5 Ways to Keep a Team Focused on What Really Matters

Nov 10, 2014
8 Min Read

One of the most frustrating things for managers is to discover a team is focused on the wrong things. Such wasted efforts can be demoralizing for the team, stressful for management and detrimental to an organization’s bottom line. But research shows how to make the changes that will keep a team focused on what truly matters.

When you have a critical deadline approaching on a big project, as a manager you are hyper-focused on doing everything you can to ensure your team meets it.

Then it happens. Your worst nightmare.

You arrive for work one day expecting to get a status update that shows progress being made on systems and key details, but you instead discover:

After reaching for your jumbo-sized bottle of Maalox you keep in your desk drawer, it’s time to assess why your team can never seem to focus on what matters. Why do they always seem to be confused about what they’re supposed to be doing and why?

Haven’t you written them a million emails? Sat in meetings for hours outlining what’s to be done and when?

Well, yes, you probably have. But that may be part of the problem. It could be that your teamisn’t focused on what matters because you’re not presenting a compelling enough message and leaving them on auto-pilot for too long.

If you want to get your team better focused (and quit the Maalox habit), here’s what you need to do:

  • Change the way you deliver a message. Those “Zen” presentations where you present a metaphorical image with a few words? The photographs, bullet-point presentations and other messages you convey to your team via PowerPoint? Not as effective as good old whiteboard visuals, finds research by Stanford Graduate School of Business Professor Zakary Tormala. In an experiment, he found that participants were more engaged by a whiteboard presentation and retained more of the information later than other methods. An added bonus: the participants found the person giving the whiteboard presentation to be more credible than if the same person gave a PowerPoint or Zen presentation.
  • Craft a better narrative. While you may put a lot of thought into a big presentation to bosses or customers, you may just wing it when it comes to passing information to your team. After all, they’re paid to listen to you, so what more do they want? According to Zach Friend, a former spokesman for the Obama campaign and a communications expert, they need to feel an emotional connection to your message. In other words, while you’re presenting facts about a project (when it’s due, key components, etc.) you also need to frame it so that it strikes a chord with your team. For example, you may explain that your customer is a David versus Goliath story, and the team’s efforts will enable a small business to survive and help people keep their jobs.

To craft a good narrative, Friend, author of “On Message,” suggests:

  1. Grabbing your team’s attention with a challenge or compelling question.
  2. Giving your team an emotional experience by narrating the struggle to overcome that challenge or finding the answer to the opening question. In other words, allow each listener to put himself or herself at the center of the narrative.
  3. Galvanize your listeners’ response with a resolution that calls them to action. 
  • Touch base often.  Managers must remember that no matter how much they may wish it to be so, teams don’t operate on automatic pilot. Without frequent communications, they can quickly go off course, finds research by Alex “Sandy” Pentland, the director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory. 

Pentland explains that his research shows that in a typical team, about 12 communication exchanges per working hour may be about optimum, but more or less than that can cause the team performance to decline. In addition, everyone needs to be given a chance to talk, as dominant motor-mouth team members can lead to low team performance. 

Further, the best teams spend about half their time communicating outside formal meetings or “asides” during team meetings. This increase of informal communication tends to increase team performance, he says. 

  • Explain your thinking. Research by Heidi K. Gardner, assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, finds that the discord among team members can be averted if leaders explain their rationale behind a decision, such as when divvying up part of a presentation to a client. 

“Making your thinking clear lowers the potential for conflict that could otherwise arise if someone feels slighted. Being explicit also forces you to specify your own rationale, making it easier to see if you’re making any unwarranted assumptions,” she says. 

  • Consider a cheetah team. When something goes wrong, the whole team can unravel and resemble a pack of do-do birds running off a cliff. To keep the team moving and focused – but also deal with a critical problem – consider forming a “cheetah team.” This is a small team composed of experienced and top-notch team members who are brought in to specifically get a key component on track as soon as possible. Other team members continue to work on the main project. The key to success, researchers find, is that this team is brought in only for a short time to work full time on a specific task, disbands when the task if finished and is supported by top management.

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