attaching others that unit as possible.

Set clear expectations up front, and help your team achieve those goals. When they do, show them that you appreciate it, and start the process again with a more challenging goal.

But the "manage out" part is important too. And it's less of the "this person can't be made better and needs to be fired" approach, and more the, "let's see if we can find a position better suited to you" or "you don't seem to be happy here, what can I do to help you find a job that will provide you with what you need?"

It's worked for me so far. (In a non-sports environment, but I think a lot is probably applicable)
posted by quin at 3:47 PM on May 24, 2010

Until the team aligns on the goal of "play to win" vs. "play to have fun/socialize/exercise" you are going to be fighting an uphill battle and you risk being the jerk who couldn't let the fun time be fun time.

As for dealing with folks who don't have a desire to improve, perhaps you can find out what motivates them and work on that. I've heard it say that the mark of a good manager is finding out what unique things motivates each of his or her's reports.
posted by mmascolino at 8:47 PM on May 24, 2010

Echoing many others here that it'll help you to know the overall attitude of the team towards playing the game.

If you disagree with the vast majority of players, find another team. It'll be easier to move yourself than move everyone else. At the end of the day, amateur sports are supposed to be enjoyable, and I can't imagine that cutting most of your players would be a pleasant experience.

Otherwise: First see if you can trade away the outliers whose attitude would really damage team cohesion. It sucks being someone who is only there for fun on a overly critical, overly competitive team; but it sucks just as much to having other players negate your efforts at improving because they don't care enough to learn how to be in position. Both types can be bad apples if they're on the wrong team. Assuming the player you trade gets a better fit, you'll be doing everyone a favor.

After that, well you've got what you've got. quin's advice on playing to people's strengths is good. I'm not sure how possible it is to find niches for everyone; it really depends on the sport. In any case, there are few players who wouldn't enjoy having an actual role they do well on the team. Nobody wants to feel useless or like they're actively keeping the team from succeeding; that's not fun at all regardless of your motivations for being there. In my personal experience, being put in a role that played to my strengths was what motivated me to improve my overall game. I've seen this happen with other new players as well, so I know it wasn't unique to me.
posted by millions of peaches at 1:35 AM on May 25, 2010

I am one of the players you're talking about. I'm not (as far as I know) on your specific team, but I've been on teams, and I don't really have a strong desire or ability to improve. Nor do I care that I'm not playing as hard as I could or practicing to get better or whatever. That's just not my goal. I would suggest that if you take the team seriously, really really seriously, and make it clear to all of the players that the goal of the team is first and foremost to win games and only secondarily to have fun, the players who don't care about improving will quit or find another team. They won't like you, and you'll be left with a bunch of very serious players who want to take the sport seriously, which it sounds like is your goal. Just make your intentions clear, and the people like me who want to drink beer and throw stuff will leave on their own.
posted by decathecting at 10:20 AM on May 25, 2010

« Older "Nick Clegg"   |   Name that cartoon dog! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.