On the Destructive Power of Dysfunctional Teams: Part 1 – Implications for Managers

Teamwork is a word that has been thrown around quite a lot in recent years. Managers want only the best people on their teams, teamwork skills are a new must for any decent resume, employees are required to participate in team-building activities as the part of their training process, and in business schools, team-based projects are becoming exceedingly more popular with the teaching faculty. Despite all the coverage teamwork gets, a team that actually works is the aurora borealis of the business world: heart-stoppingly beautiful but scarce and transient.

Well-tuned, productive teams are worth their weight in gold to management and business owners. They ensure that things get done and that business thrives as the result of the team’s input and efforts. It is easy to recognize those top-performing teams without much investigation; employees and management are on the same page, internal communications run smoothly, conflicts are resolved promptly, and most importantly, the company’s and the clients’ interests are invariably prioritized.

Dysfunctional teams are equally easy to spot. In some of the most blatant cases one can almost physically sense the chaos and hostility that enshroud the team; people moving on autopilot, a great deal of ignoring of one another, some bitter remarks and distrustful body language here, more passive-aggressive sort of attitude there, and – voila! – a dysfunctional team successfully identified. Some of the other characteristics of dysfunctional teams include, but certainly are not limited to, backstabbing, finger-pointing, gossiping, bullying, avoidance of responsibility and accountability, absence of trust in one another and confidence in management, non-commitment, defensiveness, perceived and actual favoritism, and groupthink.

Managers and business owners everywhere turn prematurely grey thinking about how detrimental dysfunctional teams may be to their business. Damage can be inflicted in three major ways:

  • Low revenues, declining profits – a result of waning employee productivity, since instead of working, employees spend time agonizing over relationships or are too busy trying to lynch one another to care for the interests of the company;
  • Loss of key personnel – dysfunctional teams are maelstroms of all-embracing chaos, hence many talented employees leave, unable to function in such a destructive environment;
  • Blemished reputation – warring employees can go as far as sabotaging one another, hurting the company in the process, and with the current state of communications technology, news, as well as rumors, travel at the speed of light, letting just about the whole world know what is going on inside the company.

How widespread is this phenomenon? Extremely. Results of a national survey conducted by the University of Phoenix reveal that nearly 70%, or seven out of every ten people who have ever worked on a team, at one point or another have been part of dysfunctional teams. Despite the fact that 95% of those surveyed acknowledge the importance of teams in the workplace, only a meager quarter would volunteer to work as part of one. These numbers also tell us that dysfunctional teams do not necessarily spell negligent or incompetent employees, as some managers mistakenly believe. Factors that facilitate the rise of disorderly teams are numerous, disparate, and generally can be divided into two broad categories:

  • management-induced
  • employee-induced

Poor management may potentially be a root cause of disorderly workplace environment; it confuses and exasperates employees who otherwise could be performing much better. If management is lagging, even the best teams are doomed to consistently underperform, due to the lack of any sense of stability, confidence and direction. That said, it is rather difficult to solve the problem when you don’t realize that you are a substantial part of it. The reverse also holds true: If management is able to identify what it is doing wrong (or not enough of), then fixing the problem becomes less of a challenge, since managers can control the factors that are causing it. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, they need to be the change they want to see in others.

The following advice will help managers who have recognized the symptoms of dysfunctional teams in their own unit and are looking for ways to facilitate the team’s recovery starting with themselves, as well as those who wish to make certain that their workplace environment remains healthy and productive as long as possible.

  1. Don’t avoid conflict. When conflict takes place, employee priorities shift and people become more focused on their disagreements than on the work that needs to be done. Don’t ignore the problem until it becomes an elephant in the room; get together with your team members and openly discuss what is working and what’s not, and what can be done to clear the air. When problems occur, your best strategy is to acknowledge them, take necessary measures to address them, and move on. Lastly, don’t think of conflict as a completely negative experience; disruptive as it may be, conflict (when handled well) can actually help your team’s progress by obviating groupthink and stimulating their creative gene.
  2. Be clear on expectations for everyone. Vague sets of expectations will prevent your team members from achieving their full potential. Confusion is never a good thing for employee relationships and commitment, whereas clarity brings order and instills a sense of confidence and trust into people, taking drama out of the equation. Have regular check-in meetings to make sure that everyone understands their objective and steadily advances towards it.
  3. Set milestones and transparent accountabilities. They will help you benchmark your team’s performance and keep track of individual progress. Absence of clear accountabilities promotes finger-pointing, and breeds jealousy and resentment among the employees, who might feel that not everyone on the team is pulling their weight.
  4. Avoid favoritism. No matter whether it’s actual or perceived, unfair treatment is extremely off-putting. It damages employee morale, erodes positive team dynamics and destroys trust. If your team members have little respect for you, they will be reluctant to carry out the tasks and responsibilities you assign to them. Consequently, your communication will suffer. All these factors together help create the kind of hostile environment in which gossip and rumors thrive and employees make personal interests and gains their chief priority, thus destroying the team.
  5. Share the “wins” and give recognition. Celebrating even the smallest achievements of the team has a profound effect on the team’s spirit and self-esteem. Employees who feel that management knows and values what they do for the company, put twice as much effort in their work. They are also more likely to encourage other team members to do their best and support them along the way.
  6. Recognize behavioral differences and leverage them. Sometimes the conflict arises because people communicate differently and have different approaches to problem-solving and work style. These differences cause a rift, when in actuality they can be leveraged by a good manager. It’s good to have different viewpoints and different approaches in order to cover the bases. Learn about each team member and deploy them to their best strengths.
  7. Assign roles and responsibilities in the team. Have members “own” something. Who is the anointed leader? Who is the recorder? Who is the time-keeper? Give everyone a specific role within the team, in addition to their role on the project. Make them accountable TO the team.
  8. Set ground rules. Don’t wait until there are problems to say what’s okay and what’s not okay. How will the team communicate? How often will they meet? What’s the penalty for not completing an assigned task on time? What are the team priorities? Before they even begin to work together, have them establish their guidelines and agreements for working together and committing to one another.
  9. Give them some room to breathe. If you are one of those over-bearing managers who feel the need to follow their employees’ every step and call for a meeting every time someone sneezes the wrong way – you need to stop right now. What you are doing is actually counterproductive. Your employees are not a group of preschoolers who need constant supervision and routine lecturing. Most of them are well-qualified professionals who are actually quite good at what they do. Give them some space to learn to rely one another and build mutual dependence and trust. What is the proper amount of oversight and how much is too much? Truthfully, it is a delicate balancing act that depends on the type of people you work with and the task at hand, so you need to be able to adjust according to your particular set of circumstances.

Chances are that you have honestly checked off every point in the list above and still your team doesn’t quite “click”. In that case, you need to look at the issue from a different perspective, as oftentimes the elements that make your team dysfunctional lie within the team itself. We will discuss these factors and how managers can effectively deal with them in the second part of this blog, coming soon.