There’s been a lot of discord on my team recently. With so many things going wrong, I’m not sure how to turn the situation around. Can you help?
I’ve noticed several issues arise within and around my team recently. While the product we are working on is not that exciting, there are challenging stakeholders who are not actively responding to the team, and the requirement is poorly seen to. As a result, team morale and thoughput have taken a substantial hit. This has brought about an unhealthy team dynamic where our product manager has poached several dev team members to work on a deliverable in the hopes of winning over the stakeholders. Unfortunately, this has meant that dev team members have been bypassing the lead developer on decisions and tasks. The feeling is that covert discussions have been going on behind closed doors, with certain people being promised benefaction or advancement. Overall, this has led to certain team members behaving strangely.
How can I fix a team that is clearly broken?
That’s a tough combination. You mention a mix of unhealthy dynamics, blockers that make progress near impossible, a lack of a vision to connect to, and unclear motivations.
The somewhat bad news is that, most likely, there’s no one root cause and, therefore, no one action you can take to solve it all. The good news is that your acute understanding of what’s happening and how all these factors feed into each other is your strongest asset in leading the way out of it.
You’ll want to identify your allies, bring what’s underground to the surface, and tend to the symptoms while you work on the underlying causes.
Identify your allies
What I mean by “ally” here is someone who sees the same problems (note: not necessarily the same reasons or solutions as you) and wants to improve the situation.
This is an important step for two reasons. One, because you’ll need support; not only different skills but different levels of influence and authority. Second, because if that cohort is zero, I want you to pause and consider if this is really a problem you can realistically fix.
A likely ally will be your own manager. Start by bringing your observations to your next 1:1 with them, get their perspective and ideas.
Next, speak with people you directly work with about these problem areas you’ve identified and what you see as possible reasons. Get their insight and thoughts. Stay curious – treat this as a discovery exercise, not a feedback one. Make sure to keep these sessions as 1:1s instead of group exercises; it will work better as a safe space where folks will not feel like they have to justify anything or agree with others.
By the end of these conversations, you’ll have two things:
- A more well-rounded idea of the situation. That includes the perspective of those folks you mentioned are behaving strangely; you’ll get a better idea of what’s driving that.
- An understanding of who has the influence to make an impact on any of the issues you’ve noticed.
Bring what’s underground to the surface
What’s insidious about unhealthy dynamics is that often, they stay unspoken. Both at work and in life, we can go for a very long time doing things in a way that doesn’t quite work and is slowly failing just because it hasn’t quite exploded yet.
The tool to neutralize them is to start bringing them up, and to speak to observations. For example: “I notice that every week we decide on what to do, but then something else comes up that needs to be dealt with first. This has consistently happened for the last two months and has brought about a lot of stress, causing us to slow down long term.”
Bring up such issues in existing rituals you have with the team, such as retrospectives – or any other meeting where the key people are present and can engage. If there isn’t an existing ritual, an ad-hoc meeting is also fine; don’t worry too much about the logistics being perfect.
If structure helps, situation-behavior-impact and non-violent communication can be useful frameworks here. The important thing is to remove blame from the equation, and focus on observations and impact, especially when you speak about your (or others’) interpretation of reasons why people are acting a certain way. Think: “What behavior is causing it?” not “Whose behavior is causing it.” Return to frame it as a situation that you don’t see working well, and to the changes you’d like to see.
That same approach also works with challenges coming from outside the team. To use the stakeholders as an example; you (or one of your allies) could reach out and understand why the information or feedback you need is not getting to the team. Is it a bandwidth issue? Are they not aligned with what the team is working on? Are they actually happy for you to decide and inform them of certain things that you consider blockers?
If it’s another team you’re blocked on, would they be open to brainstorming and collaborating differently, in a way that still involves them but allows your team to move forward? You will have to challenge your own assumptions about what’s happening there too. A motto I’ve found helpful in situations like this is: “No one comes to work wanting to do a bad job.” That framing can really help get to the bottom of what’s happening to find lasting solutions.
Tend to the symptoms, address the underlying causes
In situations like this, everything can feel pressing, making it hard to know where to start.
Think critically about what is badly broken and what points you can tolerate for a little longer. Is the uninteresting work at the same level as the perceived hijacking of the team?
For anything you choose to tend to later, use a framing of acknowledgement and transparency. Example: “I know the roadmap at the moment is not the most inspiring, but I want us to stick with delivering it so that we can move to project B while we work on the feedback that leadership has given us.” It’s also totally fine to apply temporary relief to symptoms until the time comes to address the root cause; for example, a weekly check-in with stakeholders to update each other on tactical changes while you figure out a more systemic way of having this information flow to the team.
As things fall into place with the more pressing issues, you’ll have the time and energy to start tackling the rest as well.
Find support, map out what’s happening and who can influence it, and pick your first battles carefully. One step at a time, this will get better.