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How to detect a potential problem within your team

Team reaction
Deadlines
One-on-one
Internal Communication
Health / Stress / Burn-Out

6 December, 2017

It took Nikhil some took time to detect that there was a problem with one of his engineers because his colleagues were reluctant to criticize him.

Problem

Sometimes, it is easy to spot when one co-worker is unhappy with another because people are straightforward with their complaints. However, it's a lot harder when people know each other well and don't complain about their colleague openly. During a one-on-one, one of my direct reports told me we needed to talk more about one of our processes. He said that it felt like the process wasn't clear to everyone. I tried to dig deeper and understand why. He told me that he was worried some people were not aware of the time requirements associated with the process.

Actions taken

I investigated a bit more during other one-on-ones with the rest of the team and although everyone seemed quite aware of the requirements, many expressed the need to review the process. Only one person admitted to not being quite clear about the requirements. With a little bit more digging, I realized that most of the complaints people had were related to this person not being prompt in responding to others in regards to this process. I then decided to talk to him about it. I realized that part of the problem was the process itself. We had used a combination of qualitative and quantitative language (e.g. "within a reasonable amount of time" or "within an hour or so"), as opposed to clear, quantitative language (e.g. "five minutes" or "half an hour"). Although most people had interpreted this in the same way, I decided to make it less ambiguous. I worked with my reports to agree on clearer, quantitative language, that would match everyone's expectations. A week or so later, I checked in with others to verify whether the process had improved.

Lessons learned

Gentle complaints in the context of coworkers working well together are hard to spot. My suggestions are to be alert during one-on-ones, dig deeper if you sense a frustration, give people room to talk about issues they are facing and ask for examples. The key is to watch out for patterns in stories across time, as well as in one-on-ones with multiple people.


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