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6 steps to ruining a well-functioning team

4 min read


Much has been written about leadership and “turnaround” situations. Loads of tips are out there for becoming a superhero executive , a heroic doctor who can take an ailing organization and bring it back from the brink. But what if you are the new leader of an organization that has been relatively healthy? That is poised for growth? That has a well-functioning team?

Some organizations need a family practitioner to help them flourish, so if you see yourself as a heart surgeon, be careful — or your patient might die on the table. Here are six things you can to do destroy a well-functioning team:

  1. Break what is working well. Even organizations that are struggling and in need of a turnaround superhero probably have some things going well. Keep your ego in check, and know the difference between what is going well and what needs improvement. Don’t focus on areas you are most comfortable tinkering with if those are going well. The best way for a new leader to know where to focus is to think like a good journalist — triangulate your information inside and outside the organization and look at real data alongside opinions.
  2. Dis the past. If you are the new leader, remember that your predecessors probably had some successes, especially if the team is well-functioning. Be comfortable knowing the world did not start the day you arrived. Look forward while respecting the past.
  3. Assume you have nothing to really learn. You bring skills, knowledge, and experience. But you can’t stop learning. Learning means taking what you bring to the table, looking beyond what worked for you in the past, and avoid assuming that generic management buzzwords and articles apply to all situations. Being a successful new leader means being able to translate what you have learned into a vision with ideas and plans directly applicable to and designed for the organization you are leading. It takes time, energy and a certain amount of personal humility to admit what you don’t know and what you have to learn.
  4. Fear your team. If you fear discussing  ideas with your management team, especially if that group is used to free-wheeling brainstorming and may know the business better than you, you will lose their respect almost immediately, and it will be very hard to get it back. If your greatest fear is being ganged up on, you are not up to the job. Today’s managers expect progressive leadership and no longer tolerate purely positional leadership. Progressive leaders are successful because they know how to facilitate group discussions and can take constructive feedback.
  5. Don’t set transparent goals for yourself. People want to see their boss working hard, using their time well, and held accountable for their personal performance goals. Your management team needs to know that you are earning your keep along with everyone else.
  6. Don’t hold everyone to high standards. One thing that makes teams work well together is the sense that everyone is rowing together to move the ship. If you don’t set high standards for everyone, reward performance, and deal decisively with non-performers, the strong team members will start to wonder why their arms are getting sore, so to speak.

Taken together, these mistakes are sure to make for a perfect team implosion. Your leadership contribution will have a net negative value that results in a triple loss: you don’t earn your keep as a leader, you diminish individual team members’ energy and output, and, most of all, you lose the “sum of the team members is greater than the parts effect” that was in place and yielding strong returns before you showed up.

Every leader wants to put a personal stamp on an organization. But to push for change for the sake of change can lead to a futile — even damaging — attempt to fix what isn’t broken. Make sure you know what truly needs your leadership attention before instituting change.

Joyce Warner is a senior nonprofit executive who develops leadership programs for individuals and schools, universities, and nonprofits from around the world. She has an MBA from Virginia Tech University.