An organization’s behavior ripples out from the management team leading it.

So why is it that attempts to improve an organization rarely start in the boardroom with the management team? That’s like hiring a contractor to renovate the kitchen but refusing to move anything in the cupboards and insisting that the work not disrupt any meals or family gatherings.

The fact is that when change fails, it can almost always be traced to dysfunctional management. So before your company institutes a company-wide improvement program, take a tip from one executive who showed up at a team retreat with folders printed with the company logo and the words “Change Kit: Change Begins Here.” Inside, each manager found a large mirror.

Don’t know where to start? Here are five common management team problems and suggestions on how to deal with them:

Everything is urgent
Teams that get little done are often those that work the hardest. In the midst of tumultuous change, many managers confuse “busy work” with results. They seem to live by the French Cavalry’s motto: “When in doubt, gallop” — so everything is urgent. They set and reset action plans and make lists of projects, goals, and priorities. But seldom are these followed through to completion.

Setting clear priorities starts with identifying “strategic imperatives” or “must-dos.” Strategic imperatives are those vital few (three to five) goals, priorities and improvement targets that — when reached — make a real difference in delivering key results. These are cascaded throughout the organization with a disciplined goal deployment system:

  • Agree on three to five strategic imperatives.

  • Establish management ownership/accountability (and teams) for each imperative.

  • Develop key measurements for each imperative.

  • Have every team or department at all levels develop their three to five imperatives and measures that flow directly from one or more of the strategic imperatives.

  • Set regular (e.g. monthly) reviews and follow-up meetings at all levels, and communicate the results broadly.

  • Start the next cycle by agreeing on the three to five strategic imperatives for the next planning cycle.

  • Ensure you’re following the three keys to effective goal deployment: 1) Follow-up; 2) Follow-up; and 3) Follow-up.

  • Set goals and priorities from the outside in (customers) and help everyone see the big picture and where they fit in.

  • Take a hard look at whether busyness and long hours become a dangerous status symbol of importance. Are managers measuring their importance by volume of e-mails, vacations missed, or crazy hours worked?

Sniping, stones and snowballs
Management teams often poke fun at each other and send playful “zingers” around the meeting room. This can be a valuable addition to the team’s Laughter Index and boost its health. But too often team members slip below the line between good clean fun and destructive potshots. Cowardly team members who don’t have the skills or courage to constructively confront their colleagues often wrap serious messages in “humor.”

It can be like having a snowball fight. As long as the snowballs are soft and fluffy, everything’s fine. Then someone throws a snowball with a stone inside and aims at another person’s head. When the team member is hurt, the offender will often say: “I was just joking.”

But the “fun” escalates as more stone-laden snowballs and sometimes a few rocks get thrown back and forth across the meeting room table. The sniping, snowball, and stone throwing continues in the halls and office. Wounded management team members often go back to their departments and get the people reporting to them to help make and throw barbs and complaints at the other management team member’s department.

Set up a no-sniping rule. If any team member makes a comment that sounds like a putdown, cheap shot, or cynical remark, others tap their glasses or cups with a pen. The offender is then required to deposit two dollars in a fine pot, which will be donated to a designated charity at the end of each quarter.

Don’t be a coward who belittles, berates, criticizes or snipes at peers or team members in front of others. Have the courage to confront those issues one-on-one in confidential conversations.

Communication not information
Many managers are great at supplying information, but they’re not so good at communication. In the midst of the information age, our lives are overflowing with e-mails, voice mails, phone calls and meetings. But we suffer from a profound lack of communication. Too many managers over-inform and under-communicate.

As Mark Twain once observed about the weather, many managers talk about communication but few really do anything about it. That’s often because they either don’t get issues out in the open to be dealt with or they confuse information dumps with communication.

Work with your team to prepare a “stump speech” (as in a political campaign) outlining your organization’s long-term direction and strategic imperatives. It should be full of imagery, stories, metaphors, examples of past successes, your emerging business model, a pithy purpose statement and such. Deliver these in person through one-on-one discussions, meetings and group presentations.

Contribute to authentic conversations in an authentic workplace. Speak the truth as you see it. Obviously the time and place needs to be appropriate. Diplomacy and tact are also critical. Agree to address tough problems that have been ignored or repressed.

Meeting madness
Meetings are more important than ever in our increasingly complex and interconnected world. Research clearly shows that when run effectively, groups make better decisions than individuals. Effective meetings involve and engage participants in problem solving and planning.

But most management meetings are poorly run. Many are a disaster. Participants who continually experience poorly run meetings see them as a waste of time. Many are. Managers who experience well-run and effective meetings get the bulk of their work done there.

Here are a few of the common problems with many meetings:

  • Poor prioritization of the meeting agenda (if one even exists).
  • Some people who are there really don’t need to be. It’s a meeting of a few people with spectators.
  • Some people who aren’t there really should be.
  • Decisions and action plans aren’t documented.
  • Participants cut each other off, finish someone else’s sentences, or engage in side conversations.
  • People arrive late, leave early or get called in and out of the room.
  • Conflict is discouraged and driven underground or allowed to turn personal and destructive.

With the proliferation of practical resource materials, seminars and training available, there’s little reason for poorly run meetings.

Get training. Meetings are a prime example of how a modest investment in learning and skill development can pay incredible dividends in saved time and frustration. If your meetings were just 10 percent better (25- to 40-percent improvements aren’t uncommon after good meeting leadership training) how long would it take to repay the training time?

Ensure all meetings have agendas with time frames and objectives for each item. Clarify whether each item is there for a consensus decision, input for someone else to make a decision, an information update or action planning for a decision already made. Keep participants on topic and set clear “next steps” following each agenda item. Document what was decided and follow through with a communication plan for all affected.

Ensure participants focus on specific issues and avoid personal comments or global statements like “he or she is always . . .”

Deciding how to decide
There are three basic ways along a continuum to make a decision:

  • Command: Made by a team member (often the boss) without any input from other team members. 
  • Consultative: Made by a team member after consulting with others who have knowledge or who must be committed to the decision. 
  • Consensus: Made by the entire team as a group. 

The further the team moves toward the consensus end of the continuum, the more buy-in or commitment there is to the decision. Decision making time is longer but implementation time and effectiveness dramatically improves.

A common source of frustration and conflict in management teams is when the type of decision making method being used is not clear to everyone at the outset of the discussion. Leaders often add to the problem by having what seems to be a consultative or consensus discussion when they have already made up their minds. This comes across as a “guess what I’m thinking” exercise. Or it can look as if the leader is trying to manipulate the team into the “right decision.”

Some especially weak leaders will intimidate team members into “forced consensus” (an oxymoron) and leave the discussion genuinely believing that the team is united in the decision.

Clarify the type of decision method being used at the outset of each agenda item or decision discussion.

Ask team members to rate which type of decision making they think is used most often. Then ask them to determine what they would like to see.

Effective teams step back periodically to look in the mirror and review their progress. They look at what’s working and what isn’t. They adjust course accordingly. Strong team leaders move beyond building a team of champions to building a championship team. High-performance teams work on the team as well as in the team. They regularly ask themselves: “What should we keep doing, stop doing, and start doing?” to become ever more effective.