The 4 Reasons Teams Fail

Whether a sole proprietor or a cog in a large enterprise, at some point everyone is required to work with a team.  So what is the difference between teams that consistently perform and teams that never seem to get ‘er done?  I’ve identified four reasons teams fail.

Lack of Clearly Defined Objectives

Without clearly defined objectives much energy is often wasted in simply trying to understand what the team is being asked to do.  Deliverables should be explicitly clear and not contradictory.  This does not mean that every detail has to be spelled out, but the deliverables should be defined clearly enough that there is no subjectivity to whether or not the team accomplished its task.  Often management or a group outside the work group believes it has communicated its needs effectively only to find out later that what was said and what was heard were very different.

The Wrong Motivators

In addition to murky objectives, wrong motivators can also cause teams to fail.  In this case, the team thinks they are on the proper path because they are progressing based upon the performance metrics being measured.  However, as Kerr pointed out in his famous 1975 article, reward systems don’t always align with the desired outcome.[1] Frequently management is also deluded into thinking things are progressing nicely towards the goal.  After all, the team is “hitting the numbers”.  However, because of this gap between what is being rewarded and the true desired outcome, teams will miss the mark.

Low Emotional IQ

Another reason teams can fail to perform is low emotional IQ. Emotional IQ is the ability to recognize our own perceptions and emotions and understand the same in others.  Our educational system and most workplace training tend to focus on technical skills and knowledge. While most people are aware that their emotions and perceptions affect how they interact with others, many have never been given the tools to overcome their own tendencies and work with the personalities of others.  People will often simply accept that they are incompatible with another team member or that the other person is simply irrational.

Lack of Leadership

Almost all of the above issues can be summed up in lack of good leadership.  A good leader will set clearly defined goals and have metrics properly aligned with those goals.  A good leader will have a well developed emotional IQ and know how to coach his or her team through personality issues and differing opinions.

To avoid these pitfalls, continuously invest in building your leadership skills.  Make sure objectives are being properly understood by asking follow up questions that give insight into understanding.  Examine the motivators in place as incentives for success to make sure they encourage behaviors that will result in the desired outcome.  Finally, invest in growing your own emotional IQ and understanding of organizational behavior.

If I’ve missed something, let me know.


[1] On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B. Steven Kerr. Academy of Management Journal (pre-1986); Dec 1975

One thought on “The 4 Reasons Teams Fail

  1. The dynamics of the organization are driven by the unconscious attitudes and belief systems that govern our behavior. If we forget our obligation to have well trained, educated and open-minded employees, we fail the organization.

    The overriding organizational culture and structure will bear on the success of team work. Unfortunately, sometimes individuals within organizations will not disagree with others because they do not want to make others feel bad. Disagreement is healthy and open debate is productive.

    Perhaps a subordinate is afraid to disagree with a supervisor or manager. If the leaders of the organization instill a conviction that no one has all the answers, cultivate the understanding that we all can learn from each other, and acknowledge that frontline workers understand the processes and bottlenecks best, a healthy organization will thrive.

    Is the team populated with devils or angels? The devils will argue all the reasons why a plan will not work. The angels, on the other hand, are champions for highlighting all the positives in the concept and the plan. You need both in the group; and perhaps each needs to be challenged to think a moment like the other. Habitual thinking patterns are signs of mental ruts.

    Customer focus is a critical factor. There may be internal and external customers. For example, in a manufacturing facility there are customers in different divisions and departments that must serve each other. Does the organization pervasively permit the “silo” mentality to rule? Does territorialism and jealously govern the climate? A customer focus – whether the customer is a co-worker or a client in another city – demands channeling across departments.

    Finally, when the work of the team is completed, are the recommendations accepted and put into action, or are they shelved? If the financial and infrastructure support is missing, if the team is not empowered to implement and prove the validity of their initiatives (or given permission to fail and learn), all future attempts for team work are doomed.


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