How to recognise and turn around a dysfunctional team

Staff need to feel secure from threats within their team to be able to deal with external challenges, says Sylvia Sage

Effective teamwork is the cornerstone of almost any successful business. No large companies are built on the efforts of just one individual, however talented and hardworking. It is the strategic pooling of human resources – time, talents, interests, expertise – that heralds the best results.

However, when the bonds holding a team together start to break down, it can quickly cease to be productive, leading to bad decision-making and time and energy being soaked up by the wrong things.

To define an effective team, I’ll borrow from Katzenbach and Smith’s The Wisdom of Teams: “A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.”

Sadly, it does not take much to throw the dynamics of a team off balance, meaning the common purpose gets buried. Team dynamics can range from supportive, open and collaborative to competitive, dictatorial or actively destructive.

These classic dysfunctional behaviour patterns are usually symptomatic of one or more of the following five key problems. The absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results – identified by Patrick Lencioni in his 2002 work The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

The triggers that cause such break down are tied humans’ natural emotional response to threat. If we feel threatened and are busy trying to survive, we cannot focus on the higher-order challenges. So teams in which staff do not feel secure and valued will trigger defensive emotional responses and cease to function. When this happens, the whole business suffers.

How to reverse team break down

The starting point should always be that all behaviour makes sense. This moves people away from a blame culture or an ‘I am right, you are wrong’ stance to a process of seeking to understand the causes in order to build solutions.

Here it is helpful to return to Katzenbach and Smith’s apt description of a happy productive team that highlights the key tenets that unite everyone: common purpose, common performance goals, common approach and mutual accountability. 

It also gives us a useful steer as to what foundations need to be put in place for the mending process to begin. The first step is to get everyone refocused on a common purpose. Everyone needs to believe in and be invested in this if they are to commit themselves to it.

An open and safe environment must be created in which everyone feels able to state their views. The discussion could start with a question like: ‘What would you each/all like to achieve together by the end of this meeting?’ A consensus must be reached. Then over time more complex and challenging issues can be agreed upon.

This is a step-by-step process of rebuilding trust and unity, but it must start with bringing everyone together to put their ideas on the table, creating a shared pool of meaning. This could include thoughts on the common characteristics of good and bad teams and highlight key concerns or tension points for different members of the team. Such a workshop opens dialogue to enable further discussions to follow.

Senior managers must listen closely to everything that is said, for it is down to them to learn from the discussion in order to foster a ‘safe’ team environment. When staff feel secure from threats within their team, they can focus on dealing with external challenges and will thus be much more effective in doing their job.

It is in the interest of all business leaders to ensure they create a team environment in which staff can thrive, resulting in better staff performance, efficiency and decision-making.

Sylvia Sage is programme director at Corporate Learning Solutions