Anyone who has worked in business has, at some point or another, smelt the stench of stale teams. Teams that started out as a success story, wowing clients and higher ups with their creativity, commitment and enthusiasm, can quickly grow complacent. The fact is, it's a hard slog to sustain a high-performing team. Serious graft is required to keep team members rowing in the same direction week after week, year after year.

Fortunately, for teams stuck in a rut, there is a groove-busting remedy. Here's how to help your teams stay hungry for success so they can continue working the way they should long after the honeymoon is over.

Why good teams go stale

How does a high-performance team survive its own success? By striving to achieve the same level of clarity it had when it was first achieving. Unfortunately, it takes a tremendous amount of discipline to maintain a state of continuous improvement - the team needs to run like a well-oiled machine. If a personal, interpersonal or external problem throws a cog in the works, your once-successful team will literally break down, despite everyone's best intentions.

In their book, "The New Why Teams Don't Work: What Goes Wrong and How to Make It Right," authors Harvey Robbins and Michael Finley identify a host of reasons why previously successful teams fail. These include:

  • Mismatched needs -  Team members with hidden agendas working at cross-purposes derail the progress of the team.
  • Cluttered objectives - Team members don't know what they are supposed to achieve, or the vision makes no sense to them, so the team ends up chasing its tail.
  • Bad decision-making -  The team makes bad decisions, perhaps because they are missing key information or expertise, or the members succumb to groupthink; alternatively, the team makes good decisions but in the wrong way.
  • Uncertain boundaries - The team doesn't have a clue about how empowered it is, which stifles decision making.
  • Personality conflicts - A potentially great team can quickly be undone by issues around values, trust, accountability, and rivalries.
  • Ill-conceived reward systems - A team that is rewarded for the wrong things will quickly lose focus on its goals.
  • Unwillingness to change - The team knows what it has to do, but for some reason is unwilling to do it. If the blockage is not identified and cleared, the team will simply not perform. 

To add to this list, we can identify the following pitfalls:

  • Excessive competition - In business, competition between or within groups can provide the motivation to perform. However,  if competition becomes too pronounced, it can inhibit collaboration and lead to dysfunction.
  • Overconfidence - Successful teams may be encouraged to "keep doing what they're doing" because it has earned them some wins. But a team that rests on its laurels pays less attention to its processes, and its results become predictable.
  • Unrealistic expectations - Teams are often touted as the holy grail of productivity - saving time, improving communication, making better quality decisions and providing better service. Under the right conditions, teams can provide these benefits. But it is unfair to ask every team to provide all of these benefits. A team battling against an unrealistic vision will soon be hit with low morale, cost overruns, and a loss of respect for the organization.

This all sounds fairly terrible for teams. But it's important to remember that all teams encounter at least some of these problems on a fairly regular basis, and most of them live to fight another day.

Tips for sustaining your high-performing team

Teams, like fires, need stoking, feeding and attended to if they are to burn effectively. Once you've identified a problem within your team, it's important to take immediate action.  Here are some of the steps you might take to get your team back on track.

1. Review the team's membership

"Keen" team members are bouncing with energy. They may be new to the team (keen and green) or they may be part of the office furniture. The uniting factor is that they bring enthusiasm and ideas to the table. "Veteran" employees are the team's good soldiers. They've been on the team a long time and have the technical skills to do the job. Veterans may also be keen but invariably, some of them will lose their passion over time. We all have a limit on our enthusiasm; this is part of the natural life-cycle of teams.

When a team member has entered the final phase of their team membership, it's important to take action before their fatigue permeates the wider group. Consider removing the team member for a short time so that they may stretch themselves in a different environment, gain new confidence, and return to the team re-energized. Temporary assignments can give the flagging team member a boost just when they need it. Another option is to create an alternative position for the person within the team. Sticking with the same role and responsibilities can be a straightjacket for some people. Assigning a different role may be enough to reinvigorate a played-out team member and restore positivity to the team.

2. Bring in a deviant

Teams with a permanent and stable membership can quickly grow stale as the members get used to each other's behavioral style and fold themselves into comfortable boxes. Rather than wait for the stale cycle to begin, pre-emptively look for a fresh pair of eyes whom you can bring in for a few weeks or months to help shake things up and generate new thinking. Every team needs the occasional input of a deviant, someone who can challenge the usual way of doing things. Sometimes, one dissenting voice is all it takes to reinvigorate a team's creative thinking and energy.

3. Change your rituals

Rituals have tremendous power for teams since they can make team members feel connected and loyal to one another. Rituals that fit well with the team chemistry generally stand the test of time - they feel natural, and reinforce a perceived need within the team. Occasionally, however, a ritual can become stale. If the last-Friday-of-the-month pizza or morning huddles are no longer generating a buzz, it's time to switch things up and replace the elements that aren't working with a new ritual.

4. Re-clarify the team's direction

The best teams not only synthesize the skills of their members to fulfill the demands of the job, they also motivate team members through the fellowship that comes with working toward a common goal. But if the team has been living with the same goals for some time, the vision decays, and the team is unlikely to find stimulation in its purpose. Leaders need to step in at this point and re-articulate the vision. Goals that are clear and engage hearts and minds in human terms acts as a corrective against frustration, misdirection and conflict.

5. Shine a light on the team's good qualities

Few teams are entirely dysfunctional but if the only behaviors you acknowledge are the flaws, they can certainly become that way. Leaders and managers have an important role here - to shine a light on glories, celebrate successes, and give credit where credit is due. Teams that understand the real worth of everyone they work with don't get bent out of shape if they're having a bad day, and display greater resilience in the face of adversity.

Summing It Up

Teams are difficult because they're made of people, and people are both wonderful and flawed. Teams rise and fall on these characteristics. The best teams acknowledge their imperfections and are vigilant to problems that may arise in the team's life cycle. They continually identify the things that lead to team success, and the things that do not, and adjust their processes accordingly.

It might take various strategies to get an underperforming team unstuck, or to stop them getting stuck in the first place. There's no one-size-fits-all solution here. But adopting a diagnostic attitude, and keeping a healthy curiosity about the team dynamic should stop your team from slipping too far from its intended path.

Jayne Thompson
Jayne is a B2B tech copywriter and the editorial director here at Truity. When she’s not writing to a deadline, she’s geeking out about personality psychology and conspiracy theories. Jayne is a true ambivert, barely an INTJ, and an Enneagram One. She lives with her husband and daughters in the UK. Find Jayne at White Rose Copywriting.