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5 Habits That Are Holding Your Team Back (And What to Do About It)

Habits are what we repeatedly do – they can help us grow or hold us back.

By Gustavo Razzetti

March 9, 2023

In today's fast-paced work environment, effective teamwork is critical to success. However, despite the growing emphasis on collaboration, many teams struggle with bad habits that hold them back.

According to a study, 86% of employees cite a lack of collaboration or ineffective communication as the reason for workplace failures. From not showing up to meetings on time to avoiding conflict and blaming others, these habits can undermine a team's ability to work effectively.

In this article, I will explore five common bad habits that impact team performance and provide solutions to overcome them.

1. Not starting meetings on time

Most companies have turned “don’t start meetings until everyone shows up” into an unwritten rule. This habit might seem innocuous, but it creates much more harm than you realize.  

A meeting that starts five minutes late decreases productivity by eight percent, according to a study by Bain & Company. It’s also the most frequent complaint I hear consulting clients – that’s why it’s number one on my list of habits holding teams back.

When you wait for offenders to arrive, you give them a free pass and normalize starting meetings late. Even worse, you show that your company doesn’t value attendees’ time. Inadvertently, you end up punishing those who arrive on time.

Yes, there are exceptions and good reasons. But more often than not, it’s the same people who arrive late and the same people who show up on time. It has nothing to do with titles. I’ve seen CEOs showing up right on time and many mid-level managers who consistently arrive 5-10 minutes late to every meeting.

How to fix this:

Tackle the system. Usually, impunctuality is a sign of a bigger cultural problem. Does your company have an always-on culture that rewards busyness over performance? Are people rewarded for being in back-to-back meetings? Does your organization celebrate a heroic mentality?

Start the meetings on time. Stop waiting for late arrivals. You can always bring them up to speed without redoing or slowing down the discussion.

Reduce the size of the meetings. Inviting fewer people will make it easier for everyone to show up on time – and the quality of the conversations will improve, too.

Shorten your meetings using 5 minutes increments. Most meetings should fall within the 15 or 25-minute duration.

Create space in between meetings for people to do things, from taking bio breaks to taking care of action items for the meeting that just finished.

Block time for deep work – and respect it.

2. Coming unprepared to meetings

Doing homework before a meeting guarantees more productive conversations. Real-time collaboration is a luxury. The more you prepare ahead, the better. Instead of spending time sharing, debriefing, and rehashing issues, team members can focus their precious time together to do more meaningful tasks.

Unfortunately, many team members come unprepared to meetings – just like with showing up on time. They don’t comply with basic assignments like reading a document, answering questions, or completing an exercise before the meeting.

Is your culture punishing those who complete the pre-work by letting those who don’t get off the hook?

Being busy is a lousy excuse. You must cut through the skepticism. Preparing ahead will translate into shorter, more effective meetings.

What to do about it:

Explain why. Many teams consider pre-work as an additional, unnecessary burden. I’ve helped dozens of teams reduce the length of their meetings by turning pre-work into a regular practice. Rather than time wasted, having more focused and productive conversations is an investment.

Intentionally design the pre-work. Creating a document or activity is extra work for the meeting leader. Craft the exercise with the end in mind: what are you trying to achieve? What’s the desired outcome and how will it facilitate better conversations?

You can also carve out time to complete the pre-work at the beginning of the meeting, just like Amazon does with its well-known “memo.” People spend 15 minutes at the start reviewing the document, reflecting on it, and writing down their thoughts or questions before the discussion starts.

Completing pre-work is a very effective way to improve collaboration in a hybrid workplace. Everyone – not just a few – should do it to turn it into a positive habit.

3. Playing the blame game

Blame is pervasive in team settings for both personal and cultural reasons.

We have a double standard when it comes to the actions of others. We blame circumstances for our own mistakes but individuals for theirs. Social psychologists call this bias the Fundamental Attribution Error. It’s the tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are – we attribute errors to character or personality.

Blame is a sign of an unhealthy culture. Teams often jump into the name, blame, and shame game when something goes wrong, trying to find who to punish.

Our sense of moral superiority is distorted: we overestimate our moral virtue and underestimate others. Everyone believes they are more committed, harder workers, or have better intentions than other members. We feel our actions – like cutting corners – are justified by having higher moral values than others. However, we point fingers when a colleague does it.

How to move from blame to blameless:

Focus on the system, not individuals.

A blameless culture is built on the belief that mistakes are generally a product of faulty systems rather than the fault of one or more individuals. Addressing systemic issues requires tackling the root of the problem rather than finding the culprit. To minimize errors (and blame), you must fix the system.

Facilitate a blameless postmortem. Review a recent incident with your colleagues and focus on what happened, not who did it. A blameless postmortem is like an action review without finger-pointing.

Assume positive intent. Always start from the idea that a person meant well or was doing their best, no matter the outcome. Before judging people and jumping to conclusions, give them the benefit of the doubt.

Brené Brown defines positive intent as “extending the most generous interpretation possible to the intentions, words, and actions of others.” When there’s conflict, state the problem in a neutral, non-accusatory way and invite people to talk openly. Often, people rise to your view of them.

4. Not addressing conflict in the open

On a good day, your team culture is invisible. On a bad day, it becomes noticeable but for the wrong reasons. That’s the problem with avoiding conflict. The little things to which we pay little attention quickly become the big things.

Addressing conflict early is easier and ensures that the little things don’t turn into bigger, harder-to-solve issues. It prevents conflict debt from piling up.

The sum of all contentious issues a team needs to address is what Liane Davey calls “conflict debt.” Even though it’s invisible, it often gets in the way. As the author explains in The Good Fight, the longer an issue remains undiscussed, the more the conflict debt piles up.

It’s impossible to avoid conflict – every team has issues they need to discuss.

What to do about it:

Stop thinking that conflict is bad for your team. Reframe it as data that can help team members learn and grow together.

Understand what generates conflict debt in your team.

In my research, I identified three common reasons:

  1. Avoiding conversations: Whether purposefully or not, the issues that are not addressed will not disappear. Teams avoid conversations because they don’t have time, minimize problems, expect them to vanish, or are afraid to confront their colleagues.
  2. They assume intent: Others jump to conclusions when a colleague says something. They react and judge people’s intent before understanding what they mean. Asking clarifying questions can prevent us from making faulty assumptions.
  3. Not pausing to reflect: Busyness gets in the way of having courageous conversations. When people are running from one task to another, they fail to make time for what matters.

Address the stinky fish in your team.

Conflict debt can be detrimental to your team. The Stinky Fish is a metaphor for issues your team fails to address. The longer colleagues avoid conversations; the stinkier things will get.

Uncover the Stinky Fish is an activity we use with our clients to help teams address issues in the open. This visual canvas provides a set of questions to uncover different problems.

The best approach to managing conflict is to address it early on – before it piles up.

5. Thinking that collaboration should happen in real-time

One of the biggest mistakes most companies made when forced to work remotely was carrying old habits into a new way of working. They continued approaching collaboration as something that needed to happen synchronously, with everyone reviewing information, making decisions, or brainstorming simultaneously.

The result? Most teams struggle with an overload of meetings, Zoom fatigue, and late hours, even on weekends.

Traditional workplaces were filled with synchronous communication. Meetings required everyone to show up and people were expected to take calls and respond to emails immediately, regardless of what else was happening.

The benefits of asynchronous communication go beyond flexibility, creating a much calmer environment.  At Doist, people can set their own work schedules, are not pressured to respond outside of work hours, and have the time and space to think about a topic and then regroup with thoughtful responses.

How to fix this?

Make meetings a last resort. Think twice before sending a calendar invite. Does it have to be a meeting? Explore other collaboration options and leave meetings for meaningful team exchanges.

Default to synchronous tools. Stop using real-time events to broadcast information or discuss project updates. Prioritize asynchronous communication for teams that are spread across different time zones. Not only is this more inclusive, but it also makes information available to everyone simultaneously.

Become better at documenting. Documentation provides clarity, consistency, and context – people can understand the journey, not just the latest destination. Creating a single source of information will ensure everyone is on the same page without calling a meeting.

Create a communication cadence. Create a content sequence integrating synchronous and asynchronous communication. A hybrid workplace provides the opportunity to create sequences of small doses of content. You don’t need to rely on one single presentation.

Make participation optional. Provide team members with the autonomy to choose where they invest their time. If a meeting is not adding value or they have nothing to contribute, let them be elsewhere. Opting out is not slacking but being more considerate of how to invest their time.

The Habits That Are Holding Your Team Back

Research shows that bad habits can hold teams back and hinder their ability to work together effectively. However, by acknowledging team patterns and actively working to change them, teams can create a more positive and productive work environment.

Habits are what we repeatedly do. To build a new habit, you must make it obvious, attractive, and satisfying, as James Clear explains in Atomic Habits. Reflect with your team on how the new behaviors will address these four elements.

Learning new habits requires unlearning bad ones – and that everyone abides by the same rules. The system should reward those who comply with the desired behaviors. Letting offenders off the hook is no longer an option.

Small steps toward developing healthy habits can significantly impact communication, productivity, and trust. These tiny habits, like starting meetings on time or opting out from unproductive Zoom calls, can gradually improve collaboration.

Over time, tiny habits will become ingrained in your team’s culture.

Article by Gustavo Razzetti, CEO of Fearless Culture

Gustavo facilitates courageous conversations that drive culture transformation. He is a sought-after speaker, culture consultant, and best-selling author of the book Remote, Not Distant.

Razzetti is also the creator of the Culture Design Canvas – a visual and practical method for intentionally designing workplace culture. His insights were featured in Psychology Today, The New York Times, Forbes, and BBC.

What do you think?



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