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7 Steps to Move Teams Out of the Abatement Zone

Last week, I talked about how to get teams out of anxiety and into achievement through five steps.  Foundational to all of them was the need for leaders to have empathy and to truly understand their team's perspective.

This time I want to cover how to improve teams that are declining in performance, but don't know it.  They're stuck in a comfort zone of their own making.

Psychological-Safety-and-Accountability (1)-1

Teams that are trapped in the abatement zone typically have experienced a period of success and then coasted on their previous glories.  Jim Collins in his book, How the Mighty Fall, termed this “hubris born of success.”  It is a common problem in organisations for teams to believe their success is due to their own superior qualities (“We have earnt our success because we’re so smart”). The result is inertia and a significant downside where teams can wake up to painfully discover they need to play catch up fast.  

Research shows that optimistic people who expect to do well don’t try as hard as people who expect to struggle or fail. Leaders who remain ambitious in the face of both failure and success, and who push their people to remain dissatisfied with their accomplishments, instil a deeper sense of purpose in their teams and organisations. As a result employees feel a sense of progress, reinvention, and growth, which in turn results in a more meaningful and positive work experience.

Abatement is when leaders create psychological safety, but don’t hold their employees accountable for excellence. In this environment, employees have no incentive to stretch themselves, be proactive or creative.

The key term to transition this team into the achievement zone requires focusing on energising the team.  This needs a two-pronged approach.  First, the leader must be willing to create stretch goals for themselves and be challenged.  Second, the leader must be willing to spend the time with each team member to motivate them to excel.  Here are some steps to do that:

1. Introduce a BHAG

As a leader, it’s not enough to inspire ourselves and our team to complete work.  We need to have a goal that helps us believe we are making a meaningful impact to those around us. 

Introduce a BHAG - or a Big Hairy Audacious Goal to your team.  Ideally, it is one set to the vision of the company or one that you set with your team.  It could be "To successfully complete monthly financial reports with no mistakes, in order to help the executive team measure company progress."  The more we do work that appears to have no real purpose, the less motivated and engaged we become. 

2. Focus on Breaking Records

As Jack Stack said in the book, The Great Game of Business, stop people from pursuing mediocrity and encourage the pursuit of excellence,  through introducing a game where you challenge team members to break their last record. It can be as simple as "This week we are going to focus on getting a report out in four days, rather than five." 
Breaking records is a fun way to inspire your team and get out of their comfort zone.  

It builds a positive momentum where success builds on success, but it has to start with the leader.
In abatement, leaders are often uncomfortable improving themselves and subsequently pulling people up for poor performance.  So starting with a record you can break is a nice way to dip your toe into the water.

3. CreatE a Learning Environment

Organisational learning requires that teams continuously assess their performance to identify and learn from successes and failures. Getting into the habit of using a structured approach to learn from successes and failures embeds institutional learning into the fabric of your teams and organisation.
The After Action Review (AAR) is useful for reflecting upon a project during and after its completion. Sharing the results from your AAR can help future teams learn your successful strategies and avoid pitfalls you have worked to overcome.  It sends a powerful message that learning is expected and safe.
Other techniques include employees sharing their learning from attending a conference, doing volunteer work or even learning a new process.

4. ProvidE Regular Feedback

If there is one thing that causes distrust in an organisation, it’s when employees are allowed to continue working, even though their performance is dragging everyone down around them. Often, the leader and company become the scapegoats because they haven’t done anything to remove the offender.  In this environment, you’ll find that people aren’t working at their full capacity. In fact, you might even see this in employee engagement results where engagement is high, despite productivity being low.  

We need regular feedback to inform us how we are doing to keep us motivated to stay on course. It reinforces what we need to do and helps us correct what we are doing wrongly. Measurement and feedback are critical to increasing performance and motivation. When we don’t receive it or receive it after an activity is performed, it negatively impacts our self confidence and sense of achievement.

Yet, so many well-meaning leaders avoid giving feedback for fear of being uncomfortable raising negative information. Or because they don’t realise the importance of providing progress updates.

To make feedback really effective, schedule regular one-on-ones with your direct reports and work with them to provide feedback in a way they like.   

In team meetings, share feedback regularly and encourage team members to trade ideas on how things are going and what can be improved.

Making feedback a daily occurrence encourages people to challenge, share and learn. It will become part of how the organisation (and team) operates. It will also make it easier for employees to challenge the leader which is a key component of psychological safety.

5. Focus on Meaningful Work

To encourage our team into the high achievement zone, we need to help our team connect to the impact and the meaning behind the work that they do. 
Research has found that when people experience meaningful work they report better wellbeing, health, teamwork and engagement.  They are more likely to have a growth mindset where they see mistakes as learning opportunities rather than failure.

Typically, leaders often discuss how strategies will move the company forward but fail to clarify how or why employees’ contributions matter. People need to know how their work connects to the organisation’s vision and what’s in it for them.

Without a belief in personal impact, people tend to devalue their job. Work is transactional. Accountability is low. People feel replaceable. And while no leader or organisation can control meaningless, leaders can actively cause meaninglessness. A study from MIT found that few employees made any mention of effective leadership during meaningful moments at work. Yet, poor leadership was associated with undermining meaningfulness.
The best way to do that is to ask questions that help people to self-reflect on their job role. After all, we don’t often realise meaningfulness while we are at work. We tend to connect the dots when we reflect on our past work and what gives us joy and what doesn’t.

Openly discuss with your team members:

1. What are we working on that is personally important?
2. What’s the point of the work we are doing?
3. How do you believe that the work you’re doing matters and adds value?

6. Introduce Shared Metrics 

Creating an environment where people are learning, receiving feedback and breaking records must be underpinned by shared metrics.
When employees know what success is going to look like and how that positively impacts customers, it creates incredible focus.  As Patty McCord, says in the book, Powerful, "Clarity around vision, success, quality and metrics aligned with time allows you to put together amazing teams. Most important thing is to know what greatness is with time attached. That in six months you’ll have happy customers."

7. Regular Rewards and Recognition

People need to see how they are making progress and how much further they have to go.  Create weekly recognition rituals where people are verbally recognised for their contribution in team meetings.  Use more formal rewards when bigger goals are achieve.

Energising Your Team

Typically, teams that are in abatement believe they’re doing a good job but have no desire to improve or even think differently.  Sometimes, they have even fallen into a hole where the fear of success inhibits them from committing to higher levels of achievement.

Changing the status quo requires leaders to provide honest feedback around where the team is now and where they need to go, providing incentives and real time feedback along the way.  The time and effort required is worth it.  Otherwise, the leader will find themselves spending most of their time fixing issues because their team aren't accountable.  And a team environment where ideas go to die, people coast and other teams work around you, not with you.

What's your experience with teams in abatement?