5 Ideas to Help the Leader Fix a Poor Performing Team at Work

Bored and disgruntled team members looking away or distracted during a team meeting

Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / GettyImages

Let’s face it, not every workplace team achieves a high level of performance. Some limp along to the finish line of an initiative where exhausted team members metaphorically crash to the ground like so many weekend warriors just barely completing a mini-triathlon. On other teams, members rush to complete their work out of sheer desire to end the pain of working with one or more coworkers whom they hope to never again encounter.

When the conditions on your team take a turn for the worse, it’s time for extraordinary action. First. let's look at the reasons for a poor group dynamic in the first place.

It Starts With the Dreaded Classroom Group Project

For many of us, our immediate negative reaction to the idea of working on a team goes back to our school days. Ask people about their best and worst teaming experiences and those in the latter category tend to describe those nightmarish college group project initiatives where five people were thrust together on a grade-impacting activity and only two or three did any of the work. Their stories typically sound like:

Two of us worked through the night to finish up the project and get ready for the presentation. The one person who missed every single group meeting showed up on the day of the presentation to claim his grade. The one who argued with us every step of the way presented something unrelated to our project. And our friend, the social loafer, failed to deliver on every single task she committed to completing. It was a nightmare.

When the teaming activities in the workplace begin to feel like one of those bad project experiences, both moral and performance plummet. 

Teams Are the Engines of Workplace Creation

As managers, we depend upon teams to innovate, execute strategy, plan events and do just about everything else that is new and unique in our organizations. We live and work in a world of projects and every manager regardless of the title is at some point a project manager. It is imperative that we learn to cultivate teams that perform with a minimum of drama and controversy.

Nonetheless, wherever humans gather in groups, drama, disagreement, and controversy will emerge. When your team fails to cultivate the chemistry that leads to performance or, when the environment turns toxic, there are a number of actions the manager or team leader can take to get the group back on a positive footing.​

5 Ideas to Help Rescue Your Toxic Team

Here are five ideas to help you debug your toxic team and get the group back on track for high performance. 

1. Resist the urge to point fingers. Instead, focus first on the group. You might have some idea that a particular personality is the root cause of your team’s problems, however, focusing on an individual too early in the recovery process will only add to the toxic environment. While a few team members might be happy to be rid of this particular personality, others will wonder if they’re next. Instead of cultivating trust, you will be endangering it.

2. Define or revisit team values. Savvy team leaders work hard at the front-end of a new teaming initiative to discuss and solicit ideas on key values for the team. These values focus on important issues such as:

  • Accountability for actions and living up to commitments.
  • Shared accountability for the group’s success.
  • Expectations for performance and communication.
  • How the team will navigate difficult decisions.
  • How the team will deal with differences of opinion.
  • How the team members will support each other.

If the topic of values was not covered during team formation, it is time to conduct that discussion. Use this as an opportunity for the team to clear the air of prior problems. Use the problems around issues and tasks as examples and challenge team members to identify how they will be handled now that the values are clearly stated. Resist the urge to focus on personality or interpersonal dynamics and focus instead on tasks and processes.

3. Clarify roles and responsibilities. A great many team problems arise when roles and responsibilities are unclear. Ask everyone to craft their own unique “role description,” and then pass it out to team members to review and critique. Revise the description until the team agrees and post all of the descriptions in a common area for easy reading and reference.

4. Ask the team to critique you. Many of us are quick to look outside ourselves and blame external circumstances for our problems. Researchers call this the fundamental attribution error. Conscientious team leaders and managers recognize that their behaviors may be adversely impacting team performance and chemistry. Often, team members hesitate to offer feedback and constructive criticism to the person in charge. Cure this by crafting a survey that allows team members to share their views on the leader's performance and behaviors. Let them submit the survey anonymously and make certain to summarize and share the feedback—good and bad—and then commit to specific improvements.

5. Take action on social loafers or toxic team members. After you have taken the above steps and if problems persist, you should begin looking at potential problem team members. If you have been doing your job and observing team member interaction and performance, you are armed with the fundamentals of good feedback: behavioral observations. Offer feedback and ask for a commitment to behavior improvements. Be as specific as possible. Highlight the business implications of adverse behaviors and indicate that the individual is accountable for improvements. If those improvements happen, great. If not, take steps to remove the individual from the team.

The Bottom-Line

Ideally, you should take the time to establish values, clarify roles, and define expected behaviors at the beginning of the teaming process. However, if those steps were skipped and your team is not performing acceptably, it is incumbent upon you as the leader or manager to call a timeout and tackle these building blocks of high performance.