You can have a team of talented, creative, visionary work horses and still find it’s not performing. Within that group could reside an underminer, someone who is actively working against the group’s goals. It might be because the person is threatened by the possible success of the group, fears a loss of power or resources, doesn’t trust the leader, holds conflicting values, or any number of reasons.
Recognizing a lack of commitment
Before you can deal with a problem, you need to correctly diagnose it. What signs appear in a team or from an individual?
When an uncommitted team reports on progress, they’ll speak dispassionately, place blame, keep returning to talk about their needs for more resources, move in multiple directions, or engage in endless debate. Even their measures of success will be ambiguous. In sum, the collective actions of the team are less significant than the actions of a few individuals. These can also be signals of other problems, of course, but a lack of commitment might be one of them.
Less likely to be noticed is a superficial alignment of the team. Everyone seems to be in agreement and heading the same direction. It’s only when you pay attention to side conversations that you’ll see that there’s actually disagreement and conflict. If people don’t feel that it’s safe to question a tactic or goal, they aren’t likely to commit to it. If they don’t feel their goal has any significance, they aren’t going to invest energy in critiquing the tactics involved in reaching it.
It’s probably easier to identify a lack of commitment in an individual. You’ll notice general lethargy, absenteeism, hear cynical comments, excuses, rationalization, and see some finger-pointing. You won’t notice the person making the vision/goal/tactic theirs by putting some individual mark upon it. You won’t hear any championing of the team’s work or other team members. You’re likely to notice lots of side comments or hallway conversations about the team. You see no show of confidence in the team. The person will be a seat warmer unless a topic to which they are committed is brought up. The individual will take on only a minimal amount of responsibility or work. Personal goals and ambitions are placed ahead of the entire team.
Individual commitment to a group effort—that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.
— Vince Lombardi
Identifying reasons for a lack of commitment
Lack of trust is a prime reason for a lack of commitment. Is there a fear of retribution? Do new ideas get shot down immediately? Is there historical or current mismanagement of the team? Historical retribution can leave a scar that takes time to heal. If a team or individual feels like good work was punished even once, trust has been destroyed.
Lack of accountability will discourage an entire team. Does all the credit for individual or team efforts attribute only to the leader? Does one person get away with actions or lack of action that the other members disapprove of? Does it seem like no one notices if the team or individual does their work or not?
Lack of a shared vision can confuse a team. Does the team understand how their collective actions make a difference in meeting the organization’s vision? Do the members understand how their individual contributions affect the team’s success? Are the visions of the team and of leadership aligned?
Contradictory goals always frustrate those responsible for meeting them. Is the team being asked to create something inexpensive, high quality, and quickly produced? Have they been instructed that they must meet the expectations of multiple stakeholders who are all equally important? Is their work defined well enough? Does everyone know how their success is measured?
A demand for consensus can make less forceful individuals tune out. To avoid endless discussions and to achieve some sense of movement, some people will silence themselves. Their silence will indicate weariness or despair, however, and not commitment.
Obsolescence could be an issue. Is the team still meeting just because it always has? Is the team still necessary to make the decisions or take the actions?
Lack of empowerment can be demotivating. Can the team or individual initiate the actions necessary to reach the desired goals?
One manipulative or antagonistic member can derail an entire team. Does someone need to be moved or removed? Is someone assigned to a team as punishment, real or assumed?
Steps to promote commitment
It is the leader’s task to create a culture of commitment.
Build trust. Set expectations and meet them. Confront real issues. Take the time necessary to repair real or imagined hurts. Listen. Take accountability for yourself. The leader must take the lead.
Align visions. Again the leader has to take the lead. Discuss the organization’s vision and your own. Allow for critique and questioning. Clarify, try different modes of communication, and revise your own vision in light of what you learn.
Clarify roles and responsibilities. Discuss the strengths and talents the individual and/or the team brings to the organization. What are the skills and talents, roles and responsibilities? Is it possible to assume these responsibilities with current resources?
Review past communication. How can each of you communicate more clearly, more concisely, more timely?
Reward good work. Make an assignment that’s within reach and can be executed fairly quickly. Reward success. Review why success was achieved.
Promote group identity. People like to feel like they belong to something special. Give the team a name, allow for a few inside jokes, talk about the team with pride, give it recognition for achievements.
Make the hard decisions. Don’t allow an employee or team to flounder, trying to rank priorities, wrangle resources, or make decisions because their leader won’t set the priorities, ask for resources, confront a problem employee (or client), or make the hard choices.
Allow for failure. Make it clear that setbacks can be planned for, learned from, and overcome. Set the expectation that people will get up if they fall; if a pitfall is spotted ahead, anyone seeing it is expected to call it out.
Ask for the commitment. It’s a simple step that’s often overlooked. Ask for commitment to the team, to each other, and to the organization.
Here are a few indicators of a committed team or individual:
- Actions align with the vision.
- Ideas and tactics are challenged.
- Accountability is upheld.
- Meetings end with clear decisions and next steps identified.
- The possibility of failure and obstacles are acknowledged, understood, and planned for.
- Individuals act as champions for the team and for their own work.
- Results are achieved through creativity, resourcefulness, and energy