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Published on January 11, 2022

How to Manage a Failing Team (Or an Underperforming Team)

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How to Manage a Failing Team (Or an Underperforming Team)

Are you struggling to manage a failing team or underperforming team?

No one likes to talk about failure. Talking about failure requires us to be open, honest, and vulnerable. The conversation demands us to reflect on our role in the failure. Deep emotions follow when we open up and begin to look at where we—and others—missed the mark. Once we start to look and see where things fell apart, we have to determine the actions needed to turn it around. We need to realize that when failure is left alone, it is the beginning stage of death for any organization or team.

Managing a failing team can be very difficult. How you manage it will determine if the team indeed is failing or not. If you manage your team correctly, you can take a bad situation and turn it around together.

So how to manage a failing team? You can’t do this alone. It takes one person to get into a problem, but it takes a team to get out.

Reasons Why Your Team May Be Failing

Failure will either fuel innovation or place you into a state of paralysis and inaction due to fear. As a leader, it is your responsibility to lead your team through their failures. Even if you are the reason your team is failing, it is the responsibility of the leader to recognize the challenges and then work with your team to overcome them. How you manage a failing team will determine whether your organization will continue to exist.

Here are 5 common reasons why your team may be failing:

1. There’s Improper Placement of Your Team Members

A team is like a car. When the car is well maintained, it runs beautifully. But when the car suffers from neglect or you use the wrong parts in the wrong places, it stops working correctly.

The same goes with your team. High-performing teams are teams where their members are appropriately positioned. They are operating in their strengths while relying on others to cover their weaknesses.

When managing a failing team, start seeing if your team members are positioned correctly within the team structure. The chances are high that your team may be experiencing failure due to improper placement.

2. They Lack the Skill to Do the Job

When managing a failing team, one of the first questions we ask is if the team can perform their required tasks. Due to its simplicity, the initial response to this question may be an eye roll or a deep sigh.

Over the last 20 years of working with leaders, I have discovered that inadequately performing the task is at the root of many failures and failing teams.

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3. There’s a Lack of Continuing Personal Development

Lack of skill is one thing, but the lack of personal development is another problem altogether. The team can only perform to the level of their personal development.

If you find holes in the team’s skillset or leadership capacity, look to their personal and professional development level. The leadership capacity of you and your team is the lid on which the team can optimally operate. If you find your team is failing, take some time to evaluate whether or not you helped them lift their lid through focused personal development.

4. They Are Facing Personal Issues

When we talk about managing a failing team, the conversation about facing personal issues often goes missing. In the world of organizational leadership, management, and business owning, the focus has always been on productivity and completing assigned tasks.

The typical mindset is that we should leave our personal lives out of our professional ones. Yet, most people refuse to see that we cannot divorce our private lives from our public ones. If your team is failing, you will want to evaluate the team’s current mental and emotional health level.

Many business owners, leaders, and managers will take the position that emotional and mental health has no business within the business. Yet, since your team is made up of people and people are led by their emotions, there is a high probability that if your team is failing, it is due to personal issues affecting their health.

5. There Is Declining Morale

Another indicator of a failing team is declining morale.

When I served in the military, I noticed a trend. Productivity and success were directly related to the level of the crew’s morale. When the crew’s morale was high, productivity was high. When the crew’s morale was low, productivity was low. I watched this cycle over and over again.

If you are managing a failing team, it is time to discover the morale level within your team environment.

How to Manage a Failing Team

As leaders, the primary thing that we have to take seriously is that dysfunctional teams are underperforming and unproductive. The reality is that a dysfunctional team is a failing team. With that said, if our team is going to be successful, we have to shift from a reactive stance to a proactive one. We have to start asking the tough questions.

As leaders desiring to create a turnaround team, we must ask how to manage a failing team. In this one question, the focus isn’t on failing but on how we can take a failing team and turn it around to be successful.

Here are the 7 strategies to help you manage a failing team: (Note: There is no order to this list. Apply whatever one(s) that fit your needs)

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1. Define Success

A football play scores a when they cross into the endzone. At the end of the game, the winner with the most points on the board. If the endzone wasn’t clearly defined, there would be no way to know if the player scored. If the player can’t score, the team can’t win.

The travesty of most teams is that they are aiming for an undefined goal. The team is failing because it doesn’t know where to aim. If the team doesn’t know where to aim, then there is no hope for them to understand how to win.

If you want to manage a failing team and turn them into winners, the leader must define what a win looks like and how the team can score.

2. Coaching and Mentoring

The most significant difference between coaching and mentoring is the level of relationship. Both require a level of relationship, but I am convinced that mentoring demands a deeper level of connection. To put it simply, the coaching model relies more upon the Socratic method to guide their interactions.

Mentoring calls for developing a relationship that allows for truthful interchanges that push one to grow quickly. As a leader, it is imperative that we both coach and mentor our team. If you want to manage a failing team and turn them towards success, spend time coaching and mentoring them.

3. Be a Problem Solver, Not a Problem Finder

It is so easy to find problems. Something inside us can instantly pick up on what is wrong with a thing. Maybe it is some repressed trauma or a poor mindset.

Many leaders and managers will immediately complain about the situation when they perceive a problem. That is why most teams fail. They cannot change their focus from finding problems to finding solutions.

If you want to manage a failing team successfully, then change your perspective. Create a solutions-based culture. For example, If someone comes to you with a problem, they also have to offer you a few suggestions on fixing the problem. When you train your team to be solution-based thinkers, you are teaching the team to see every problem as an opportunity for innovation.

4. Become a Conductor

I remember the first time I co-conducted a spring concert at my high school. The perspective shift was intense. As a trumpet player, I was one of many. My whole job was to play the part I was given. When I took the conductor baton, I stood out and became the one many looked to for direction and guidance.

As the conductor, my job was to ensure that every person played their part. Another level of my job was to ensure that every part went together in harmony. It was a massive undertaking for someone so young, but I was up for the task.

If managers thought and acted more like music conductors, the failing team would turn around. As the manager of a failing team, you would look at each person, their assigned roles, and how each role should work together.

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From this perspective, you should start to see patterns emerge. Your goal is to manage the failing team by assisting them in creating success. As these patterns begin to appear, you quickly assess whether or not that particular pattern is helping or hurting the team.

As the conductor, you change unhealthy patterns and reinforce healthy ones. Success is the music of the business world. When the manager can lead a failing team towards success by putting all the pieces together in the right way, it is a win for everyone on the team.

5. Don’t Be Afraid to Make Some Hard Decisions

As I mentioned earlier, managing a failing team can be difficult. One of the most challenging tasks that the manager will have to navigate is knowing when to let a team member go.

Cognitively, we convince ourselves of how easy it will be to tell a team member that they are no longer suitable for the team. Logically, that is an easy thing to do. Removing the person (or persons) who are dragging the team down is the right call to make. Emotionally, it isn’t straightforward.

Things are not always so black and white when people are involved. People get hurt, and the organization suffers. That is why most leaders and managers try to avoid making the hard calls. They do not want conflict, nor do they want to wrestle with the guilt of having to terminate someone. If you’re going to manage a failing team, you will have to make some hard calls.

Let’s say you were diagnosed with cancer. Your doctor told you that you only had two months to live unless you changed your diet, worked out, and started being treated with chemo. What would you do?

Well, if you are anything like me, you know full well that you would do exactly what the doctor recommended. You would do everything in your ability to remove what was killing you so that you could live a long and healthy life.

Now, apply that to your team. If a member(s) was the reason your team was failing, wouldn’t you want to do everything possible to transition that team from failing to success? Have the courage to make the tough calls so that your team can move from a place of failure to a place of victory. Make the tough call, even if it causes you to have to move aside and allow another to lead.

6 . Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

There is no such thing as over-communicating, especially when you realize that people rarely pay attention. With the rise of TikTok, Youtube Shorts, Instagram Reels, and now Facebook (Meta) Reels, it is no wonder that most of the population’s attention span is shrinking.

When people live life in 30-second increments, keeping their attention becomes exceedingly more difficult. With that said, it is imperative that the level of communication increases. Not only does communication need to improve, but we must also become more creative in the mediums we use to communicate the message.

A mentor of mine once said, “When people get sick of hearing the message is when you know that they will start remembering it.” Is your team sick of hearing the expectations? Are they tired of hearing you talk about how you define a win? Do they get frustrated when they listen to what they need to do to succeed?

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If your answer is yes, then keep on communicating it! If your answer is no, it is time to step up your game.

7. Be Proactive, Not Reactive

As a child, I remember seeing a series of commercials around forest fires. The star of the commercial was Smokey The Bear. His famous words were, “Only you can prevent forest fires.”

Smokey The Bear has been around since 1944. His message has always been the same: Be proactive, so you don’t have to be reactive.

The meaning is that it is easier to prevent a fire than it is to put one out. Yet, we see managers of these failing teams continually fighting fires instead of learning to avoid them. Leaders were never meant to be firefighters. Do they put out fires? Yes! Should that be their primary focus? No!

A reactive leader is a leader who lives in the emotion of the moment. They are continually in crisis mode. Growth cannot occur, and teams will not turn around as long as the leader manages their team from a place of crisis. A shift must happen if you hope to manage a failing team properly.

Instead of constantly living in crisis mode, start creating systems that will help you avoid the crisis. Build a structure and culture around progress and prevention instead of reaction and emotion. The quicker you shift from a reactive to a proactive stance, the greater your chance to effectively manage your failing team and turn them around towards success.

Final Thoughts

If you are managing a failing team, there is hope. Your team doesn’t need to continue down the path towards failure. As the leader, the responsibility of turning the team around falls upon you.

Be a leader worth following. Take the time to assess your situation, create processes that change your direction, and lead your people from surviving to thriving.

More Tips on Team Management

Featured photo credit: Andreea Avramescu via unsplash.com

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Jim Burgoon

Founder of The Everyday Leader

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