5 Phrases to Master to Seek and Destroy Your Team's Productivity Obstacles

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Project managers and assistants must walk a delicate line between proactivity and micromanagement when working in small teams.

On the one hand, our entrepreneurs rely on us to keep projects and tasks moving on time and under budget. On the other, our teammates, like us, are juggling multiple competing deadlines. And nobody likes a micromanager, especially when he or she is a peer.

Here are five phrases I love to use in conversation to let my teammates know that 1) I have their back, and 2) I'm willing to help -- without insinuating that they're underperforming. [rebel]

1. How can I help accelerate this?

This is my go-to. Notice the word accelerate. It acknowledges that there's motion, but subtly offers your help to kick things into a higher gear.

In action: I use this almost weekly to keep our content calendar on time. Sometimes I take on a teammate's meetings so he or she can write; other times, I'll take on an editing role. And still other times, I may just need to send a quick text or two to remind my entrepreneur he's got some work to do. :)

2. What obstacles are you encountering?

By letting my teammate tell me what obstacles he or she is facing, we can quickly brainstorm through alternate solutions.

Sometimes I'm completely unaware of the nuances and surprises in my colleague's day, and this information helps me reassign, delegate or break down a project to lighten the load.

In action: In conversation, I discovered that our accountant needed some transactions verified and coded before she was able to finish a budget in time for a meeting. I asked her to send me a report of all unverified and uncoded transactions, and shared this with another colleague who had access to transaction data. The team sprung into action to fill in the blanks, and with about an hour of collective team work, we saved our accountant a half-day of research.

3. What's stressing you out about this project?

My teammate Maxx has another nice way of putting this: "What's keeping you up at night about this project?"

Sometimes we're unable to vocalize specifically what our obstacles are. By focusing on feelings, especially stress emotions, I'm often able to find a hook to guide my follow-up questions and ultimately drill down to the core issues affecting productivity.

In action: In conversation, a colleague confessed that she was feeling helpless about a report that was due in four days, which was causing her to procrastinate. After a few follow-up questions, I learned that she needed a clearer vision from the team and our entrepreneur on the report's purpose, so that she could determine what data belonged in the report. We scheduled a team call for the next day, and she had an open forum to fire all the questions she needed.

4. Can I take anything off your plate?

This is especially pertinent for entrepreneurs' teams, as an entrepreneur may have delegated multiple special projects to individual team members.

In action: A team member and I had to prepare for an upcoming webinar, which meant he had to create a full presentation deck. Time was running out for the deck, so I checked in and learned that our entrepreneur sprung a last-minute bitcoin project on him.

He needed me to pare down the information on a few slides and do some basic formatting. This minor investment of my time let us complete both the deck and the bitcoin project on time.

5. I've got a free [afternoon, 2 hours, day]. What can I help with?

Sometimes your teammate can't delegate a project, but could still use a little help. When my afternoon frees up, or a meeting gets moved, or I've moved faster than anticipated on my own tasks, I go around to all of my team members and tell them specifically how much time I can devote to helping accelerate something on their plate.

The time "budget" ensures your team doesn't delegate more than you can handle, and it also fosters teamwork.

In action: My colleagues had an afternoon full of back-to-back meetings, at least two of which I could have handled. By asking this question, I picked up these two meetings, enabling them to take a break for a meaningful lunch that they wouldn't have otherwise had.

How do you seek and destroy your team's productivity obstacles?