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Carlos Valdes-Dapena


Team Dysfunction Isn’t Caused by the Team

Follow these three simple rules to address team dysfunction

Published: Tuesday, June 22, 2021 - 12:02

In my work in collaboration and team effectiveness, I am sometimes approached about helping with a “dysfunctional team.” People use the word “dysfunction” liberally and can mean various things by it. I’ve learned some lessons about team dysfunction, and the most important one is that it isn’t what I often assumed it was.

The ‘team’ problem

Several years ago, I was asked by a Mars HR manager, Carla, to work with a finance team she described as “really dysfunctional.” She explained that they were having problems with trust, or rather, mistrust. I agreed to look into it and immediately began to gather data, starting with team member interviews, conducted individually by phone.

I was a few minutes into my third team member interview when an unmistakable pattern emerged: People were breaking into tears when asked how things were going within the team. It was clear there was a problem here. I explored the cause of the tears and discovered the major problem was their petty and vindictive boss who played team members off each other in ways that left them feeling shamed and exposed.

I called Carla and told her the problem was not with the team, but with the team’s leader. I suggested they needed to intervene with the leader before doing anything with the team. She agreed, hesitatingly, and said she’d get back to me.

They hired a coach for the leader. A good step, I thought.

A few months later, the coach recommended that instead of an anonymous survey, they do a facilitated face-to-face, team feedback session for the leader. I knew it was a bad idea, and I told her so. Team members had given their boss feedback one-to-one in the past, and he’d made them pay for it by publicly ridiculing them. They were scarred by this behavior and not likely to offer feedback publicly. She acknowledged my concern but said the coach insisted it was a necessary step at this point.

This coach was primarily a team-effectiveness consultant who specialized in team feedback sessions. You know the old saying, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, it’s amazing how everything starts to look like a nail.” I reiterated my warning about this one-tool consultant’s plan, but it was now out of my hands.

A few weeks later, the team feedback session happened. It was planned to last two days. I soon learned that three hours into the first day, the team walked out.

The team leader hadn’t changed even a little since the coach was hired. Despite this, the team leader told his team that the “adult thing” for them to do was to offer him constructive feedback in an open session. They were having none of it.

By leaving the workshop early, they risked accusations of insubordination. They felt it was worth it not only to protect themselves but also to make a point to an organization that didn’t seem to get it. This guy was trouble, not just for them but for anyone in the business that he worked with. Their walkout worked. About a month later, the leader was let go.

When reflecting on this episode and others like it, one realization clearly emerges: Dysfunction in a team is rarely the group-level problem we assume it is. Most supposed team dysfunction, like the case of the finance team, stems from problems with a single individual.

Three rules to address team dysfunction

This realization led me to three simple cardinal rules I now follow without exception.

1. If team dysfunction is the preliminary diagnosis, check thoroughly for an individual performance problem that hasn’t been addressed and address that first. In the case of the finance team, the manager was a problem desperately needing attention and action.

2. Don’t use a team intervention to address an individual performance problem. When you do this, it makes everyone involved feel unfairly treated. The person who is the nexus of the problem feels he’s being put on the spot while the rest of the team is invited to gang up on him to “fix” him. The team feels as if it’s being asked to do management’s job of addressing the individual performance matters. It’s a no-win situation that never works. What to do instead? See rule No. 1 above and root out the individual issue first.

3. It’s always the manager. Even when it’s an individual member of the team whose performance is causing the disruption, it’s on the manager to address it. Imagine a team member who isn’t reliable, capable, or both, who is letting their teammates down regularly. The team grudgingly adjusts to accommodate the person. They create workarounds to avoid having to involve a person they can’t count on. Then the chatter behind the back begins, with people whispering to each other about their resentment or even anger toward their failing teammate, and toward the manager who’s done nothing to correct matters.

A problem with one person that is left unaddressed quickly starts to look like team dysfunction, but it’s often much simpler than that. Rather than trying to fix something that isn’t broken (the team), focus your efforts on the three rules to address team dysfunction, and you’ll save yourself lots of time, money, and aggravation.

First published on the thoughtLEADERS blog.


About The Author

Carlos Valdes-Dapena’s picture

Carlos Valdes-Dapena

Carlos Valdes-Dapena is a renowned speaker, bestselling author, and corporate leader with 30 years of experience in collaboration innovation at organizations including Mars, Inc. and IBM. As the Founder and Managing Principal of Corporate Collaboration Resources, Valdes-Dapena uses his expertise in organizational development to guide businesses into implementing effective and lasting change. Valdes-Dapena is the author of Virtual Teams: Holding the Center When You Can’t Meet Face-to-Face, and his previous bestseller, Lessons From Mars: How Old Global Company Cracked the Code on High-Performance Collaboration.