The Weekly Reid: How to Lose a Team in 10 Days

If you manage teams for long enough, you’re going to lose them every so often. You’re going to get busy or distracted. You’re going to make mistakes. The company is going to go through ups and downs. It’s impossible not to lose the team once in a while. We all do it. Through my own reflection and self-assessment, I’ve identified 10 specific management behaviors you should be on the lookout for. When you see these in yourself or in leaders on your team, you should be doing whatever you can to eliminate them.  

Here’s how you lose a team in 10 days:

Day 1 – Protect underperformers

It’s easy to trick yourself into believing that terminating underperformers is bad for morale. You tell yourself firing people makes team members nervous, that it signals larger systemic problems, that it brings people down. I’ve seen many managers talk themselves out of a termination they know in their heart is the best thing for the business. Managers who apply this line of thinking are, more often than not, rationalizing a fear of making tough decisions. They use this flawed logic to defend it to themselves and others.

In a performance-based culture, protecting underperformers does more harm than terminating them. When you allow low performers to flourish, it tells top performers that there is an unfair playing field. If you’re not careful, your inaction will cause you to lose the high performers in favor of the low performers.

Day 2 – Cancel 1-1s

For some managers, the first thing to go when things get busy, are regular 1-1s. You should never do this. In fact, the crazier things get at work, and the busier people are, the more you need to prioritize these check-in meetings. Cancelling 1-1s is a sure-fire way to lose touch with your team and ultimately have them slip away entirely.

When I notice things are uniquely chaotic for my team, I make a point of doing more 1-1s to give them the opportunity to talk things through, share challenges and feel supported. Its counterintuitive, but I’ve found doubling down on 1-1s during turbulent times to be extremely effective.

Day 3 – Disparage departing employees

Some inexperienced managers are unable to control their emotions when people leave the company or get terminated. They can’t help but speak negatively about their former team members in public. This is a huge mistake. Your team is always watching. And when they see you disrespect or disparage former employees they naturally imagine how you’d speak about them if they left.

Managers should make a point of speaking positively in public about employees who have left, no matter what the circumstances of the departure were. There is no downside to this approach that I can think of. Control your emotions, always be kind and respectful when speaking about departed team members, or risk losing the team you still have.

Day 4 – Sugar coat everything

Your team is smart, don’t lie to them.

Some leaders have a nasty habit of trying to paint everything as a positive. They tell themselves it’s to keep morale up and to prevent panic, but it’s actually a great way to lose a team. In my experience, it’s much more productive (and positive in the long run), to be honest with your team. Don’t tell them things are ok when they’re not. Tell them what is going on, and ask for their partnership in overcoming whatever obstacles you face. They can take it. They will surprise you.

Day 5 – Pay inequitably

10 years ago, it was uncommon for employees to talk openly about their salaries. They do now. Glass Door and other sites have made pay so much more transparent. The new generation workforce has completely abandoned the conventions we had when it comes to talking about money. It’s time to acknowledge everyone on your team knows what everyone else makes. For this reason, (and for the obvious ethical and moral reasons) you must make a point of paying equitably.

You can lose a team in a heartbeat if they discover you’re not paying fairly across gender, race, performance, and experience. I realize there are many practical realities that make consistent pay equity more challenging than it appears on the surface. New hires tend to come in at higher salaries, some people negotiate harder than others, your company doesn’t always make it easy to fix pay gaps that may exist. I get all that. But your team needs to believe YOU are committed to doing the right thing. If they don’t, you’ll lose them.

Day 6 – Talk badly about staff when they are not present

Many leaders, when frustrated, will talk disparagingly about staff members when they’re not in the room. It often happens in front of that person’s peers or subordinates. This is another byproduct of leaders not being able to control their emotions. It’s inexcusable. When you speak badly about a team member in from of their peers or subordinates, it sends a terrible message.

If my manager talks about him like this, how does she talk about me when I’m not here?

When I’m in the presence of others, I try to use the classic rule – if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. It’s not always easy. I will admit, I still catch myself from time to time, criticizing a team member when they’re not present. This behavior serves no purpose. There is no upside to speaking negatively about a person in front of others and we all need to eliminate it or risk losing our teams.

Day 7 – Apply standards inconsistently

Have you ever had a manager who seemed to be very hard on certain teams and very easy on others?

Have you ever had a manager who seemed to care more about some functions than others?

I think we all have. Sometimes this happens because of a leader’s personal experience and interests. Other times it happens because of personal relationships. Whatever the reason, leaders risk losing their teams when they’re seen to be setting the bar differently across people and groups. It sends a very confusing message. It seems unfair. You can lose the team entirely if you’re not careful. I’ve found it helpful, in my self-reflection, to make sure I’m pushing all teams and people to the same standard of excellence.

Day 8 – Miss team meetings

I catch myself, from time to time, cancelling the full team meeting I run every week. Most of the time it’s for unavoidable reasons, but not always. If I’m travelling or engaged in a big project, a regular team meeting seems like an easy thing to push. In fact, this is the opposite of what I should do.

The more disconnected you feel from your team – due to travel or high priority projects – the more important your team meetings are. If you’re feeling disconnected, your team is likely feeling that at 10X. If you get too disconnected, you can lose them entirely. Next time you’re about to push or cancel your team meeting, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.

Day 9 – Make yourself unapproachable

This is one I’ve thought about a lot over the last five years. Some managers create an aura about them that makes them difficult to approach with bad news or challenges. I have been accused of this in the past and it bothers me every time I think about it. As a leader, your team needs to feel comfortable bringing bad news to you. You want to be the first person they think of when sh&t hits the fan. If they’re afraid of telling you, if they think you can’t handle bad news calmly, they will internalize problems and you won’t find out about then until it’s too late to take action.

Day 10 – Stop communicating

Communication has been a recurring theme in this list. As soon as you stop communicating with your team, you will lose them. Some managers prefer to operate at an arm’s length from their teams. They sit in an office and pat themselves on the back for not being a micromanager. The problem is, when you’re not actively communicating with your team members, you run the risk of missing too much important stuff. I have always favored a much more active management style than some experts advocate for. I want to be in the middle of things with my team – not to micromanage them – not even to direct them – but to be in the struggle alongside them.

Whatever approach works best for you, I recommend to all leaders to engage in a continuous, active dialogue with your team. Do save your conversations for regular 1-1s and update meetings. Keep communicating or lose your team.

If you’re anything like me, you see a few of these in yourself. I’ve found it helpful to practice regular self-reflection and self-assessment. I actively look for weaknesses in my management style and act to shore them up. If you’ve got some other bad habits I may have missed, please send me an email or share in the comments.