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The #1 Team Productivity Killer and What to Do About It

Updated: Mar 3, 2022

At one time I was an internal Learning and Development consultant for an organization. My role was to deliver training and help leaders and teams build skills. I often received calls from managers that sounded like this:

Amy, my team is really struggling. There’s a lot of conflict, they don’t seem to like each other, and they rarely agree. The disagreements either escalate into heated debate or everyone shuts down. The worst part is we waste a lot of time on this. We need training on how to manage or resolve conflict efficiently. Can you come to our next team meeting and teach the team how to do this?

Sounds like a reasonable request, right? It is. If the problem was indeed about conflict. But it wasn’t.

In this case, I had a more in-depth conversation with the boss and a few conversations with the team. It became clear what the real problem was. It is the same problem that many teams who spin wheels debating, arguing, or complaining have and it is what I have named the #1 team productivity killer: unclear roles and responsibilities.

Most teams who think they have conflict problems or productivity problems really have role clarity problems.

Here’s what happened on this team: They had a shared email inbox for customer service that they all took turns managing. They had defined who would cover each day and who was back-up when someone was out. In their eyes, they had defined who was responsible for the inbox.

What they had not defined was how to archive the email, what questions should be escalated, or how to follow-up with each other when work was incomplete. Everyone was managing the inbox differently which resulted in stress and added work for some. This built up over time without being addressed and turned into unproductive behavior: gossiping, complaining, and debating over who was or wasn’t “doing their job”.

Instead of training, we resolved the problem with three team meetings dedicated to clarifying these roles and responsibilities.

I ran into the manager a few months later and she confirmed this approach: “It’s amazing how much better they get along now that they’re all on the same page.”

If a team is not clear on who does what when and how, they will most certainly waste time and (worse, I think) feel less engaged and satisfied.

Clarify roles and responsibilities and re-evaluate these definitions periodically to ensure everyone is getting the most out of their work. Here’s how.

Assess the Situation

If you notice people disengaged on the team, frustration percolating, or downgraded productivity, don’t immediately assume there is a problem with the people. Meaning, “they’re a bunch of complainers” or they lack positive attitudes. Rather, examine the work. Assess the situation.

For example, a friend described her frustration over a workgroup she was on that was tasked with defining new policies for their hybrid work environment. She vented that the meetings were a waste of time, and they weren’t getting anything done. I asked a couple questions:

Me: Workgroups like this are typically tasked to make decisions. Who is the decision-maker?

Her: We all are. There isn’t a specific person.

Me: Ok. How are you making the decisions?

Her: I don’t know. We’ve never talked about that. We just ask for agreement, if everyone doesn't agree, we just keep talking about it. That's the problem, we can't make decisions.

This too is a role and responsibility issue. Project teams, workgroups, and committees need to define who will be involved and how actions will be taken related to decisions, problem-solving, even documenting and saving notes.

If you’re working on a team that hasn’t had these discussions and there’s frustration, it is probably a good time to take a time out, assess, and define responsibilities.

Create a Plan and Clear a Path

After assessing, it’s time to create a plan to correct the gap. Consolidate the topics into the highest priority items and identify who will participate. Split that work across the number of meetings needed to get it done.

Then, clear a path. This means to put some activities (e.g., reports, meetings, presentations, etc.) on pause for a week or however long it will take. This shows the team how serious you are to correcting the issue.

This is what happened with the Customer Service team at the beginning of the article. They identified 6 specific processes that needed to be defined and agreed they could nail down two processes in one 60-minute meeting, resulted in the three meetings. They cancelled a couple meetings and delayed the delivery of one report (with their boss’s approval) to make time for this work.

Having a plan broken down into manageable segments allows the appropriate time to be dedicated and justifies deferring other work to get it done.

Define the Work and Evaluate

If you have assessed, planned, and created a path forward, you are well on your way to clarifying roles and responsibilities in a productive way. Because the appropriate “leg work” has been done, the actual task is less daunting.

Now, resume the work by practicing the new routines and processes that have been created. Do this for a couple weeks or maybe a month. Check-in with the team and evaluate the new processes. Have the issues been corrected? Is the team satisfied with the result? You can adjust as needed.

Examining work processes and the responsibilities therein are core functions for a leader and for the team. It is a shared responsibility but often, this activity is side-lined for the day-to-day work. When teams take a time-out from the work and ensure roles are clear, they find they not only get more done, but feel better about the work and each other.

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Until next time!


Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.

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