4 Steps to Help A Team Member Up Their Game

Customers are more focused on value than ever before. And rightfully so. The downside is if they do not perceive value, they can switch to an alternative more easily than ever. This applies to business-to-business (B2B) relationships as well. Whether an enterprise or an individual, there is little time to waste in clearly demonstrating value.

When a team member is not performing to standard, or at peak, whether in the C-Suite, front line, back-office or production floor, the organization suffers and value to the customer is potentially impacted. This can be in terms of real value, or reduction of brand equity, depending on the level or position of the team member.

The magnitude of impact is different at different levels of the organization. Ken Snyder, executive director of the Shingo Institute said, “The sum of the behaviors of the people in an organization is its culture.” In the aggregate, if we have team members who are not on their game, and interspersed throughout the organization, there is real potential impact to creating value for the customer.

When a team member is not on their game, others pick up the slack, which can cause frustration, reduced productivity through work slowdowns or stoppages and other related issues.

The question is how do you help a team member up their game?

1. Respect Every Individual

The first guiding principle of the Shingo Model is Respect Every Individual. This is critical to understand when helping a team member to up their game. The term “every individual” is critical. If you “respect others” or “respect humanity”, you can make a personal or unconscious decision as to who qualifies as “others” or “humanity”. To Respect Every Individual requires that you actually respect every individual. There is no discrimination here. No one is left out. We need to respect even those that are struggling to pull their weight. This means that even though they may not be pulling their weight, they are human beings, who have feelings, fears and concerns like everyone else. Showing respect, even in difficult circumstances, allows them to recognize that even though their behavior may not be accepted, they as an individual are. This is a critical foundation for the next step.

2. Lead With Humility

This is the second guiding principle of the Shingo Model. Anyone can be a leader. A formal position or title is not necessary. Peers on the same team can show informal leadership without title, position or seniority. If we understand this concept, then it is easy to Lead With Humility.

To Lead With Humility, we don’t make assumptions about another’s behavior. In the words of Stephen Covey, before striving to be understood, we must “seek first to understand.” This is a bit counterintuitive as our natural, and often emotional response is to jump to conclusions. Critical thinking methodology teaches us that there are multiple perspectives and the truth is often somewhere in the middle. To Lead With Humility is to seek the truth.

When a team member isn’t on their game, our natural tendency is to make assumptions or jump to conclusions. This may be more so now, during these difficult times than ever before. The under-performing team member may be struggling with financial, health, childcare or other issues. The pandemic may be the cause, or at least exacerbating these issues. There is significant data supporting the idea that people do not perform well when burdened by too many stressors. Especially negative stressors.

By engaging in conversation where you try to understand the drivers behind why a team member is not on their game, your ability to help them and the situation, increases significantly over finger pointing and blame. No one comes to work with a desire to fail. No one. A supportive team member, or more importantly a supportive team, can make all the difference in the world.

Years ago, my wife and I were in a severe automobile accident. I came out of it with a few scratches, but my wife suffered major trauma. For several months I was the primary care provider as my wife convalesced. Most people are happy to help when the malady is overt and obvious. Such was the case for the first six weeks or so after the accident. However, there was a long period of recovery, both physical and psychological, for my wife after the physical manifestations of the accident were no longer obvious.

During that second phase of my wife’s recovery, I sat down with my boss and explained the situation, that this would be a long process. He offered to go to my team and explain the situation to them. Although I was grateful for his support, I declined, preferring to speak with my team myself. I just needed him to be aware and to know that I had his support, which he confirmed.

When I shared the problem with my team, I told them things were going to be more difficult over the next couple of years, than they had been for the last several weeks. I explained why this would be the case. I told them what I would be able to do, and what I would not be able to do. Rather than make assignments, I asked who would be willing to volunteer to pick up the slack for specific areas I needed help in and allowed them to own that until we settled into the new normal. As long as I stayed in communication with my team and asked them for updates on the areas they had volunteered to help with, as well as informing them of what I was doing myself, everyone remained supportive.

The best part of this personal scenario was that through the difficult time I was managing, I forged relationships that still, 10 years later, are strong and vibrant. This turned out to be a side benefit I did not expect from the ordeal I asked for their support on, and which subsequently they shared the burden of. At the end of the day, my wife and I settled into the new normal and I no longer struggled. My team became a better team for it.

3. Focus on the Process

This is the fifth Shingo Guiding Principle and applies to helping team members get out of the productivity rut they find themselves in, and up their game. Team members that lack commitment to the work, whether process or project, may exhibit an appearance of not caring. Baron Von Steuben faced this issue when training troops and officers of the Continental Army to prepare to meet the most formidable and battle-hardened army of the time: The British regulars. Von Steuben quickly learned that to motivate and engage the Americans was not to focus on the work of drill, but rather to focus on the why of the process. Once the Americans within the Continental Army understood why they needed to learn drill, they were all in. In fact, they were able to subsequently use their newly acquired skills to prove their mettle at the battle of Monmouth courthouse. In what nearly was a disaster, Washington, reminded his troops of the why and they rose to the occasion, surprising the British army by turning a rout into a robust and surprising counteroffensive.

What it means to Focus on the Process is to recognize that people often don’t exhibit behaviors, even behaviors of not contributing fully to the team’s objectives, because they choose to. Often, there is something related to the process that has either allowed them or driven them to demonstrate their behaviors. Sometimes this is a matter of perspective. We all get excited about a new role or new job. Some naively claim that this new element of work is their “dream job”. However, the fact is that no matter how romantic one feels about their new role or job, at the end of the day, when the newness has worn off and the allure is gone, it is just work. Plain and simple.

In Lean theory, we learn that the work itself is often uninteresting and can be redundant. Even at executive levels of the organization. A simple paradigm shift causes us to think not think of work, but to Focus on the Process. This paradigm shift is articulated thusly: “The work is not the work. Improving the work is the work.” Said a different way, Gene Kim, founder of Tripwire and prolific author on operational excellence, says, “Improving daily work is even more important than doing daily work.” Helping a struggling team member with a different perspective is often all that is needed. I once learned a verse that has resonated with me on this issue:

It’s only the view from where you sit, that makes you feel defeat.

Life is full of many aisles, so why don’t you change your seat?

4. Lead With Humility (Again)

It’s interesting that these steps to helping a team member up their game include Lead With Humility twice. But it’s true.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help with helping your teammate. There are several people you can ask for help, and perhaps should. I like to begin with the person who is struggling. Often, they know what the problem is. They know they are underperforming and generally have an idea as to what they need to do to change. I like to start conversations of this sort with a question: I have a problem and was wondering if you could help me? In my recollection, I’ve never had anyone say no. Then I might frame the problem in this way. “I’ve noticed that you seem to be struggling. It has an impact on the team, many of whom have been working to keep the pace. I’d love to help if I could. Would you be willing to share with me what you might be struggling with?” Very rarely does the other party not respond. To be clear, they may avoid giving a verbal response at that very moment and say they’ve got it, or I’ll do better. Just knowing that someone has noticed, and cares is often enough to change the behavior. But you had to ask. Other times, a meaningful conversation takes place. You may find you can’t solve the problem, but the fact that you asked sincerely is enough to help them get over the challenge they are facing.

If the above doesn’t work, you may need to ask a peer, colleague or supervisor for their insights. Be sure to ask them for insights and not ask them to act. Their intervention could backfire for the team. Emphasize that you are seeking ideas to improve the situation, not for their intervention. If in the conversation with the team member a problem is revealed that is outside your scope or capacity, such as depression, death of a loved one – you get the idea, perhaps you need to ask HR for help. In such cases, be sensitive to issues of confidentiality and privacy. Be sure you also get an understanding of how you and the team should behave so as not to be more of an emotional burden to the struggling team member.

A Final Thought

Teams are like the engine of a car. There are a lot of moving parts that need to work in harmony with one another to achieve peak and consistent performance. This is called reliability. When one of those parts does not perform, the performance of the engine suffers. Reliability exists no longer. So it is with teams. Whether executives, managers or associates, to function well, everyone needs to be on their game. When a team member is not, these steps can help remedy the situation and develop a stronger and more cohesive team. Finger pointing and blame, on the other hand, serve only to alienate and disenfranchise. Let’s all focus on these steps and help elevate any struggling team members we may have. In so doing we can then continue to focus on creating value for the customer. Which, by the way, is the tenth guiding principle of the Shingo Model

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