What's your Problem?

My team's been ravaged. How can I maintain performance?

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Q: I work for a large professional services firm. Since May, I've lost three members of my team of eight. None has been replaced and I've been told that the situation won't change for at least six months. I've accepted this, but the extra workload taken on by colleagues is starting to take its toll. They are stressed and performance is slipping, to say nothing of the office atmosphere. I've lobbied hard to secure at least temporary help, but I've got nowhere. As their manager, I want my team to stay motivated and I don't want performance to fall any further. Should I lay down the law to my senior manager (who is aware of the problem) and tell him the situation can't continue, or should I just hang in there?

A: Many of the most difficult problems in life come about not as a result of sudden, overnight changes of circumstance but because of slow and insidious slither. Office problems are no different. You lost one team member; and then another; and then a third. Each time, you accepted that times were tough and did your best to carry the extra load. As a result, things just crept up on you; there was never a clear-cut moment when things went from just about tolerable to totally unworkable; and so there was never an obvious moment for you to say: enough is enough.

But now you must. As a team leader, you have responsibilities both to your team and to your firm (sorry to sound so schoolmasterly). Sometimes, those responsibilities will conflict, but not in this case. Your team members are overworked and overstressed and their client work is suffering. You owe it both to your people and to your company to insist on some action.

My best advice, given how impossible it is to make the dangers of gradual, hardly perceptible decline sound urgent, is to seize on a single incident and use it as a kind of marker. You'll know better than me what that incident might be: a formal letter of complaint from an important customer, perhaps, or the threatened resignation of a key member of your team.

I'm not suggesting you should pretend that this single incident is all that concerns you; just that it's a last-straw moment; a screaming alarm bell; a final warning that can't responsibly be ignored. When bringing all this to the attention of your senior manager, be sure to emphasise the imminent danger to the reputation and performance of the whole firm, not just the human cost to your own people.

Work out in advance what action needs to be taken, and be utterly specific about it. Put it all in writing. The chances are that your own manager, however senior, will be unable to authorise additional expenditure unilaterally; so frame your case in a way that makes it extremely easy for him to refer the matter to even higher levels. Success can never be guaranteed, but I believe this approach should give you by far the best chance.

You may not immediately achieve all you want and need. But the knowledge among your team that you've been able to relieve the pressure even a little will have a disproportionate effect on their morale.

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