The Tale of the Superstar and the Lazy team

Rick Shaw via flickr

Rick Shaw via flickr

You may have heard this one before. You know – the one where there’s a leader who gives 110% and has a team that is just barely meeting expectations? If you’re that leader with the high bar who is asking themselves why their people don’t show full dedication, this is for you. I hear you, there’s no way to change people’s personality. But you can’t say you’ve taken full ownership of leading your people to greatness before trying out the following key tactics:

Demonstrate Trust and be Trustworthy

It’s said people feel they work for their manager more so than for their organization. Yes, your direct reports really work for the company or firm as a whole, but day-to-day, hour-to-hour, they work for you. Foster a trusting relationship, and that more personal connection can inspire manager-pleasing hard work. Conversely, lack of trust can actually keep your people from doing their best. As reported by HBR in the article Connect, then Lead, “Leaders who project strength before establishing trust run the risk of eliciting fear… Fear can undermine cognitive potential, creativity, and problem solving, and cause employees to get stuck and even disengage.” Trust can be fostered in every interaction, through your speech and your actions. Here’s how:

  • Ask coach-like questions instead of accusatory ones: “What would you suggest we do to get the timeline on track?” vs “Why are we behind on the timeline again?”
  • Share your thoughts, and aim for ‘human’ instead of ‘infallible’: “I’m a little disappointed. I would have hoped to have full buy-in coming out of that meeting. I should have lead with the data.”
  • Remind them you’re in it together: “Our group has a chance to really shine this month. My hope is that this project gets the attention of the CEO.”
  • Give them space to fly and to fail: “This one’s yours to run with. Let me know what resources I can provide to support you. When would you say it makes sense to check back in?””

Share your vision

No one likes to feel like a cog in the wheel, especially if they don’t even know the purpose of running the machine.Your whole team should be able to answer the following questions with certainty:

Under your leadership, what impact is your team having on the organization?
What’s your 3-year plan for the team?
Ultimately, what do you want this team to be known for?
Why is working hard toward these longer term goals important?

If your people don’t know the answers, they will guess. And then they will react to their best guess, or to the uncertainty of not knowing, or to the suspicious nature of you not sharing plans with them. Needless to say, this is distracting and hinders great work. Turn it all around by sharing plans you’re excited about and selling what’s in it for them.

Play to Strengths and Interests

Sometimes it’s easy to forget, especially when you’re frustrated, that those people you just want to “work harder” are unique individuals with varying strengths and interests. And before say, “I know where you’re going with this and I don’t have time” (especially if there are dozens on your team) hear me out. My suggestion is not that you customize the assignments of each and every person that works for you, but rather encourage them to ask for what they want so that you can support making work as satisfying as possible for them. Look into offering stretch projects, shadowing opportunities, leadership within the group or places where your subject matter experts can share their knowledge with others. Put it out there, mean it, make space for it and make an example of those who take advantage. Certainly, when discussing the positive pieces of a performance review, brainstorm how to expand upon what’s working well.

Be clear with your expectations.

If giving 110% is not a “nice to have”, but rather a “must have” in your eyes, then you must redefine your expectations; raise the bar.  Don’t just hope people will realize you expect more. What is in that 10% that’s really important? Be very clear about what’s expected in a given role and how it will be measured, even if it includes so-called soft skills like collaborating with colleagues more frequently, or things that people don’t want to hear, like working late once a week. Explain why these things are part of the job, and how it will help get the job done better.

Acknowledge a job well done

Some adore public recognition and others prefer a quiet compliment, but everyone likes being acknowledged. This is not about using the outdated “feedback sandwich” technique, where you sandwich a criticism in between two positives. Rather, this is about turning your radar to noticing, as a leader, when someone demonstrates behaviour that you appreciate, however small.  As in, “Phil explained that exceptionally well in the meeting. Thanks, Phil.”  It will support all the aforementioned actions and will benefit the relationship between you and your people by training yourself to see them through this positive lens. Different from rose-coloured glasses, these are “potential glasses”, whereby with each acknowledgement, you direct energy to elevating the team to a higher standard.

Leadership is about aligning your people with your vision for enhancing the organization and making a plan to get there. In support of this, you must create a parallel vision of the team you want and start working your plan to get there. It takes effort to cultivate a culture of exceptional standards, but if it’s something you deem necessary, it’s a piece worthy of your extra effort and attention.