Seven signs that spell dysfunction and what to do about it

There's far greater interest in building strong teams in business today compared to two decades ago, largely because of empirical evidence that proves how costly dysfunctional teams can be to the business.

Gallup estimates that the fallout due to dysfunctional teams and related stressors costs U.S. businesses in excess of $350 billion a year. Dysfunctional teams are slower and less productive. Team members often lock down in fierce competition with each other, causing them to take their eye off the real competitors. They don't trust each other, which plays itself out in cautious conversations. Predictably, the dysfunction carries on through to making bad decisions and little accountability for poor results.

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The toll is even greater on the human capital inside a company. Talented employees who have options to work on healthy teams are prime for poaching when head hunters call.

If the dysfunctional team is also the leadership team, it can wreak havoc on the company's culture, where people soon start to adapt to the dysfunction in order to survive. The old adage, the fish rots from the head, is so true when it comes to the negative impact of an unhealthy leadership team.


Seven Signs of Team Dysfunction

What qualifies as dysfunctional? Just like a dysfunctional family, there is a negative dynamic on a dysfunctional team that is usually fuelled by trust issues. It doesn't always manifest itself in tension and fighting. In fact, extreme politeness is also a sign of dysfunction. If your team is working harder than it needs to, and is not getting the results that match its potential, it's highly likely that you will know these seven symptoms.

1. Low trust

Trust, or the lack of it, is like the battery that fuels the whole dynamic. At its most basic level, trust between two or more people is usually measured by their willingness to be real with each other. On teams with low trust, members are usually guarded and very protective of their turf or domain, rather than being transparent and willing to sacrifice for the greater good.

On a dysfunctional team, trust is often misconstrued as loyalty. Team members measure trust by who votes with them, rather than going with the best idea. Sometimes the best idea comes from someone who you're competing with. When there is low trust, team members pay very few compliments to each other, as you wouldn't want to give the opponents the upper hand.

2. Poor quality conversations

When trust is low, it most certainly will affect the quality of the conversations. Questions are often viewed as intrusive, or a threat. Consequently, you're likely to hear fewer questions and far more intense advocacy where people are not willing to budge. On dysfunctional teams, strong debate skills are essential. Forget about dialogue, where everyone is open to building on each other's ideas.

There may even be a veneer of politeness associated with the unhealthy dynamic. The team may skim the surface, but refuse to penetrate deep into issues that will cause things to heat up. This is referred to as a fear of conflict, manifested most often in safe conversations when the team is together.

3. Meetings before and after the meeting

Dysfunctional teams spend a lot of time in meetings - not necessarily as a whole, but more often in factions or coalitions, where they are more likely to speak candidly and share their true feelings.

The 'meeting before the meeting' is where different factions meet separately - in advance of the team meeting - to make sure that everyone is locked in solidarity and that no one strays from the position they're going in with. This is an example of trust being defined as loyalty. With this mentality, either you're with us, or against us.

If things didn't go the way they hoped at the meeting, then each faction will pull together afterwards in the 'meeting after the meeting.' The goal at this meeting is to figure out how they are going to work around the decision that was made at the meeting. In some cases, the faction will play the team leader to see if they can re-table the agenda item at the next meeting. This tactic is called 're-litigation' and almost always points to some degree of dysfunction.

4. Workarounds

Commitments amount to empty promises on a dysfunctional team. If you can't get the issue back on the table for a re-vote, the next best option is to pull the faction together and plan how you're going to work around the team's decision. You'll have to be subtle about it, of course. Workarounds are usually stealth operations which are held together by blind loyalty.

5. The parts are greater than the whole

You can often diagnose a team's health based on the language they use when they're trying to get work done. On unhealthy teams, the words 'I' and 'my' are far more prevalent than 'us' and 'we.' Team members dig in around protecting their own turf, budgets, and people. A silo mentality dominates, as evidenced by no shared ownership for the success of the business.

6. Reluctance to hold each other accountable

If trust is what fuels the team dynamic, think of accountability as the team's work ethos. Many teams develop a charter which spells out how they would like to operate together, including the behaviours that are both acceptable and unacceptable. But a charter is useless if it has no teeth.

If the team says that 'commitment to decisions' is important, but then fails to address the obvious workarounds that are going on, this becomes but one example where the unwritten rules carry more weight than the written ones. A team that refuses to hold itself accountable for healthy behaviours will eventually suffer.

7. No 'gut' connection to results

On dysfunctional teams that operate in silos, members have more of a gut connection to their own part of the pie, not to the pie itself. You should be concerned if the team has little emotion over winning or losing. You should be even more concerned if team members begin to explain away or rationalise poor results as being someone else's fault, rather than a product of its own dysfunction.

Confront the Dysfunction

What do you have to lose? If the team is dysfunctional and you do nothing, the situation will undoubtedly worsen. An unhealthy team that refuses to acknowledge its impact almost always becomes the 'elephant in the room.' The best way to confront the dysfunction is to put the elephant on the table and make it the team's top priority.

Here are some ways to dig in:
1. Re-frame who's responsible for the team's success. Yes, the team leader has to set the conditions to ensure that the team has every chance to succeed. But the team is responsible for its success, not just one person. Patrick Lencioni makes this point in his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. The entire team must work on itself because everybody plays a role in the dysfunction.

2. Look at the team's dysfunction as a health issue. If you have a disturbed person walking around the business, you would deal to this quickly as a health issue. Why would you treat a disturbed team any differently? A team is a living organism that can spread its contagion quickly. Many people are proactive about their own health. Maybe it's time to get proactive about the team's health.

3. Make dysfunction less scary and more human. The perfect person doesn't exist and, by extension, neither does the perfect team. We are all subject to the foibles and folly that accompany human behaviour. People who have strong self-awareness are more likely to stay on top of their strengths and weaknesses. The team should work hard to lift its own self-awareness.

4. Talk, think, decide. Any decision that you make is directly influenced by the thinking that you've put into it. On a dysfunctional team, the thinking is often impoverished - starving for some high quality conversation. But the bad trust dynamic keeps the team from putting the real issues on the table. Consequently, they make bad decisions. The team has to see the connection.

5. It starts and ends with trust. Whether it's in your home, or at work, trust is vital for any relationship to flourish. The team has to invest some time into learning more about each other and building stronger connections. You've got to invest in any relationship or else it will falter. It's no different with a team.