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The Signs, Causes, and Fixes for a Dysfunctional Team

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One definition of a team is a group of people with diverse skills and backgrounds coming together to reach an objective or goal. When a team is dysfunctional, it no longer acts as a group; diversity becomes an obstacle to overcome; and the objective or goal isn’t supported or doesn’t exist.


The First Signs of Team Dysfunction

Among the most obvious signs of team dysfunction are high turnover, disagreements that are never resolved, constant griping, slowdowns or absenteeism, finger-pointing when deliverables are not met, and inappropriate communications (for example, jokes or gossip at the expense of one member). Less obvious or later signs include a lack of trust, fear of conflict and simmering anger, and resentment of high performers.

A Harvard Business Review study, researchers settled on five criteria for measuring a team’s dysfunction: meeting a planned budget, staying on schedule, adhering to specifications, meeting customer expectations, and maintaining alignment with corporate goals. Failing on any three of the five indicated a dysfunctional team.


Causes for Team Dysfunction

As a team member or team leader, you may not have control over the culture of your organization. However, a dysfunctional culture is both the cause and the consequence of a dysfunctional team. A dysfunctional culture can be built up by repeated hiring mistakes—many of them aimed at fitting the person into the existing culture! 

You do have control over your own actions. For example, as a team leader, if you ask for help from your team members and take responsibility for your own mistakes, you are modeling a role of mutual support; if you work to resolve conflicts, you are showing both that conflicts can be resolved and that they should be; and if you are open to the ideas of others, you are modeling the best techniques of problem solving and decision making.

A dysfunctional leader will have a dysfunctional team—unless the team ignores the official leader and picks its own unofficial leader, which is rare but can happen. A dysfunctional team leader and team can even turn a team building exercise into an exercise of dominance and an excuse for bullying and practical jokes that can cause physical harm. This is definitely a case of “physician, heal thyself”; before you can create a functional team, you must be a functional leader.


Fixing a Dysfunctional Team

If you have tracked the team dysfunction to individual nonperformers or disgruntled employees, you may have to fire them; you cannot raise a team’s performance if it is constantly fighting against those who undermine its efforts. Then boost your commitment to individual and group communication and to fairness in adhering to rules like coming to a meeting on time and disagreeing respectfully. Celebrate the wins.

Every team should have a clear leader; a common goal; focus on the group as a whole (rather than individual success), a balanced workload, and the right size (what Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos calls “the two pizza rule”—every team should be the right size to be fed with two pizzas).

If team dysfunction is taking over, whether as a team member or team leader, you help can fix it:

  • Speak up about obstructive, undermining behavior and bring it to light. 
  • Decide as a group what lessons were learned from both success and failure and what changes to implement in line with those lessons; this exercise promotes fairness, collaboration, and mutual support. 
  • Plan as a group, so that everyone knows the roles, expectations, attitudes, and priorities of each individual and the group as a whole—and so that accountability is clear.
  • Monitor progress, keeping everyone informed at all levels and preventing a loss of focus or a misunderstanding of goals.
  • Make sure resources are available, because the struggle for resources leads to a struggle for power, one of most devastating causes of team dysfunction, especially when the power struggle is between competing leaders.
  • Seek outside help if you are the victim of dysfunction or have any doubts about your ability to turn around a dysfunctional team.

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