Most Teams Underperform (And Their Leaders Don’t Know It)


I recently completed interviews with fifteen leaders across a range of companies, small and large, in a variety of industries.  These conversations focused on their experience with teams; we discussed barriers to high team performance, the importance of developing teams in comparison to other company priorities and the performance of these teams.  Regardless of industry or size, I noticed similar themes in each interview which was not a surprise and confirmed to me there are a common set of problems teams and their leaders face.

I followed a similar script of questions in each interview, and my first question was “How often do teams you are connected with fulfill their potential?”  The most frequent answer I received was ‘not very often’, most typically stated as ‘maybe one in twenty’.  Taking this at face value, as many as 95% of our teams are not fulfilling their potential, and I think it is reasonable to say that many more than 5% are working very hard.  From my personal experience, at least 50% of them are working extremely hard for very longs hours.  This means in spite of their effort and best intentions, most teams are underperforming.

The answer to my second question is perhaps even more revealing.  I asked “How do you know if a team is fulfilling its potential?”  The answers I received to this question led me to conclude leaders do not have a reliable measure of team performance they use confidently and consistently.  The answers were very ad hoc and usually focused only on the business results of the team, described in terms of scope, schedule, quality and cost, the typical project measures.  In only a handful of cases did the leaders talk about team morale, engagement and satisfaction, and even less talked about the ability of the team and its members to learn and grow.

Without a set of clear measures and goals, it is no surprise that as few as one in twenty teams are fulfilling their potential.  Performance improvement is a journey and reaching the destination requires a map, a plan and the means to know whether you are on the right path.  Without it, a team may get lucky and have an unusually talented group of people who are able to overcome the usual team dysfunctions, but usually there is an absence of any focus to improve the performance of the team because the leader is unaware of the opportunity available to them.

Fortunately, every leader can take some small and relatively simple steps that will help them understand the performance of their team and make a plan to improve it.  The starting point is understanding what is high team performance, and I look for three outcomes:

  1. Is the team delivering results that satisfy the basic expectations of its customer?  This is a low bar, most high performing teams recognize performance to agreed customer expectations is the minimum level and aim to exceed them.
  2. Do team members enjoy working on the team?   Are they highly engaged (committed to the team goal and feel satisfied)?
  3. Is the team and its members learning and continually growing?

There are many different ways of measuring progress and results in these three areas and since each team is different, there is little value in trying to define a standard set of measures.  Instead, I recommend having what has most likely been a missing conversation with the team.  Set up a group conversation, outline the three main areas of high team performance and ask your team members how they collectively want to measure results in these three areas.  Listen carefully to their suggestions, encourage collaboration to build on them.  Doing this is a very powerful leadership move, that if done well, empowers your team members, invites them to take personal accountability for their performance and shows them you care about your team.  And you end up with a set of measures and plans your team is bought into.