Team Dysfunction? Maybe it's only a Malfunction

Teaming with Ideas v1, #4

Team Dysfunction? Maybe it’s only a malfunction.

A few years ago, one of my HR colleagues called me with a request. “There’s this finance team I support and they are so dysfunctional it’s unbelievable. Can you help?” I paused, uncertain how to answer. I’d always felt that I was good with troubled teams, that I had a knack for working with dysfunction. But in this case, I balked. Several months before, I had a similar request that I agreed to, only to regret it once I’d engaged with the team. It didn’t go well. Following that failed intervention and some deep reflection I figured out why I’d bombed. It turns out that a lot of so-called team dysfunction isn’t team dysfunction at all.  What is it?  

Much of what’s labelled “team dysfunction” is instead a failure in leadership masquerading as team dysfunction. It often begins with a team member who isn’t carrying their weight. How does that work?

1) An individual in the team is consistently failing to meet expectations. This failure is obvious to the rest of the team who become frustrated with their colleague.

2) Team members voice their frustration to the leader. If nothing changes, the team attributes this failure to their leader, who then becomes a second source of frustration.

3) The growing atmosphere of frustration disrupts team effectiveness and the team is labelled “dysfunctional”.

Here’s an example of how this might play out:

1) THE PERFORMANCE PROBLEM: One team member, we’ll call him Paul, hasn’t been carrying his weight. He’s also been taking credit for others’ work. The team members all know it and resent Paul for it.

2) LEADERSHIP INEFFECTIVENESS: The team also senses that their boss isn’t doing anything to address the situation, even after several of them discussed it with her. “I hear you,” she’d say, “but if you have a problem with Paul, you need to share that feedback directly with him.” A couple of team members tried, but Paul wasn’t receptive. What’s more, there’s an especially vocal team member who seems to like Paul and defends him. Coalitions formed. People clustered into groups; those for and those against Paul, those who support the manager and those who don’t. Then there were those who just wish it would all go away.

3) A LEADERSHIP PROBLEM: The team was turning on itself. A sure symptom of dysfunction. Except that it’s not. At one level, it was Paul’s problem; he was a poor performer and incompetent teammate. Once this became obvious, though, the locus of the problem shifted. The team leader failed to address a known, disruptive individual performance issue. At her wit’s end and preferring not to have to face into a potentially difficult set of conversations, she declared that her team was dysfunctional and went to HR. HR in turn identified a team consultant and a workshop was scheduled.

Bringing in an outsider to fix the problem only made matters worse. The leader believed she was doing the right thing, acknowledging that there was a problem and acting on it. What’s more, she felt she was demonstrating enlightened leadership by involving her team in addressing their own problems. The team, however, saw it as a sham. They saw their leader copping out, not stepping up to her responsibilities. It wasn’t a sham; the boss wasn’t intending to fool the team. It was true, though, that labelling this as a “team problem” and outsourcing it to a professional facilitator was a cop out. The leader was making others responsible for solving a problem that was hers to address. They ran the workshop. The team members played their parts dutifully but carefully. A few people hinted at the Paul problem, but no one felt safe enough to address it head on. Paul, of course, was in the room. They got through the workshop but their cynicism deepened. So did the apparent dysfunction because nothing had changed. 

The team intervention caused more problems than it solved. Team members knew what the real problem was. Trying to “fix” them instead of addressing the genuine issue only bred suspicion and skepticism.  What’s more, the team also understood that their boss’s inaction was a major part of the problem. I’ve been in rooms two or three times when just these circumstances were unfolding. In one case, the anger behind the team members’ silence was palpable but desperately contained; they wouldn’t speak for fear of reprisals. In another case, the teams’ anger couldn’t be bottled up any longer. The workshop dissolved into an extended venting session with nothing getting resolved.

Having learned the hard way, I developed a rule for myself:  Never use team-level interventions where there may be underlying individual performance or leadership issues. To help the colleague I talked about at the beginning of this post I offered a cautious way forward. Rather than commit to a team workshop, I agreed only to speak with each team member and then stop and share my diagnosis with my colleague. From there we’d agree what next steps were appropriate. She agreed with this approach and the interviews commenced. When three of the first four interviewees ended up in tears, it was clear that I had been about to step into that by now familiar “faux-dysfunction” trap. We decided against running a team workshop. Based on my counsel, my HR friend instead elected to initiate remedial coaching for the team leader.

Dysfunction, with its connections to family dynamics work, suggests deep, long-standing issues that are broadly shared. Maybe a better word for what Paul and his teammates were experiencing is “malfunction.” Every team has things that aren’t working as they would prefer, things that need fixing but that don’t require a full team psychological deep dive. The next time you or a colleague are confronted with a team that seems dysfunctional, ask yourselves, “Is it possible is it that underlying this team’s issues is an individual performance problem, or something about the way the team leader is operating.?” If the answer is, “Yes,” then use time-tested approaches for diagnosing and addressing the issue. Save team-level interventions for those things that require the participation of the entire team. Everyone will be glad you did.