Building a Productive Team

Sailing crew on sailboat on regatta

Building a productive team is one of the most challenging yet rewarding activities that the workplace has to offer. Working well with others is achieved not just through carrying out tasks together but also through building meaningful relationships, setting expectations, and being accountable. However, building a productive team is not something all managers have mastered. According to Gallup’s research, 70% of employees in the USA are not productive. This is having a detrimental impact on economic growth for organizations. This study shows that of these 70%, 52% are not engaged, and 18% are actively disengaged and extremely unproductive. It is estimated that active disengagement in the workplace costs the USA between $450 billion and $550 billion in lost productivity every single year. This underlies the importance of making sure that teams operate productively.


Creating a productive team can be tough. Management experts believe that one of the key factors in achieving higher productivity and workforce engagement is to focus not only on tasks and outcomes but also on interpersonal relationships between team members. The best teams are typically comprised of individuals that work collaboratively with one another. This is not something that happens on its own. The team manager or lead must drive this. This means addressing expectations and ways of working and outlining expected behavior. In some cases, an individual may behave competitively rather than collaboratively, which will not be productive. Goals must be set upfront for how others are to work together in order to reassert that the best work is collaborative. Creating these goals can be done as a team–coming up with agreed upon approaches and expectations on how to work together– and thus further reaffirming a team’s commitment to these process goals.


Setting expectations is crucial because everyone has different values and ideas about what is best. If expectations are not set, people will behave in a way that creates conflict with others. When conflict is not productive or being used to drive innovation, it negatively impacts on team productivity, leading to lower chances of success. Setting expectations should include not just defining acceptable behavior but also how team members should communicate and interact with one another. However, despite expectation setting conflict may still arise. People that are able to handle conflict effectively are helpful for team productivity. Teams are never comprised of people that all agree on everything all of the time. Being able to negotiate through conflict and behave in a manner that is respectful is what counts. These are skills that need to be encouraged in in any team to increase productivity. This may require training and development. It will be very likely to require both positive and constructive feedback from the team leader to help individuals to develop the desired behaviors.


On the subject of feedback, team managers need to be transparent about what is working in the team and what is not. This requires directly addressing problem points with the team and insisting on accountability. Where expectations regarding behavior have been set and where these are not being adhered to, this means going back to basics and looking at what is going wrong. A frank discussion with the team allowing input and suggestions for change can be effective in finding workable solutions and helping to build better relationships and trust. Team members can also get engaged in this conversation and discuss what they think works well and what does not, and this can be good for generating change.


One of the challenges of working with teams is that often the team leader may not have authority or management responsibility for the team. When the task of leading the team is discussed it is best for the new leader to ask their manager for certain parameters in terms of authority that can help them to do the job. One is having the authority to be able to remove people from the team who are not working out. Mary Shapiro, author of the HBR Guide to Leading Teams and professor at Simmons suggests that one of the best ways to do this can be having the ability to fire people, but if not, at least being able to move them into what she calls an “individual contributor” role. An individual contributor is a person who works on the team’s task goals and is assigned work by the team, but no longer attends team meetings, and who only reports to the team leader separately. This has the beneficial impact of reducing this person’s negative impact on the team. When someone is moved into such a role this needs to be addressed with the team to minimize the upset created. It is suggested that the team leader acknowledges what has happened and then asks the team together to look forward and revisit the task and reevaluate the goals to make sure that they can all commit to them.


It is beneficial to work towards a position of mutual accountability with teams to promote productivity. If team members are involved in setting up the process goals and expectations at the start then they can also be held accountable both individually and as a group for making sure that everyone stays on track. Asking what has been going well, what has not and looking at what led to those successes and failures can help to identify patterns that can increase productivity. This can help to pinpoint what needs to change to improve team working. Participation in troubleshooting and determining what needs to change can be engaging for team members, helping them to feel more involved with the team, and this too has a beneficial impact on team productivity. Also, working together to devise solutions to problems can help team members to increase understanding of one another and build relationships that can facilitate productive working in the future. It stands to reason that the more people understand each other the better placed they are to work with one another effectively and productively. Another way of achieving mutual accountability after initial process and task goals are set is asking each team member to report back at each team meeting and acknowledge one area that they are grateful for about the work of each other team member and one area where they would like them to change, so it would be easier to get the task done. This is thought to be an extremely motivating activity to get people to change. If all of this starts before a person starts behaving in a difficult way then it is much easier to address than later on.


Micromanagement is a big killer of team productivity and is an area that team leaders and managers need to address carefully. Managers that cannot let go and delegate properly are guilty of this activity which can seriously damage morale. One of the problems with micromanagement is that no one ends up doing what they are supposed to be. The manager focuses in unrelentingly on microscopic details that he/she should allow the team to handle. This means that the manager is not concentrating on the bigger picture or allowing anyone to learn and grow. Meanwhile the team gives up trying because they know whatever they do it will be “wrong” and will need “correcting”. This creates a toxic environment that crushes productivity. This aside, nobody gets the chance to progress, as the manager is not able to demonstrate gravitas and an ability to be strategic, if focusing on the minutiae of how a spreadsheet is formatted.


Managers are often reluctant to let go and delegate properly, fearing that the job will not get done “properly” and that there will be mistakes. This is true to the extent that there will almost certainly be errors made when team members take on new tasks for the first time. However, like it or not, mistakes promote learning and this is one of the ways that people get better at what they do. This means that letting go is the only way that the team can become more productive in the medium and longer term. It is worth remembering that if a team member goes about a task differently than a manager would, that does not mean that it is “wrong” if the outcome is the same. It is just a different approach, and difference is to be respected because it encourages creativity and innovation. Creativity and innovation can also spark increased productivity.


Delegation is in itself is a fine art. Managers that want to build productive teams need to be able to delegate appropriately. That does not mean delegating everything, rather it means prioritizing. There are some tasks that the manager needs to retain control over because they are strategically important, such as making the final decision on team goals. Other tasks such as checking a spreadsheet might provide an opportunity for growth for a team member, but the manager does not need to be involved, and these types of tasks are ideally suited to delegation. Training may be required to help the person to understand what to do, and setting targets assists with understanding of the desired outcome and allowing team members to be accountable. Setting parameters and boundaries is also helpful to make sure that team members know when they need to provide updates, and the level of detail that is needed.


Sometimes all the delegation, feedback and encouragement in the world will not transform a disengaged person into a productive team member. In situations like these it is best if possible to say good bye to such a team member. Furthermore, it is necessary for a team to be effective to get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus on your project journey. Once you have the right people in the right seats, you have a chance of building a great organization. Do not forget to set clear expectations for team working too if you want to drive exceptional productivity increases.