After managing dozens of managers in my career, I’ve noticed a failure pattern that can happen on teams. It usually starts with a feedback signal, either from an individual on the team, from a pulse survey, or from the manager of the team. These situations can also be more of a surprise if you’ve just inherited a team and its manager from a re-org.
The manager might tell me in a 1:1, “We’re not going to deliver that project on time because the engineer was having some issues with the build. And I’m not sure about that other project because the team we depend on seems to have a different opinion about how to solve it. Also, the team is demotivated.”
Uh oh. Okay—triage mode.
I might say, “Alright. How do you currently understand the roots of these issues, and what have you tried in terms of solutions?”
It turns out that the manager is competent, well-informed, and genuinely wants to see a recovery from what seems like a team-wide breakdown in morale and success. But they seem stuck. Not completely out of ideas or motivation to get their team to a good place, but strategically tapped out—they’re not reaching in new directions, not seeing from new perspectives, and not successfully drawing from others. They’ve lost their mojo.
There are many paths that can lead to a lack of mojo for a manager, I’m sure, but I’m more interested here in the question of “What next?” for their leadership. Here are a few things to try that have been effective (or that I failed to do, and in hindsight would have been effective).
Time off reset
- When was the last time that the manager had significant time off (10 days or more) to relax and reset? Not holiday time with extended family, not newborn care, not bereavement leave, etc.—real relaxed disconnect time.
- If managers on your team are not taking this type of time at least once a year (I’d prefer twice a year), I am worried about your organizational health.
- The takeaway is obvious: ask them, make a plan for their time off, get manager coverage for their team, wish them well, and tell them that you’re excited for their return.
Peer leader reset
- I believe strongly that effective organizations are built of tight-knit groups of peers, at every level. As a leader of managers, you are responsible for creating the conditions and the accountability for the development of trust and collaboration among the group of managers you lead.
- When was the last time that those managers met up face-to-face, to bond, to vent, to heal, to trust, and to create some shared vision? I hope this is also happening at least twice a year.
- Can you arrange for your newly-relaxed manager to come back immediately to such a leadership off-site?
Ways of working reset
- Now, look inside of the team: which metrics are telling their story well and which are getting in the way? Should you work with the manager to change their metrics (and thus the incentives on the team)?
- Does the team have strained or broken relationships across the organization? Can they lead a successful reformation of those relationships with your support (and that of your appropriate peer)? Especially for teams that play a critical role at the nexus of many teams, problems with morale and inefficiency more often end up being problems of trust across teams or functions, at bottom. Start with people, trust, common goals, and build process and feedback loops on top those of those.
- Or maybe the team is trying to do things the way they always have while the environment or systems have changed around them. Would it make sense to partner with the manager to change some of their processes (with a feedback loop!) or move system ownership around between your teams?
- The point here is to ensure that the team has a clean and tidy workspace with a well-polished set of tools, so to speak. The manager should make all changes in concert with their full team, so they can all be part of the reboot, gaining personal agency and a stake in the outcomes of the refreshed team.
Resets are sometimes great and necessary, but how do you turn them into consistent practice and avoid a devolution back into problematic territory for your teams? One critical tool (as always, as a leader of complex systems) is going to be the feedback loop.
Feedback loops among peer leaders
- Is the manager willing and able to get help from their peer group of managers and cross-functional partners? Do they have a larger support network, who have the necessary context and knowledge, beyond just you (their manager)?
- How do you ensure that this group of leaders is collaborating, sharing, building trust, and helping one another solve problems? That will likely depend on culture and personal style, but I’ve successfully used an all managers in my org meeting for this, every 2–3 weeks. It doesn’t need to be heavyweight, and you don’t need to be present every time, but you do want to watch the health of those interactions.
1:1 feedback loop
- Lastly, and maybe most obviously, make sure that you’re following up directly on the initial issues with the manager in your 1:1s. Don’t let it slide under the rug or treat it like a shameful or embarrassing past. Every state of failure is a learning opportunity and every recovery is a story of hope and a source of energy for the manager, their team, and your organization at large.
This has been a brief look at some key factors to consider when you notice that a manager reporting to you is running out of strategic perspective to effectively lead their team out of malaise or slow failure.
I’d love to hear more perspectives from others who have led through or suffered from these types of issues.