How is it that some people can inspire us to strive for greatness while others turn us off?

For me, one of those amazing leaders was my high school biology teacher, Mr. Kaziersky. He knew how to engage, inspire, and motivate his students to achieve outstanding results. Our classes consistently outperformed our peers on AP exams and SATs. What was so remarkable was that he didn’t always have the best or brightest students. There was something about his approach and the learning environment he created that enabled us to thrive.

Decades later I can still remember many of his lessons with complete clarity. One was on the nature vs. nurture debate. With his deadpan sense of humor he professed:

“You are a product of your genes and of your environment. Your parents gave you both, so either way it’s their fault!”

– Mr. Kaziersky, high school science teacher

Nature vs. nurture in the workplace

The idea of nature vs. nurture is not limited to individuals—it’s also a concept that can apply to teams and how they behave and perform.

The talent of the team members that make up the team is the DNA, or the “nature” component. The work environment, including systems, processes, and inter-personal dynamics, comprise the “nurture” component.

In the workplace, teams are a product of their members and their work environment—both of which are provided by the manager. So, if teams are struggling… well, I think Mr. Kazinsky knows the rest! Whether the problem is the makeup of the team or the team environment, both are under the control of the manager.

How to intervene if a team is underperforming

In case of a team performance issue, should a manager change the nature or nurture component? These questions will help diagnose the underlying problem and point to a solution.

  • Is there a talent problem (nature)?
  • Is there an issue with the work environment (nurture)?
  • Is there a combination of factors?
  • How is the manager implicated?
  • What is the right intervention to address the root cause?

Great managers are comfortable doing the due diligence required to identify the root causes of team performance. They have the confidence and humility to be introspective and recognize that the prescription may be something that they have to change about themself, someone else, a process, a tool, or any number of factors. They have the ability to not only address legitimate talent challenges, but they can also affect the environment to strengthen team dynamics.

3 Deadly Traps of Team Mismanagement

The greatest danger arises when a manager makes a major change that doesn’t address the root cause of poor team performance. There are numerous ways to mismanage a team, but these 3 deadly traps can be particularly devastating.

1. The “New Blood” Trap

Situation: There are challenges with the team’s working environment. Instead of focusing on nurturing the team, members are swapped out or added to try to improve performance through an infusion of new blood.

Problem: The organization doesn’t care or is unwilling to make difficult changes to the working environment. Management is focused on a quick fix, instant gratification, and self-preservation.

Result: The team loses faith in management. They become cynical and suspecting of motives. Morale is impacted, engagement slides, and performance worsens.

A better approach: Talk to each member of the team individually and ask them all the same due diligence questions. Compile the feedback and make the findings transparent to all members. Share your plan to make adjustments openly. Even better, facilitate a team working session to create the solution together. This will boost team engagement and ownership of the prescription.

2. The “Let’s Be Friends” Trap

Situation: There are challenges with individual performance and it’s impacting the team. Instead of addressing the team’s DNA, the manager tries to change interpersonal dynamics or employs team-building activities to boost performance.

Image result for team building meme

Problem: The manager is too weak to address personnel issues. They may be protecting or favoring someone. There is no accountability for performance.

Result: Team members become frustrated and can feel unappreciated or undervalued. Feelings of inequality can come into play where there is no perceived accountability or reward for performance. Morale is impacted, members become disengaged, and performance slides.

A better approach: Address struggling employees individually. Make sure that their roles and expectations are transparent. Set clear performance goals for them to achieve, and give them training support, if necessary, so they can strengthen their skills. Measure performance and hold them accountable for results. If they still can’t perform, make the necessary staffing adjustments to strengthen the team.

3. The “Groundhog Day” Trap

Situation: There can be any type of challenge impacting team performance, and the manager does nothing to intervene. Instead, they complain about stress, pressure, and may resort to yelling about performance. With no new action, they expect better results. But the same conditions create the same poor results over and over and over again.

Image result for groundhog day meme

Problem: The manager is delusional or irrational. They don’t understand or care about the team. Expectations are unrealistic or impossible.

Result: Team members become disengaged, demoralized, and paralyzed. Performance goes down the drain.

A better approach: In this instance, the organization needs to intervene at the management level. The manager needs coaching to become a better leader. If the manager’s behavior doesn’t change, they need a different role where they won’t cause further damage.

Nurturing a team and inspiring team members to perform well is not an easy task. It requires care, effort, time, patience, self-confidence, selflessness, and humility. These were the amazing characteristics that Mr. Kaziersky had, which enabled his students to outperform their peers.

Managers have the benefit of controlling both the nature (talent make-up) and nurture (environment) components of their teams. Understanding this awesome responsibility is the first step toward giving teams what they need, and knowing when and how to intervene .