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workplace team lacking high performance

When a team member goes off sick with burnout, most organisations respond admirably. In many countries the person’s job is protected by law, and beyond that some companies will provide support for their rehabilitation. When the time comes for them to return to work, those affected are offered a phased return to help them re-build their stamina over weeks or months rather than jump immediately back onto a speeding treadmill. All of this attention and care is good. Very good. 

The problem is in what happens around the individual. Because, if a burnout case were the focus of a classic ‘whodunnit?’, in the above scenario all the ‘detectives’ attention is focused on the victim. Other potential sources of trouble – especially the circumstances that created the burnout – are often let off without examination. As the focus is on the individuals concerned, it is on individual strategies and tactics that most organisations concentrate when offering support. If the problem is perceived to be individual resiliency, then the answers will include free in-house yoga classes, meditation apps, and anonymous helplines for distressed employees. These are all good initiatives, but – as one of our clients pointed out – they amount to pulling drowning swimmers out of a lake, giving them a massage and a pep-talk…, and then throwing them back into the waves. The example makes it clear that this is folly; they still don’t have the skills to thrive in the water, but the teams and organisations concerned can say, “Hey, look at all we did to help them out.”

From our work with individuals over the past several decades we know that teaching people great skills with workflow will support them with swimming (as opposed to sinking) in their workflow. Over time, we became aware that even with a brilliant solution for preventing burnout in individuals, we were neglecting a number of factors that contributed to overwhelm but were out of the control of any one individual. We realised it was at least as important to focus on what is happening in, on, and around the team when trying to work out what caused any member of the team to get seriously sick. Rather than compartmentalize the burnout case, we feel it would be much better to treat it as a harbinger of more and bigger problems to come. Burnout is not an infectious disease of course, but the circumstances that produce it offer fertile ground for others to succumb to the same malaise.

In our upcoming book, ‘Team – Getting Things Done with Others’, David Allen and I have taken a deep look at these factors and written a manual for how to make the team environment a more positive force; a support for what we’ve called ‘healthy high performance.’ 

David’s work has always been about high performance of course, and it has always been most attractive to the individuals who have a big vision and are moving fast to try to achieve it. In our research for the book, it became clear to us that high performance on a team cannot be established without considerable attention to the health of the team. A team that performs at a high level but regularly breaks its members isn’t really a high-performance team at all. Apart from the inhumanity of allowing it, its performance is by definition unsustainable. 

If this was a whodunnit, then it would make sense to widen the investigation of what happened to include not just the person most directly affected, but to enquire how other members of the team are being affected. Perhaps the most fruitful examination would be to look at the way the team is set up for those individuals to interact with each other. 

Doing a ‘whodunnit’ on a team is doubly challenging; it is more difficult to investigate things that aren’t there (but really should be). Its difficult work to examine the absence of something, and what’s missing is often what is creating the conditions for potential burnout cases to fester into actual burnouts. Like the dog that didn’t bark in the Sherlock Holmes classic, these things can be at least as useful to consider as the things that are more easily observable, like a long-hours culture or excessive communication on the team. 

In our work over the years, we’ve noticed that there are some key things that support healthy high performance on a team, and the absence of them tends to produce a series of negative results, of which burnout is only one of the most obvious. So, if we were investigating a burnout case through the lens of healthy high performance at a team level, we’d take a much more systemic approach. 

We don’t have space to cover all of that approach here, but a few ideas can give an indication of the kinds of reflections that will help. Some of the interventions can be quite quick – establishing a motivational purpose for a team needn’t take days of discussion for instance – and others rather longer (creating clarity about who’s doing what on the team and where the boundaries between roles lie can take days and weeks of experimentation).

A team culture of healthy high performance is one in which individuals are given clear direction on the following:

  • why they are doing what they are together
  • what they are trying to achieve with each other
  • what each person’s role is in making that happen

When there is a lack of clarity on those points, individuals will struggle to prioritise and focus on the important work of the team. 

Beyond that, such a culture is fanatical about reducing wasted effort and time by – for example – minimizing poorly prepared meetings (and eliminating ineffective ones entirely), establishing clear structures and processes to avoid double work and unnecessary friction. And, critically, it is a team that devotes sufficient time to maintaining its own systems – and allows its members time and space to maintain their physical and mental health, and key relationships too. The biggest challenge comes from the need to not just establish these things, but to maintain them over time. This is much more work than putting the onus on the individual to sort themselves out and become more resilient, but will also dramatically reduce the likelihood that they’d need to.

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