Nature vs. Nurture at Work; How to Avoid 3 Deadly Traps of Mis-Managing Teams!

By Morris Elvis Gucor
Nicole Mills

Every so often we come across amazing people in our life who know how to get the very best work out of us. Even more rare is to find someone who has the ability to get the very best work out of an entire team of people. Why is it that some people can inspire us to strive for greatness while others turn us off? What magical superpowers do these humans posess, and how can we replicate it more broadly in the workplace?

Why is it that some people can inspire us to strive for greatness while others turn us off?

For me, one of those amazing people was my high school biology teacher, Mr. Kazinsky. He knew how to engage, inspire, and motivate his students to achieve outstanding results. Our classes consistently outperformed our peers on state and national tests, AP exams and SAT II's. What was so remarkable was that he didn't always have the best or brightest students, but something about his approach and the learning environment that he created enabled us to thrive!

Decades later I can still remember many of his lessons with complete clarity. A recent recollection was the debate on nature vs. nurture and which has the greatest impact on who we grow up to be. With his matter-of-fact sense of humor he professed, "You are a product of your genes and your environment and your parents gave you both, so either way it's their fault!"

Nature Vs. Nurture in the Workplace

The idea of nature vs. nurture is not limited to individuals and their behaviors; it is also a concept that can apply to teams and how they behave and perform. The "nature" component is the talent that makes up the DNA of the team. The "nurture" component is the work environment, including systems, processes, and inter-personal dynamics.

In the work place, teams are a product of their members and their work environment, both of which are provided by the manager. So if teams are struggling... well, I think that Mr. Kazinsky knows the rest!


So where do organizations focus if there is a performance issue with a team? Try starting with these questions:

Is there a talent problem (nature)?

Is there an issue with the work environment (nurture)?

Is there a combination of factors?

How is the manager implicated?

What is the right intervention to help the team?

Great leaders and managers are comfortable doing the due diligence required to identify the root cuases of team performance. They have the confidence and humility to be introspective and recognize that the prescription may be something that they have to change about themself, someone else, a process, a tool, or any number of factors. They have the ability to not only address legitimate talent challenges, but they can affect the environment to strengthen team dynamics.

Avoiding 3 Deadly Traps of Team Mis-Management

The greatest danger arises when a leader or manager makes the wrong move that doesn't address the root cause of team performance. ‚ÄčThere are numerous ways to mis-manage a team, but these 3 deadly traps can be particularly devastating. Here's how they can be avoided:

1. The Chasing Shiny Objects Trap


Situation: There are challenges with the team's working environment. Instead of focusing on nurturing the team, talent is swapped out or "upgraded" to try to improve performance.

The Perception(s): The manager/company doesn't care or is unwilling to make difficult changes. They are focused on a quick fix or instant gratification. They are focused on self-preservation.

The impact(s): Team's lose faith in their leader. They become cynical and suspecting of motives. Morale is impacted, engagement slides, and performance remains challenged.

How to avoid: Talk to each member of the team individually and ask the same due diligence questions. Compile the feedback and make the findings transparent to all members. Share your plan to make adjustments openly, or even better, faclitate a team work session to create the solution together. This will boost team engagement and ownership of the prescription.

2. The Let's Be Friends Trap


Situation: There are challenges with individual performance and it's impacting the team. Instead of focusing on addressing the team's DNA, the manager/compay tries to focus on inter-personal dynamics, productivity, and/or team building to boost performance.

The Perception(s): The manager is too weak to address personnel issues. They are protecting or favoring someone. There is no accountability or consequences for performance.

The impact(s): Team's become frustrated and can feel unapreciated or undervalued. Feelings of inequality can come into play where there is no perceived accountability or reward for performance. Morale is impacted, team members become disengaged, and performance remains challenged.

How to avoid: Address struggling employees individually. Make sure that their roles and expectations are transparent. Set clear performance goals for them to achieve, and give them training support, if necessary, so that they can strengthen their skills. Measure performance and hold them accountable for results. If they still can't perform, make the necessary staffing adjustments to strengthen the team.

3. The Insanity Trap

Situation: There can be any type of challenge impacting team performance, and the manager does nothing to intervene. Instead they complain about stress, pressure, and may resort to yelling about performance. With no new action, they expect better results. 

The Perception(s): The manager is delusional or irrational. They don't understand or care about the team. Expectations are unrealistic or impossible.

The impact(s): Team's become disengaged and demoralized. Individuals can become paralyzed, and performance slides.

How to avoid: In this instance the company needs to intervene at the manager level. The manager needs to be developed and/or coached. If manager behavior doesn't change, there needs to be an adjustment in team leadership.

Doing the necessary things to nurture a team takes time, effort, self-confidence and humility!

Engaging and inspiring others to perform is not an easy task. It requires careful thought, effort, time and patience, self-confidence, selflessness, and humility! These were the amazing characteristics that Mr. Krazinsky had that enabled his science students to outperform their peers. Unlike Mr. Krazinsky, managers have the benefit of controlling both Nature (talent make-up) and Nurture (environment) dynamics of their teams. It's time to start taking on that awesome responsibility, and giving teams what they need to thrive!

Tags: Success high performance intervention due diligence management leadership nature vs. nurture team traps results inspiration engagement