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Go to the Source: Underperforming Teams and Leader Behavior 

February 3, 2023
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Leaders come to me in search of solutions to improve their underperforming teams, but they might need to realize that leadership team behavior can also be at the root of issues. In this blog, I explore a case study of a healthcare leader whose aversion to conflict and micromanagement habits were making it hard for her team to reach its full potential and provide strategies to improve team effectiveness.

Susan, a senior leader in a healthcare organization, brought me in as a coach to help improve the effectiveness of her leadership team. She decided that a team coaching engagement was the right solution to improve the team's functioning, which struggled with unproductive conflict and a lack of collaboration. In particular, one of Susan's direct reports, Barbara, was the source of many of the issues preventing team cooperation.

Assessing the Team

I began the engagement by collecting data from Susan, interviews with team members, the organizational engagement survey, and a written survey of team functioning. Some of the themes from my assessment included:
  • Susan confessed she was afraid to confront Barbara since she had so much tenure and strong alliances with senior leaders across the organization. She feared facing Barbara would cause her to quit, leaving Susan in a precarious situation with key division stakeholders.
  • Team members observed that they were generally okay except for their interactions with Barbara because of her unwillingness to collaborate and her defensive personality.
  • Team interviews and the engagement survey revealed that Susan experienced substantial negative impacts on her credibility and reputation since her team members wondered why she was not addressing the issue with Barbara.
  • The team's culture was largely top-down, command-and-control oriented, providing relatively few opportunities for the team to provide input to influence key division priorities or raise challenging issues to Susan.
  • The team survey revealed that the team's overall effectiveness was mediocre at best, and members struggled with conflict, either avoiding it or criticizing each other behind their backs.

Working with Barbara

I began by coaching Barbara to explore the assessment findings, especially the impacts of her top-down approach and the team impacts of her reluctance to confront Susan's challenging behavior. We explored the shifts that would have to happen in her style to enable a genuinely high-performance, collaborative team. I challenged Barbara's ungrounded assumptions that addressing Susan's behavioral issues would immediately cause her to resign. In our coaching sessions, I assumed the role of Susan and invited her to practice delivering feedback to me so she could develop mastery in this skill. We continued this process until she felt ready to engage Barbara and address issues for the team.

Working with the Leadership Team

My work with the whole team began with a half-day retreat to debrief the assessment data, formulate a team vision and ground rules, and identify aspects of the team dynamic that needed improvement. We then conducted ongoing team coaching sessions every 3-4 weeks to continue the work that started in the retreat that included practical actions team members would take between sessions. I also coached Barbara after each session, inviting her to reflect on the team's interactions and her behavior.
We explored several team issues: trust, communication, collaboration, alignment, and conflict. Each session consisted of an educational segment and a team-led discussion of a business issue, enabling me to observe team dynamics and share real-time observations. In one session, we used a conflict styles assessment to surface patterns for each team member on their strengths and weaknesses in navigating conflict. After several months, Barbara developed the courage to let go of her micro-managing tendencies and let the team meet with me separately to enable their capacity to self-manage and speak honestly with each other.

Outcomes

Before concluding the six-month engagement, I readministered the team survey to determine any perceived changes in team functioning. Among the most significant positive shifts:
  • 43% improvement in their ability to surface and navigate conflict
  • 26% improvement in their ability to trust and rely on each other
  • 23% improvement in alignment among team members
These outcomes align with author Patrick Lencioni's work on team effectiveness, which suggests how trust among team members and the ability to surface and resolve conflict contribute to team alignment. I also noticed significant shifts among team members in their ability to surface challenging issues, respectfully pushing back on Barbara, and function more autonomously. Barbara was much more relaxed and engaging with the team, enabling the team to respond in kind.
 
Rarely is the cause of an underperforming team simply a result of the team members. The leadership team plays an integral role in influencing team behavior. Thus, successful team coaching engagements must include attention to the team leader as well as the interactions of the members.  

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Dr. Kevin Nourse has more than 25 years of experience coaching healthcare leaders and teams to help them succeed. He is the founder of Nourse Leadership Strategies, a coaching and leadership development firm based in Southern California. For more information, contact Kevin at 310.715.8315 or kevin@nourseleadership.com

(c) 2023 Kevin Nourse

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