If you’ve been a manager for any length of time, you’ve seen your team members have up days and down days. After all, real life is dynamic. You’ve also observed that your team’s productivity and emotions aren’t always trending up and to the right.
But what happens when your team’s struggle seems to be worsening and the problems appear to be systemic? You notice that:
- Even your top performers are lethargic.
- You see the tops of heads as people spend more time looking down at their phones.
- The break room seems crowded, but no one is talking about the work.
- The office atmosphere seems to be sucked of all its energy.
Then, the pressure starts to build. First, it builds in you. You’re not meeting your own standards as a leader, and your team is missing the mark. Then, your boss starts to notice, and the pressure gets turned up a little more. And you wonder – “Things aren’t going well. Does my team notice?”
And if experience tells me anything, it’s your top performers that will notice first. If there isn’t change, they might be looking for greener pastures. Again, more pressure.
What are your options?
There are a few solutions that managers tend to try:
1. Do nothing
I put this here because that’s what you may be thinking but this isn’t a real option.
This is what got you here and it won’t get you out. If you’ve seen the warning signs, this situation won’t work itself out. Your team is looking to you – they want you fix the problem. Don’t let them down.
2. Pull the reins hard on the team
Work harder. Longer hours. More focus. Less chatter.
Work harder, longer hours. More focus, less chatter. Is this really the culture you are trying to build? Sure, sometimes this strategy works in the short term, but it’s not sustainable.
Still convinced it’s a good idea? Consider this: laying down the law and pushing harder and on strategies will only give you the results you want if they are the right strategies.
If there’s any doubt, you do have one more option. It’s the one I recommend as the first step, because it’s low risk, lightweight, and powerful.
3. Make micro adjustments
Since you know your team isn’t in a healthy place, you need to make a change. But how much? How do you move the needle without stressing out your team? Micro adjustments can get your team on the same page without a complete overhaul of practices and processes.
I learned the importance of micro-adjustments in my first driving lesson. My instructor sat in the driver’s seat and started down the road. Then he told me that he wouldn’t move the steering wheel off-center unless I told him to.
Within 5 seconds we were headed into oncoming traffic.
“Right!”, I screamed.
He moved the wheel to the right.
“Left!”, I shouted.
Left we went.
“A little right…a little left…a little right…..left….right…”
After 15 minutes I was completely exhausted. I had nothing left. At that point, he stopped the car, and explained to me that driving wasn’t just setting the car in motion in a certain direction. It was setting the car in motion toward a specific target, then making a series of micro-adjustments based on road conditions, direction, traffic and unexpected events that surface as you drive. It was dynamic, not static.
How to make micro-adjustments for the first time
Here are some tips I have found helpful in making sure micro-adjustments make the impact you need:
1. Start with collaboration.
The key to helping people walk through change without completely destabilizing them is to allow them to speak into it. For example, if your team tends to resists changes that a leader hands down, collaboration can help them feel ownership of the team goals. They came up with them, so they’re more likely to drive them home. Collaboration can also help them become problem solvers and help you focus on other high-level challenges. So work with your team on a micro-adjustment you might make.
2. Ask Questions
Unfortunately, many leaders say they’re collaborating. But often they use their platform as the facilitator to get people to rubber stamp their own ideas. You have to be willing to live with the chaos of a lot of ideas, including many you won’t like. But let it roll. Ask more questions.
- What do you find energizing about your work?
- What do you find draining about your work?
- From your vantage point, what are the key problems keeping us from succeeding?
- What are some micro-adjustments we could make that would make a significant impact?
- EXTRA CREDIT: How can I improve as a leader?
3. Put the micro-adjustment into play
Once you and the team have gone through the process of discussing possible micro-adjustments, try one or two out! For example, let’s imagine you lead a sales organization. Your team is struggling, and after some collaborative discussion you wonder if a new sales script would help. Your team decides to test the idea with a small group of sales people who are game. Try it, then…
4. Measure the impact
This requires honesty and the willingness to let go of your assumptions. Take a “just the facts” approach. Drawing from the sales team example, let’s say after two weeks, call lengths are up by an average of 3 minutes for the test group. You and your team agree this is a good sign—not only are prospects staying on the call longer, they seem more engaged. Awesome! Now, on to the next step:
5. Adjust and implement changes
Again, you’ll want to collaborate with your team in this step. Based on our sales example, you meet with the team at large and suggest that all sales associates try the new script. Because of the success of the test group the rest of the sales team agrees. Then…
6. Measure the impact again
You find that sales associates working in the Southeast US didn’t have the same positive results. Then you meet with those folks and revise the script for their audience. This is exactly why you made micro-adjustments, so now…
7. Try different micro-adjustments
The Southeast US sales group tries the new changes.
And on it goes!
Invite unconventional ideas
Now that we’ve talked about the importance of micro-adjustments as a way of introducing change and bringing energy to the team without completely destabilizing them, let’s add one caveat:
Don’t be afraid to get a little crazy.
Most of us won’t be coming up with ideas that would be considered “life or death”, but in 2004 members of the US military did. At the time IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) were killing and wounding coalition soldiers in Iraq.
I can only imagine the meetings they held trying to solve the problem. That’s when it occurred to a creative someone to spray Silly String to identify the nearly invisible trip wires in areas where they were particularly difficult to see. The brightly colored string saved the lives of soldiers by identifying the threat. Silly string? Really? Yep, and while the initial idea may have been met with laughter, the solution saved life and limb…literally.
As a manager, if you introduce a crazy idea (even if there is no chance you’re ever going to try it), your team will feel released to think creatively. Giving them permission to dream (and maybe laugh!) will be good for your office culture, and will help you revive the energy you’ve lost. And the best part is you may come up with a great solution!
I hope these tips will prove helpful as you lead your team out of the doldrums! If you walk through these steps and make the micro-adjustments your team needs, you’ll likely see a significant jump in productivity and team morale. And it should be more fun, too!