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Rebuilding High-Performance Work Teams

Staff reductions and corporate restructuring frequently result in fragmentation of high-performance work teams. Because they are often a cost-effective means of accomplishing corporate goals, some of these teams need to be reconstructed.

John K. Borchardt

Dr. Borchardt is a consultant and technical writer. The author of the book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” he writes often on career-related subjects.

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Surviving Business Restructuring Through Results-Oriented Focus on Value Creation

Staff reductions and other types of corporate restructuring frequently result in fragmentation of high-performance work teams as members are transferred to other assignments or no longer work for the company. Because they are often a cost-effective means of accomplishing corporate goals, at least some of these high-performance work teams need to be reconstructed. How can lab managers do this? Consultants Price Pritchett and Ron Pound (Pritchett & Associates, Dallas, TX) advise: “Don’t think of team reconstruction as a distraction…Consider it the heart of your job.”1 What can you do as a lab manager or team leader to rebuild your high-performance work teams?

Team members’ behavior

Begin by understanding your new workplace dynamics. After a restructuring, managers and team leaders confront new problems. Many of these problems have their origins in team members’ behavior caused by uncertainties associated with poor communications about the restructured firm’s new business plans and tactics. The behavior of many employees often changes in the wake of staff reductions. Remaining employees face increased workplace stress, uncertainties, anxiety over losing their own jobs and little sympathy from others.2 They may feel guilty for keeping their jobs while their friends on the same work team or elsewhere in the lab lose theirs. Psychologists term this “survivor syndrome,” and it results in reduced staff morale, job satisfaction and productivity.

Effective team rebuilding means understanding your team members’ behavior as well as your own. Confusion and uncertainty lead some people to drift, waiting for direction. Employees may busy themselves with familiar activities that are no longer productive in the post-restructuring environment. Others may disengage from the team, focusing on their own individual efforts. Morale often is low, with little trust in company management.

Despite this, Price Pritchett and Ron Pound advise against making morale and employee attitudes top priorities in rebuilding high-performance work teams. They consider morale, employee attitudes and trust to be symptoms rather than problems. You can improve these by being personally trustworthy yourself and leading your team to morale-building accomplishments. Pritchett and Pound believe “Success is the magic solution that cures so many of the ‘soft’ organizational ailments brought about by change.”1

PricewaterhouseCoopers (New York, NY) management consultants Mark Feldman and Michael Sprat agree, noting that the only focus in the post-restructuring period should be pragmatic, results-oriented steps targeting value creation.3 Value creation in laboratories means developing profitable new products, improving manufacturing processes, and providing high-quality technical service and customer support. Focus your team on achieving short-term results having a positive impact: increased process yields, new products providing quick sales gains and improved technical service increasing customer satisfaction. This will provide the success Pritchett and Pound believe is essential to rebuilding effective teams.

Evaluate your team members

Before developing an action plan to achieve shortterm results, analyze your team members’ strengths and weaknesses in the context of your new (and still evolving) workplace culture after a staff reduction. Do this quickly without letting this process delay developing a new action plan. Your analysis can identify good people poorly suited for their current assignments and weak performers. By modifying job responsibilities, you can help people improve their productivity and job satisfaction, while giving less experienced or less capable performers assignments more commensurate with their current abilities. Because you are doing this rapidly, be prepared to revise your assessments.

If staff reductions are accompanied by elimination of R&D programs, staff members may be available to add to other teams. If so, choose new team members so that valuable work skills are brought into the team while not introducing incompatible personalities.

When rebuilding a high-performance work team, it is critical to keep your best people—the same people most likely to voluntarily leave the company for another job. Look for and explain the positive aspects of corporate restructuring to your team members. Do this with everyone, but focus on your key people. Engage in private conversations as well as group discussions, so team members can discuss their own situations with you more openly than they would in team meetings. Uncertainty is a primary reason why your best performers consider leaving the company. This uncertainty takes several forms. First and foremost is uncertainty about their future employment. Many have concerns about how company employee benefits will change as a result of a merger or new ownership.

Employees will also be concerned about the continued need for specialists in their fields and the possible need to change technical specialties. Some chemists, engineers and technicians are willing, even eager, to enter new fields; others are not.

Employees will also have concerns about their rank and status in a new organization. They may be depressed about no longer working with valued associates or worried about their compatibility with a new group of coworkers. They will have concerns about workplace policies and practices in the new or merged organization.

The more you can reassure team members that their contributions are valued and that they will be treated fairly, the more likely you will be able to retain your top performers. When developing your action plan (see below), include processes for recognizing and rewarding outstanding performance. If corporate recognition takes a long time or recognition programs haven’t been established, institute your own informal programs. These can include taking a deserving team member out to lunch or giving him/her a department store gift certificate (for which you can try to get company reimbursement). Many teams have their own internal awards, small trophies or gift certificates. Recognize individuals’ contributions at team meetings, and express appreciation. Always do this last so your team members know that achievement and effort are valued.

Develop an action plan

Work with your team to identify goals and develop an action plan to achieve them. Working together to achieve common goals unifies a team, giving it focus and direction. Arrest your team’s drift by setting forth a clear agenda with short-term goals and tactics to accomplish them. Focus on goals the team can achieve quickly and results you can measure. It is also important to work on a few goals you can achieve quickly rather than dissipating team members’ efforts by trying to do too much at once. Meaningful achievement is the fastest and best way to rebuild team morale and spirit.

Be sure members’ efforts will be coordinated. Agree with your team members upon a timetable to accomplish goals. Let your team have input on the agenda, goals, tactics and deadlines. The larger their role in setting the agenda, identifying goals, defining tactics and agreeing to deadlines, the more the team will be committed to following the plan and achieving goals. However, do not let team participation unduly delay setting the agenda or accomplishing goals.

Adapt your agenda to the uncertain environment following a staff reduction. However, the basics of developing new products and processes, taking the steps necessary to commercialize a new product or process, and retaining current customers and getting new ones are unlikely to change greatly. If you use good judgment in initially defining your team’s focus, later changes will be relatively modest.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

Dean Anderson of Being First, Inc. (Durango, CO), a consulting firm specializing in transformational change, emphasizes that it is important to explain why the workplace is changing, in addition to describing what is being changed. Leaders must present a strong case for changes so team members accept them and work productively and willingly in the context of the new workplace environment.

Good oral and written communications are essential in order for your team members to understand their roles in the team and the team’s instructions, goals, tactics and deadlines. Be clear and concise in all your communications. Remember that when team members are worried and uncertain, their listening skills will probably not be at their best. Workplace rumors and speculation create a lot of “noise” that your message must penetrate. Repeat communications when possible and appropriate. For example, after your team has agreed upon goals, priorities, tactics and a timetable, close the team meeting by summarizing them. Then send team members a written copy. At the opening of every subsequent team meeting, reiterate these. Check the status of action items at every meeting. When something changes or additional goals are adopted, summarize these at the end of every team meeting and again follow up with a written version.

Meet with team members individually and discuss their roles in the group. As goals and priorities change, team members’ roles must change also. To persuade team members to accept these changes, you must explain the reasons for them clearly and logically. Of course, the more team members participate in defining the goals, priorities and deadlines, the more readily they will accept needed changes.

Review team and individual performance with team members frequently.3 This helps keep everyone objective and goal oriented. Do not indulge in faultfinding or blame games. Team members need to be informed of any developments or changes that could impact their performance or completion of tasks. Ensure that all the team members have a similar understanding of what needs to be accomplished and there are no disconnects.

Provide strong leadership

During a restructuring, many people give up their power by waiting for someone to tell them what to do. This sort of weak leadership won’t rebuild teams that are confused or demoralized by uncertainly plus the already known effects of the restructuring such as downsizing. Instead, empower yourself so you can be successful at team construction. “Leave no doubt about who’s in control,” advise Pritchett and Pound.1 “Team reconstruction proceeds most successfully when it’s driven hard, when the person in charge takes charge and makes things happen that need to happen.”

Be authoritative without being overbearing. Show care, concern and respect for others. Solicit their perspectives and opinions. However, don’t let soliciting the opinions of others paralyze decision making.

Restructure work processes

Look for ways to restructure work processes so that the most capable team members can focus their efforts on activities that produce the highest value to the employer. Often this means outsourcing more routine activities or assigning them to less senior personnel. For example, at Shell Global Solutions and other chemical firms, technicians’ responsibilities now include many activities once performed exclusively by laboratory chemists and engineers.

Some activities such as routine weekly or monthly written reports can be discarded or replaced by oral discussions that take less time to prepare than written reports do. Formal minutes can be replaced by more frequent informal discussions that keep information flowing where it needs to go, while freeing team members’ time for other activities.

Finally, heed the advice of Price Pritchett and Ron Pound, who note, “People simply won’t follow a boss they don’t believe in, and they won’t believe in you unless you believe in yourself.”


1. P. Pritchett and R. Pound, “Team Reconstruction: Building a High-performance Work Group During Change,” Pritchett & Associates, publisher, Dallas, TX (1999).
2. J. Aleccia, “Guilty and stressed, layoff survivors suffer too,” (, Dec. 15, 2008). M. Feldman and M. Sprat, authors of “Five Frogs on a Log: A CEO’s Field Guide to Accelerating the Transition in Mergers, Acquisitions and Gut Wrenching Change,” HarperBusiness, New York, NY (1999).
3. M.L. Marks, “Charging Back Up the Hill: Workplace Recovery After Mergers, Acquisitions and Downsizings,” (Jossey-Bass Business & Management), Jan. 14, 2003.