How To Survive Working On An Underperforming Team

By Art Markman | Many of us enter the workplace unprepared for teamwork. Here's how to head off and contain the hazards of poor group performance.

In general, people are poorly educated to deal with workplaces. That’s because education is a largely solo affair. Students are asked to work alone. Grades are given to individuals. Indeed, the idea of individual achievement is so ingrained that when kids are assigned a group project in school, they worry how their own grades will be calculated if their team members fall down on the job.

They’re probably right to. In the workplace, teams that fail usually bring everyone down with them. But there are a few ways to survive that fallout, or at least minimize its impact on your own career.

The Personal Perils Of Teamwork

Business is a team sport. No matter how hard anyone in the organization works—no matter how well that individual executes his or her work—if a project fails, it fails. If a company goes out of business, even the excellent workers within it are out of a job.

Still, the individual mentality we internalize from two decades of education survives into the workplace. People are still focused on ways to ensure that their individual contributions are recognized within their teams. We all want our reputations to reflect the work that we’ve done, not just the overall success of the group effort.

That means that everyone who’s a member of a team needs to be aware of the group dynamic and the quality of the work their teammates are doing from the start. There are three things you can start to do to maximize the effectiveness of your team, and hopefully avoid suffering any consequences from bad group performance.

1. Create A Sense Of Shared Mission

People are motivated to work harder when they feel their work is connected to something bigger than themselves—when they see their work as a calling. This connection to others and to a bigger social mission makes people happier, and happy people work harder than unhappy ones.

Pretty intuitive, right? Less obvious is how to actually instill this sense of shared mission, especially when your team is tasked with something important to the business but pretty tedious to do. Ideally, of course, it falls to upper management to impart that sense of vision and spell out the organization’s values. Even so, groups can create their own team mentality simply through team members’ efforts.

Anytime you begin working on a new team, start by getting to know each other. Share your own enthusiasm for the job—even just one part of it. Lots of research suggests that goals are contagious, so your own visible energy about getting a job can carry over to other people you work with.

2. Help Your Teammates Find Their Roles

A fundamental problem with teams is that not everyone is equally well suited to every role within it. On just about every team, some people will be more conscientious than others. This matters because conscientiousness is what psychologists know to be one of the “big five” personality characteristics; it refers to people’s motivation to complete tasks and follow the rules.

A team member who’s highly conscientious makes sure tasks are completed and checks work over. Less conscientious team members might cut corners in order to spare themselves effort. But at the same time, it’s the less conscientious worker who’s usually better at finding creative solutions to problems; they’re more willing to look at them from different perspectives. So having a few people who are lower in conscientiousness on a team can actually be a benefit.

That’s another reason why it’s so worthwhile knowing your team members well. Find their strengths. Help to organize the team so that each person’s strengths shore up the weaknesses of others. For example, your most conscientious team members should be in charge of giving the group’s work a final inspection before it is sent off. That can help lower any risk of underperforming together as a unit.

3. Engage A Mentor

Since groups simply don’t function all that effectively much of the time, it’s important to find successful people in your organization who can help steer your work in the right direction and keep everyone on the same page. Ideally, that person should be a mentor, not the team leader or a direct supervisor—someone who doesn’t have a direct hand in the producing work or in judging its outcome.

There are two advantages here. First, there’s a lot to learn about getting a team to do good work—outside of the nature of the work itself. The sooner you develop those skills, the more effective you’ll be in working on teams throughout your career. People who are skilled at helping groups work at their peak are valuable coaches broadly speaking.

Second, if you have real concerns about your group’s performance and worry that it could sabotage your reputation, your mentor can be an ally who can vouch for you. After all, despite your best efforts, you may have toxic group members who simply can’t engage with the team. It’s hard to complain to a supervisor about a group member after the fact. But by having a mentor who works with your group from the beginning, you can maximize the chances of group success while also safeguarding your own record.

Ultimately, your success in the workplace goes beyond the particular technical expertise it takes to do your job. You need to hone your skills to build relationships and to work well collaboratively. You may not have been well-prepared to do that, but it’s never too late to learn.




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