Why you don’t have a high-performing team

During a recent learning session I conducted, two participants voiced their frustration with developing the members of their team. Lee was struggling with feedback he’d received from one of his team members in which he was accused of favoritism of a high-performing team member.

“People started noticing that I was spending more time with one of my direct reports, James, supporting him on a special project I’d assigned,” Lee shared. “I do that because James seems to soak up all the advice I give him and puts it into action. Developing him produces results.”

Participants continued to debate the question of whether Lee’s investment in James was worth the potential criticism of others and if that really mattered in the long run. As the discussion continued, the group agreed that establishing a framework for developing high-performing teams might be the first step in solving Lee’s problem. They began by identifying leadership behaviors that would likely cause them to fail at building the best teams. Key among them were:

Falling prey to the responsibility myth

In an effort to be supportive leaders, many individuals in the participant group revealed that they often took responsibility for implementing the skills development plans of their direct reports. Those same participants found out the hard way that adopting ownership of someone else’s development can enable complacence.

“I finally realized my approach wasn’t working when one person reporting to me claimed they didn’t complete a development goal because I hadn’t scheduled them for a training program,” Julie shared. “Our entire curriculum is on the company portal, and any employee can register for a class. I fail to see how I was at fault.”

Julie’s experience is emblematic of leaders who fall prey to the responsibility myth, where employees cede ownership of their development to their manager and assign blame to their leader when they don’t progress in their careers as successfully as they had hoped. For this reason, participants determined that “personal responsibility for one’s development” is an important pillar in the framework for building a high-performing team.

The fallacy of entitlement

While the group agreed that accepting personal responsibility is essential for career and team success, a derailer for many leaders are team members who believe they are entitled to all the development resources they desire. In some organizations, participants shared, an entitlement culture had become rampant, to the point where employees felt unjustly treated if their development requests were delayed to a different fiscal year. This made many leaders feel pressured to allocate resources to individuals who might not deserve them.

“I only have so much money for development in my budget,” Lee said. “I want to make sure the members of my team who will most benefit from funding for a program or learning experience get allocated those dollars. That means I have to say no to some requests.”

With these insights in mind, participants added the pillar of “biggest investment return” to their development framework for a high-performing team..

Pouring into a sieve

One of the more common challenges the group discussed was how to appropriately identify the individuals who would not only embrace new learning but share that learning with others, thus expanding the capabilities of the whole team. More than one participant voiced disappointment with direct reports in whom they had invested, only to have the learning stop there.

“When I give someone a learning or growth opportunity, my expectations of what they’ll do with it are different now,” Julie shared. “I expect that person to teach at least three other people what they know so the learning has a ripple effect. Otherwise, I’m pouring time, effort and money into a sieve.”

Julie wasn’t the only person with a similar mindset. The group decided that demonstrating a willingness to develop others is an important criterion for receiving development support. They added “multiply the learning” as the final pillar of their high-performing team development framework.

In creating a team development framework the group also established important criteria for investing in their direct reports and selecting new members to add to their team.

“When I interview candidates from now on, I’ll be looking for people who are committed to their own development, view support from the organization as a gift to be treasured and enjoy sharing their knowledge with others,” Lee stated. “I’m more aware than ever that I can’t build a high-performing team if folks don’t have those qualities.”

This article was first published in SmartBrief, August 2022.

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