Team Leader: How To Improve Team Performance

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com
Dick’s Books on Amazon

The first step in improving team performance is reviewing the team leader’s performance.  Project managers are team leaders who are often unaware of how their own performance affects the team’s performance and attitudes. We’ll start by looking at six ways project managers try to improve team performance that do NOT work. And we’ll analyze why they negatively impact the team. Then we’ll discuss four positive team leader techniques for improving team performance. Leading Teams Main Page

Poor Team Leader Technique #1: “Variances Are a Personal Betrayal”

Let’s look at some examples. It’s a few weeks into a project and Jill, a project team member, reports that her task is going to slip four days past the due date. She explains that all the managers who need to sign off on the design are at an out-of-town offsite meeting. She has no way to contact them until they return. The project manager slumps down head in hands, and moans, “How can you do this to me? I thought we were friends.  You’re gonna get me in big trouble with the VP.  You were the one team member I thought would never do this kind of thing to me.”

Assessment: This ineffective technique makes the team member feel guilty and it doesn’t solve the problem.

Poor Team Leader Technique #2: “You’re The Problem, Not The Assignment”

Bill is a subject matter guru who sends an email to the PM and the team stating, “Unexpected technical difficulties may cause the completion of my task to slide a week or more.” That afternoon the PM spots Bill in the hall, calls to him and says, “What the heck’s the matter with you?  Do you think you can re-set the completion date without talking to me? I’m going to look into these “unexpected technical difficulties.”

Assessment: You should never give negative feedback in public.  And never suggest “something is wrong with a team member.  You should criticize specific behavior, not the individual; and always do it in private.

Poor Team Leader Technique #3: “Every Slippage is a Catastrophe”

One of the trainees, Miles, comes to the PM’s cubicle and says, “I’m going to finish later than I planned by one day; but just one day. My boss gave me a high priority assignment that will interrupt my project work.” The PM glares at the trainee and says, “Don’t give me this ‘just one day late’ stuff.  You have to fix it so you don’t have this kind of disaster.  This is what makes projects fail!”

Assessment: You should not blame a team member for being pulled off your project by their department manager. That is not their fault. It is your job, not theirs, to solve the work priority issue with their boss. Also, one day late is not a catastrophe.

Poor Team Leader Technique #4: “You Have to Fix This Today”

Mary calls to report an 8-day slippage on her task due to the new technical requirements she just received.  The PM says, “Well that means your overtime starts tonight. And I’ll need your entire team in here all weekend.”

Assessment: This slippage was probably beyond the team member’s control.  Trying to recapture the lost time, starting today, is often the least effective solution.  There are times when you have to ask for extra hours. But “all hands on overtime” is foolish and it punishes the whole team for something that is not their fault. This does more harm than good.

Poor Team Leader Technique #5: “I Have to Watch You Closely From Now On”

Jack tells the PM he’s figured out a way to cut the five-day variance he reported last week to only two days.  The PM says, “Just make up your mind. It doesn’t matter if it’s 5 days or 2 days. You shouldn’t have ANY variances. I’m going to have to watch you a lot more closely from now on.”

Assessment: This is a great technique for discouraging team members from creative problem solving.

Poor Team Leader Technique #6: “Guilt, The Great Motivator”

Jean reports a two-week variance. The PM reacts by saying, “You’ve let every member of this team down. We were all counting on you to come through and you didn’t. You have no idea how badly this will affect the whole project and many people’s careers.”

Assessment:  An experienced team member will shrug off this foolish reaction; and they should.  But a new employee may think you are speaking the truth and become very upset and feel guilty.

Your Poor Team Leader Behavior is Always Onstage

Handling performance problems with even one team member puts you, the team leader, on stage in front of the entire team. You should assume the team member who’s going to finish late will talk to others about your reaction. And don’t think their peers will treat them like an outcast because they won’t.  Team members usually assume their peer merely had some bad luck on their assignment. They judge your reaction when they hear about it (and they always do) based on your bad news behavior. They won’t share or support your opinion that the team member’s work was bad or that they’re a “bad person.” When you treat the team member reporting a variance as if they’ve spread the plague, you will get an adverse reaction from the entire team. You can count on the fact that your project team members regularly talk to each other about your behavior. And they will tell everyone how badly you react to a negative situation.

Effective Team Leader Performanceteam leader

The first effective team leader guideline is to handle each performance problem as if your words and actions will be broadcast on Twitter, Facebook and CNN. You can also be sure that this broadcast of your behavior will focus on the juiciest aspects of the story, not a balance of good and bad. Because team members will broadcast your handling of performance problems, you should have a script for each situation. This role is called “Bad News Behavior.” Each “appearance” always has four acts.

You’re probably asking, “Why must I play a role?” “Why can’t I just be myself?”

The answer is that your natural tendency is to express your emotions. These include disappointment, worry and even anger when a slippage or overrun occurs. Remember that dealing with a project team member’s overrun is not an opportunity for you to get your frustration “off your chest.” You must focus on engaging that team member in finding and implementing the best way to solve the problem. All the negative responses we saw above came from project managers without a script for an effective “Bad News Behavior” role. They were disastrous attempts to improve team performance. Here are the fours acts that define your role.

Effective Team Leader Technique #1: Use Data to Judge the Severity of the Problem

The first act for the “Bad News Behavior” role is to determine the severity of the problem. To do this, you must have a proper project plan, a dynamic model of all the tasks, predecessor relationships (the sequence and dependency of tasks) and work/duration estimates. With this information, you can quickly assess the severity of the problem. The actions you take should be based on sound analysis and judgment. If you react to every problem as if it was a catastrophe, you will quickly lose your ability to engage your team in problem-solving when a serious matter arises.

The data in your plan and schedule will tell you if you are dealing with a task that is not on the critical path and if it has enough slack to cover the variance without affecting the project completion date. You’ll handle that problem very differently from a variance on a critical path task. That’s where every day of delay affects the entire project’s completion date. The data lets you live with some variances and focus your attention on the significant problems. This assessment makes your “Bad News Behavior” reaction appropriate for the problem.

Effective Team Leader Technique #2: Determine the Extent of its “Ripple Effect”

You will also use the project schedule to analyze the “ripple effect” of a variance on the tasks that follow the slipped task. The severity of a variance may increase or decrease based on whether resources are available on the tasks that follow the slipped task. You may be able to assign some of those available resources to work on the task with the variance. This “ripple effect” analysis also sets up your next step.

Effective Team Leader Technique #3: Pick the Best “Action Point” for Recovery

There is a natural tendency to think that you need to solve any variance on the task where it occurred. Of course recovery to complete that problem task on time and within budget is nice. But often adding resources or taking other corrective action on the problem task is not the best way to recover. It’s not easy to get additional people to work on the problem task. And when you do, you must quickly bring them up to speed. The net result may be that the problem task is further behind than if you left the existing people alone to work on it. Sometimes it’s easier and more effective to take action on a later task. That will give you more time to organize the recovery and find resources to regain the lost time.

Effective Team Leader Technique #4: Discuss the Work Package With the Team Member

Your response to improving team performance should be finding the solution, not assigning blame to the team member. So you start the discussion with the team member by talking about the solution and getting their thoughts on a solution the you two will jointly implement. You need to review the work package that was the basis for the team member’s original work estimate and approach to the task. Take a look at the team member’s availability and the risk factors included in the estimate. By using the original work package as the basis for discussing the problem, you focus attention on your previous discussions. The flaws are in that document, not the team member. The big advantage of this last step is that it focuses attention on the work, the assumptions and the estimates, not the personal characteristics of the team member.

Now you are ready to talk about solutions to the problem and improving team performance.

Effective Team Leader Techniques Summary

These four team leader techniques will help you improve your team’s performance and avoid a “shoot from the hip” emotional reaction that leads to ineffective problem-solving behavior.

To learn more about using proven team leader techniques, building dynamic project plans, using effective estimating techniques, and improving team performance, consider taking one of our private, online courses. We offer courses in team leadership and project management techniques. We also offer on-site training for implementing these processes at the organizational level.

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Author: Dick Billows, PMP

Dick has more than 25 years of project and program management experience throughout the US and overseas. Dick was a partner in the 4th largest professional firm and a VP in a Fortune 200 company. He trained and developed 100's of project managers using his methodology. Dick is the author of 14 books, over 300 articles and director/producer of 60 short project management videos. He and a team of 25 project managers work with client companies & students across the US and in Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East. They have assisted over 300 organizations in improving their project performance. Books by Dick Billows are on Amazon.com