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7 things that negatively impact your team’s health and remedies

Team’s health is often underestimated, but it is extremely important. Healthy teams are motivated, creative and collaborative. They are enthusiastic about delighting the customer and making great products, they help each other and care about the team’s success. On the other hand, unhealthy teams are just like unhappy families, every unhealthy team is unhealthy in its own way. They might be productive and even create good products, but in long term the poor health will result in motivation drop, internal conflicts and people leaving company for good.
In this blog post I will discuss 10 factors that can and will affect your team’s health in a negative way. Please keep in mind that this list is not explicit, and team’s health is generally quite fragile, so it is important to keep a close eye on it at all times.

#1 Lack of vision and purpose

Nothing damages the team’s health more than absence of clear vision. When I start working with a newly formed team, the first thing I do is defining team vision. Sure, you might have your company vision, but that’s not enough. Every team member should be able to answer themselves to the question: “Why our team is here and how do we bring value to the world/customers/organization?”. People need purpose to make their work meaningful. Also, a vision helps to simplify decision making and prioritization for the team.

Remedy: define team vision

Do a vision creation workshop. Start by defining the customers your team is serving, then analyze their problems, goals and pain points and discuss how you are going to bring value to them and what makes you different from competitors or other teams.

#2 Poor priorities - “Everything is super important”

When everything is urgent, in short term it sometimes can increase productivity. People work together to hit a tough deadline at their maximum capacity and they are crushing it. But it is extremely stressful for everyone and therefore not sustainable. At some point people get exhausted and start putting more energy in showing how busy they are, pushing back on deadlines and arguing about priorities than actually doing the work. Any creative idea is met with hostility (“that’s more work for us!”) and the overall quality of the product goes down.
Poor prioritization might also manifest itself as a complete lack of priorities - “do whatever you prefer”. You can guess that it also doesn’t help with teamwork and motivation.

Remedy: get rid of deadlines and get your backlog under control

There are often a few things that need to be fixed here: removing deadlines as much as possible or at least allowing the team to decide deadlines, prioritizing the backlog (and this is where the vision comes in handy) and estimating work items to measure velocity and establish a more sustainable work plan.

#3 Lack of ownership

When someone gives team orders and they are not allowed to make decisions about the product, that kills all the motivation and innovation. Team members become just executors without any stake in the product and not feeling responsibility for the product success. Nothing is worse than when team members don’t care about the product they’re making.

Remedy: give team the ownership

Agile best practice is establishing end-to-end ownership of the product by the team. It might not always be possible, but there are always ways to give team at least some authority to make decisions and deliver results.

#4 Toxic team member(s)

It only takes one person to complain and whine all the time in order for the team health to be damaged. There are many different types of toxic personalities and there are books written about it. The toxic behaviors I’ve encountered most frequently are critics (“Nothing is working, our product sucks, we don’t have enough resources”). They might have the point, and it’s important to listen to them, but at the same time they ruin the atmosphere in the team and discourage others.

Remedy: do retrospective and feedback meetings

It’s important to have regular retrospectives to allow people to speak up about problems (including atmosphere in the team) that are bothering them. But what I find the most important is having feedback sessions with the person causing problems, and then also coach all team members on feedback giving and receiving techniques. In rare cases you might be dealing with borderline personality disorders and psychopaths, and feedback won’t cut it. Then you might need to engage this person’s manager or HR, but that should remain the last resort.

#5 Working in silos

When each team member is working on their own thing without collaborating much with others, can we really call it a team? Information sharing does not happen, people are not communicating and are not supporting each other. Of course some of them might have a very narrow specialization and they would work on things no one else can do, but having shared understanding in the team about work in progress, its significance and current priorities is critical for team’s health and productivity.

Remedy: start with estimation

In my experience, nothing helps better to break silos than story points estimation of work. After all, the whole point of doing it is getting on the same page about the scope of work, so team member would need to share what they’re doing and also get more into details of what others are working on. Over time they will start finding ways to help each other, and there might be meaningful conversations about the approach and alternative solutions.

#6 Poorly organized processes

Not having a planning cadence, but rather ad-hoc meetings, skipping daily standups, not doing retrospectives - the list goes on and on. Lack of discipline and self-discipline leads to bad quality of work, conflicts and tension in the team. It also creates additional burden, because processes help us to stay on track - make the right decisions, have meaningful conversations and ask questions. Without processes you need to constantly plan and decide ad-hoc, which might be stressful for a lot of people.

Remedy: set up team events at a regular cadence

Simple, plan recurring events - planning, backlog refinement, product review, retrospective and daily stand up. Your events might be different and that’s okay. The most important thing is to have a regular retrospective so that you can assess what is working and what is not and continue improving your processes.

#7 No psychological safety

Most commonly lack of psychological safety is related to experimentation. It is common knowledge that when people are punished for failure, they are hesitant to experiment or innovate. However, psychological safety is also about the atmosphere in the team - do team members speak up when they disagree with something? Are their voices heard? Or HIPPO (highest paid person’s opinion) always wins? If the team members don’t complain or don’t voice their opinions, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everything’s fine, it might be the lack of psychological safety.

Remedy: it all starts with the leadership

Managers need to lead by example: show some vulnerability and be open about their own failures, ask for feedback and act upon it, show respect to all team members’ opinions and reward challenges, not failure or success.
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