Canary in the Coal Mine: When your teams aren’t functioning

This week, we sat down to record an episode of Navigating Change which addresses a topic that has become critically important in the work that I do with my clients. Across the higher education space, teams have been tasked to work differently, to face up to new challenges and obstacles, and to deliver results under conditions they have never encountered before. And while the obvious challenges that come with working in complex teams are plenty, those that can hurt the team the most tend to be hiding right under the surface. To sum it up:

As a manager, you are probably not aware of what is going wrong on your team.

Your first task as a manager or department leader is to deliver results. As such, we have established a cultural bias against sharing bad news, anything that doesn’t directly relate to delivering those results. When a staff member levels a concern of this nature, they risk being labeled a complainer, and so the routine continues. The result? A self-perpetuating culture of ignorance to the more insidious issues that may be occuring on your teams.

A leader needs to be willing to recognize that people will not be willing to share information that will potentially make them look bad unless they are confident that it won’t be pinned on them. In an environment of fear and blame, hiding the bad news trumps candor every time.

There is good news: you can change it.

First, understand that a mature, high-performing team does not have to agree 100% of the time. In fact, the best, most productive teams may not even have team members that like one another. But what you will see in every case of teams working well together across functions and projects is an environment of respect. As a leader, your job is to implement this key rule for interpersonal relationships: You may not like your colleagues, but respect them for the work they do.

Second, be a role model for open communication. Your teams will build their cultural habits based on cues they receive from you. If you are able to muster the strength to deliver news — the good and the bad — to your teams regularly, quickly, and succinctly, you will begin to see the same sort of respect for you.

Finally, take every mistake and use it as a visible opportunity for continuous improvement. Show that bad news does not equate to blame, but is a platform for conversation, learning, and new directions.

There is certainly more to be said here. I invite you to subscribe to Navigating Change (iTunes) and listen to the entire episode. Then, share your comments below and bring the discussion online.