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How to Rescue a Dysfunctional Team

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At some point in your career, you will find yourself leading or serving on a dysfunctional team—one that has little interest in the work avoids or undermines honest conversations, and refuses to participate in discussions of ideas or problems. No one takes responsibility for their actions, and whatever praise is due is grabbed by the fastest talker, regardless of their actual contribution.

According to one study, a dysfunctional team is identifiable by its inability to meet any three or more of the following objectives: budgets, schedules, specifications, customer expectations, or company goals. A lack of communication, cooperation, trust, and morale is both the cause and the result of team dysfunction.

Dysfunctional teams operate under the constant stress of missed deadlines, unfair practices, lack of trust in others, confusion over goals, lack of direction, and frustration. The stress caused by the dysfunction of one team quickly spreads through an entire company that relies on the team’s fulfillment of commitments and its adherence to ethical behavior. But how does a dysfunctional team develop, and how can it possibly be turned around?

Creating a Dysfunctional Team

Team dysfunction most often starts at the top, with C-level executives who rule by the caveat, promoting without regard to capability, making sexist or racist comments, treating others with disdain, and undermining a sense of trust, safety, and fairness throughout the organization. They set the tone for everyone in the organization. In one company, a leader managed to insult the entire workforce by demanding, “Are you an adult? If you’re an adult, I’ll treat you like an adult.”

The use of software to spy on employees also undermines trust. For instance, companies give assurances that they are monitoring amounts of emails only and not the content, but there is no way to confirm this, no regulations covering it, and certainly enough technology to make those assurances less than comforting.

Rogue leadership may lead to disasters such as Enron, where the company hid its debts for a decade with the cooperation of the firm supposed to audit it, and eventually went bankrupt, leaving 85,000 people without jobs. The leadership felt invincible, scorned rules and ethics, and awarded themselves huge salaries and benefits.

While you may not have the power of a C-level executive, as a leader, you are still responsible for setting a tone of fairness, inclusion, respect, honesty, and openness. You need to hold to your values and principles, believe in what you do, as a leader and as a representative of your company, and have a larger goal than personal greed and self-aggrandizement. You cannot expect communication, cooperation, trust, and morale in your team if you lack them yourself.

TIP: In general, a team is as functional or dysfunctional as its leader.

Keeping a Functional Team Functional

A functional team may become dysfunctional if it becomes frustrated with a lack of focus, communication, progress, and mutual support and commitment. To keep the team functional, a leader must be consistent in taking the following actions:

Establish a common goal. A team without a goal is a group of individuals who happen to be thrown together. A common goal is at the heart of any definition of a team. Just as the team’s goal should align with its goals, individual goals should align with the team’s goals. Everyone on the team commits to reaching the team’s goals.

Respect and encourage diversity. Teams do not necessarily have the same background, skills, or experience—in fact, diversity makes them more functional—but every team member’s contribution must be respected, and each team member supports the others as needed.

Expect results. The team should hold each other accountable for producing short-term and long-term results. Even if a team fails to meet its goal, something must have been accomplished along the way, if only lessons learned. Review progress toward the goal to find and examine the results, celebrate successes and point out any benefits of analyzing failure.

Keep the team small. Most research agrees that 5 to 7 people is the optimum size for a team. Below that number, essential skills may be missing; above that number, the team loses focus, the ability to communicate quickly, and cohesion. While the optimum size also depends on the task, required skills, individuals’ ability to work together, and time frame, larger teams are more likely to be stressed by the struggle to maintain communication and trust with every member.

TIP: When part of the team works at a distance or from home, frequent communication is even more important to develop a sense of shared purpose and mutual respect.

Making a Dysfunctional Team Functional

Patrick Lencioni, the author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, suggests leaders focus on attention to the achievement of results, accountability, commitment, ability to handle conflict without fear, and development of trust in turning around dysfunctional teams. However, the team should be able to pay attention to detail, handle conflict, assume accountability, and trust each other independently of the leader—so individual and team self-management is also essential to a well-functioning team.

A leader encourages a team to be well-functioning by:

  • Asking questions and enabling open, honest discussion, with the objective of finding the right course of action, not the easiest to implement or the one that people give up arguing about
  • Communicating clearly, promptly, and often, especially about roles, goals, expectations, next steps, and the value of open, healthy disagreement
  • Never avoiding the tough conversations or tolerating compromises in your own, the teams, and the company’s principles and ethics
  • Holding people accountable for results and their commitments and providing regular feedback
  • Admitting your own mistakes and failures and encouraging others to take chances even if they may end up failing
  • Supporting your team in their individual goals and in overcoming challenges, and celebrating successes together.

TIP: Ethical, respectful behavior and the fulfillment of commitments and goals is a joint effect, not the leader’s sole responsibility to police.

Exercises That Increase Functioning

Team-building experts have filled the internet with games and activities that aim at improving everything from the energy of a team to its trust in one another. The following three exercises focus on trust, commitment, and communication.

Trust exercise. Where there is an absence of trust, personality profiling might help to identify each team member’s strengths and weaknesses and, therefore, the strengths they bring to the team. The team as a whole might also complement each member in turn, on their most important achievement or accomplishment. The selected team member then identifies one area where they would like to improve.

Commitment exercise. Where a lack of commitment is evident, the team as a group can set realistic deadlines and expectations for each stage of the project. Individual members are allowed to determine how they will meet those deadlines and expectations. Worst-case scenarios are discussed and plans made for how to deal with them.

Find a common language. Does every member of the team have the same definition of success? Ask each team member to write down their definition and then compare it. What about failure, commitment, communication, leadership, and conflict resolution? When definitions vary, so do the assumptions and behaviors that stem from those definitions.

Ask for help. Sometimes a team’s dysfunction is of such longstanding or so well concealed underlies and excuses that the help of a professional coach or facilitator is needed to get the team functioning together, respectfully and productively.

Key Takeaways

Dysfunctional teams soon become obvious by their failure to deliver results and their avoidance of responsibility. A leader who offers trust, support, respect, honesty, and belief in the team’s mission will go a long way to creating a team that mirrors those qualities.

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