Top tips for dealing with a dysfunctional team

he term ‘dysfunctional team’ sends a shudder through many of us, bringing up visions of a team that is infighting, politicking, game-playing, back-stabbing, bullying and emotionally outbursting. In fact, there’s so much anxiety around dysfunctional teams that a whole industry has sprung up around dealing with them, the charge led by the author Patrick Lencioni, who wrote the book ‘Five Dysfunctions of Team’ back in 2002.

At Strengthscope, what we’re finding right now is that more and more teams are facing significant challenges and some of them are struggling with the level of change and uncertainty they’re experiencing.  And if pushed, it might be possible to define some of the teams we’re working with as exhibiting some dysfunctional behaviours, or at least, less than functional behaviours.  So today’s podcast focuses on what to do when you are asked to support a dysfunctional team or if you feel you might be part of a dysfunctional team.

My name’s Dr Paul Brewerton, the strengths guy, Doctor of Psychology and Founder and Chair of Strengthscope. I podcast each week on how you can take a positive, proactive approach at work using a strengths lens to get more from yourself, more from your team and more from your organisation.

Defining dysfunctional teams and functional teams

So what about dysfunctional teams then? Well let’s have a think about functional teams first, teams that are working. Katzenbach and Smith, in their Wisdom of Teams paper (great paper by the way, absolutely worth getting hold of), those guys defined functional, productive teams as “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.”

On the other hand, Patrick Lencioni in his work on dysfunctional teams, describes these as showing an absence of trust, a fear of conflict, a lack of commitment, an avoidance of accountability and inattention to results.

At Strengthscope, we have spent years developing the antidote to dysfunctional teams by building a practical, positive team development model which addresses each of Patrick Lencioni’s dysfunctions.  We call it StrengthscopeTeam™ and it captures the essential elements of behaviour that teams need to develop if they’re going to work in the way that Katzenbach and Smith describe.

So here’s our plan for team development success and here’s how you can move away from dysfunction to fully function(al)…

1. Understand team context

When we work with teams at Strengthscope, we will spend time speaking to the team’s sponsor (maybe someone from HR or L&D, or maybe the team leader), as well as speaking to team members first of all  to understand the context, the ‘now’ of the team. How long the team has been together, the current challenges it’s facing, its strengths and risk areas, the team’s history, any recent changes, its purpose and goals, how much development the team has had so far and what has landed well and not so well in the past.

These questions form the first part of our team development process because these conversations allow team members to acknowledge their current context and where they’re at right now. We combine this with a request for team members to complete StrengthscopeTeam™, because that gives us another layer of information about where the team is at right now – in terms of the team’s strengths, risk areas and current team behaviours.

2. Gain acknowledgement from the team on where they’re at

The next step towards becoming a high functioning, productive team is for team members to acknowledge the issues the team is facing and to want to commit to making a change. This acknowledgement may be the first time that the team has recognised or faced into its challenges, externally and internally, so it’s important to create a sense of psychological safety for team members. This allows the team to be able to openly discuss their feelings and reactions, when results from the interviews and any other diagnostics used (StrengthscopeTeam™ in our case) are shared.  You can do this by contracting with the team on confidentiality, openness, honesty, speaking for yourself, withholding assumptions and listening, asking the team for their input in drawing up a list of behaviours that they all sign up to. During conversations with the team, they can remind each other if this isn’t happening to keep things on track.  When the team is ready and committed to making a change (and as you’ll appreciate, getting to this stage means that change is already happening), you can move on to getting clarity on the team’s aspirations.

3. Help the team gain clarity

When a team is clear on its purpose, goals and roles, there is a much greater chance that it will function effectively.  Humans need clarity to feel safe and confident. If everyone in a team is clear on what they are doing and why they are doing it, there’s much less chance that the human ‘survival instinct’ of fight, flight, freeze will kick in and create unhelpful behaviours in the team, based around fear and self-protection, rather than trust and abundance.  The team needs to be clear on its purpose, its ‘why’ initially so that everyone in the team can feel that being part of the team has meaning to them. And it needs to be clear on what it creates or outputs. So we work with teams to be clear on those points, and then to establish who should do what to achieve those goals and objectives.

4. Create the conditions for trust

Having gained clarity, the team has a greater level of psychological safety and that’s a precursor to trust. Often, infighting and politicking comes from ambiguity in roles and goals, so people jostle for position to try and establish themselves as important and relevant. And that’s a totally human reaction. Trust can’t be forced, it develops as a result of a sense of safety, feeling valued, and a consistent context in terms of what’s ok and not ok to do.  To help with this, we recommend that teams develop a behavioural charter that describes acceptable behaviour that the team wants to encourage – a set of commitments that everyone develops together and signs up to.  Usually, this includes some of the things the team has already contracted on like openness, honesty, listening, assuming positive intent and so on. As well, if team members know each other’s strengths and risks, then they can get help and give help to each other in specific areas and over time, that consistency and greater understanding will help trust to develop within the team.

5. Ensure a high level of accountability

Now to the nitty-gritty. For a team to perform well, it needs to commit to delivering results individually and that means individual accountability. This is one of the central points of Patrick Lencioni’s 5 dysfunctions of a team and with good reason. If a team’s members don’t take individual responsibility for delivering results or aren’t prepared to call each other out for non-delivery, the team’s never going to be able to achieve strong performance. The good news is that with the team having moved towards psychological safety by creating clarity and building trust, the foundations are now in place for tougher conversations when they’re needed.  For this to work, individual accountabilities (tasks, goals, delivery milestones and so on) need to be documented and reviewed with fair consequences for non-delivery. Team members should feel supported to be able to deliver what’s required but once agreement is reached, there should be a commitment to deliver from each team member and a sense of responsibility and ownership by each member of the team for the actions on them. A high functioning team will be prepared to have open, honest, crunchy adult-adult conversations when delivery isn’t happening.

6. Build change readiness

One area not really addressed in Lencioni’s work is that of flexibility in the face of change. Given the ever-more ever-changing context that teams are facing these days, it’s important to ensure that teams are as change-ready as possible. So taking an external perspective and not too introspective a view is super-important here. When a team becomes navel-gazey or complacent, threats and risks get missed and when they do come into view, that can place unwanted stress on the team as it tries to figure out how to respond. Worst case is that team members look to apportion blame when things don’t go according to plan, rather than learn from mistakes. Best case is that the team is so connected to its context, that it flexes strategy or approach before it’s necessary rather than when a shock happens. And that needs good discipline around scenario-planning, as well as a solutions-focus in the event of something unexpected happening, rather than a focus on problems and blaming.

7. Stretch the team to continuously improve

The last element of our team development model enables the team to continuously improve by actively gathering feedback on its performance from stakeholders and taking action to make improvements to its ways of working and its stakeholder offer.  We’re talking here about the development of a positive, growth mindset where team members are open to feedback and to learn and develop along the way. Many teams that we work with are initially reticent about gathering stakeholder feedback, but when the team feels safe and has a clear mission, team members are more likely to be open to feedback from stakeholders, as they realise that this feedback will only help them better meet their objectives and deliver on their purpose.


So how to deal with a dysfunctional team then? Make them feel safe. Get them to acknowledge where they’re at and commit to a different future. Get clear on purpose, goals and roles. Build a behaviour charter of what’s ok and not ok. Hold people to account for non-delivery. Know how to change before it’s too late. And keep close to stakeholders. If you follow those steps, you’ll move a team from dysfunctional to functional and from negative to positive. If you’re interested to know more, check out our StrengthscopeTeam™ approach by googling it – all one word. Give us a call if you like, we’re always there to help. Look out next week for my how-to guide on team check-ins.

Till next time, stay strong.

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