How to transform dysfunctional teams into cohesive, collaborative units

How to transform dysfunctional teams into cohesive, collaborative units

Sugandha SrivastavaJanuary 5th, 20246 min read

Team members thrive in an environment that fosters psychological safety and embraces a shared set of values. Katzenbach and Smith, in their 2015 work, aptly describe a successful team as a small group of individuals with complementary skills, united by a common purpose, performance goals, and a mutually accountable approach.

When teams encounter challenges, Patrick Lencioni's 2002 framework, "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team," identifies key factors such as the absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results. These challenges often stem from our innate emotional response to threats.

Research spanning decades aligns with Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, emphasizing that to unlock their full potential, individuals must first meet basic needs like survival, safety, belonging, and self-esteem. In team settings lacking a sense of safety and value, defensive emotional reactions hinder effective functioning.

What Is A Dysfunctional Team?

A team becomes dysfunctional when its members struggle to achieve collective goals due to interpersonal conflicts and procedural issues within the team structure. This can take various forms, such as a dictatorial leadership style or employees hesitating to voice concerns. Numerous indicators of dysfunction align with five key issues outlined by consultant Patrick Lencioni in his widely-read book, "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable," initially published in 2002. Before delving into these characteristics, let's explore the five elements that define a dysfunctional team according to Lencioni's model.

5 Dysfunctions Of A Team And The Warning Signs

The five dysfunctions of a team are:

Absence of trust

The most severe dysfunction in a team is an absence of trust, forming the foundation for the remaining four root causes. This lack of trust manifests when team members hesitate to be vulnerable, fearing: 1. Making mistakes in front of teammates 2. Asking for help 3. Expressing concerns or opinions This fear is rooted in the anticipation of harsh judgment, reprimand, ridicule, or being overlooked. Notably, this trust deficit extends to team leaders, who may avoid showing vulnerability by refraining from asking questions or granting autonomy. Consequently, these issues diminish collaboration, innovation, and efficiency. Indications of a trust deficit in your team include micromanagement, inadequate information sharing, risk aversion, employee burnout from a reluctance to seek help, and an unequal distribution of tasks.

Fear of Conflict

Excessive conflict can characterize a toxic workplace, yet healthy disagreement within teams is crucial for challenging the status quo and fostering innovative ideas. A fear of conflict prompts teams to avoid healthy disagreement, opting for "artificial harmony" that conceals grudges and resentment beneath a calm surface. This avoidance hinders the identification and improvement of bad ideas. The root of conflict aversion often lies in a lack of trust, as employees may doubt each other's ability to engage respectfully during disagreements or to collaborate peacefully after resolution. Indicators of a fear of conflict in your team include members hesitating to make suggestions, addressing issues indirectly through the manager, opting for impersonal communication channels when face-to-face interaction is more suitable, and unanimous agreement in meetings followed by widespread disagreement afterward.

Lack Of Commitment

A lack of commitment in employee engagement arises when team members are disengaged from their work, hindering their ability to adhere to decisions and execute plans. This can manifest through apathy toward project outcomes, task procrastination, or expressing skepticism about the significance of their work. This lack of commitment often ties back to a broader absence of trust in leadership or organizational goals, and it has tangible consequences for the bottom line. Organizations with high employee engagement, scoring in the top quartile, experience profits 23% higher than those in the bottom quartile. Indicators of a lack of commitment in your team include a tendency to delay decisions as "not urgent" or "requiring more data" without actively seeking that information, a lack of initiative to complete projects and tasks, uneven effort levels among teammates, and procrastination in key decisions or communications.

Inattention To Team Results

Inattention to team results occurs when employees prioritize personal interests over collective goals, undermining collaboration and innovation while indicating a lack of mutual respect among team members. This individualistic approach isn't exclusive to employees; leaders may also exhibit inattention to team results by concentrating solely on tasks affecting their performance review or year-end bonus, neglecting crucial aspects of people management. Signs of your team grappling with inattention to team results include members exclusively focusing on meeting their individual performance goals, hesitating to assist colleagues even with available time, and prioritizing enjoyable tasks over those that would advance the team's overarching goals.

HR's Role Is To Provide Guidance And Advice

Recognizing that "all behavior makes sense" shifts focus from blame to understanding the root causes of behaviors, paving the way for effective resolution. Establishing a common purpose and shared values within the team, facilitating the discussion is HR's role.

Creating a safe space for dialogue, guided by a trained mediator or coach, encourages team members to express their views. Initiating discussions with the question, 'What would you like to achieve together?' fosters consensus and propels the team forward. Reflecting on positive and negative team experiences helps define desired characteristics and behaviors, while addressing points of tension. Identifying key concerns in a session marks the initial step in a healing process, fostering productive dialogue. In senior teams, HR's role extends to communicating agreed-upon shared values throughout the organization. Recognizing that technical expertise doesn't always translate to leadership skills, HR should provide management and communication training for senior staff to ensure a productive and safe organizational environment.

The Impact of Inappropriate Behavior

Addressing team dysfunction often involves inappropriate behaviors, underscoring the importance of HR departments having designated inclusion and 'dignity at work' officers. These officers should be well-trained in respectful workplace legislation and the organization's policies, enabling them to offer guidance and support. Regardless of the causes, addressing discontent demands a holistic approach, resisting compartmentalization. Recognizing diversity within the team, including an understanding of diverse cultures, needs, and expectations among staff, is crucial. Cross-cultural communication training can further support these efforts.

Meeting Basic Needs

In the context of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, it's crucial to assess whether basic needs are being met in the workplace or if individuals are competing for their 'survival.' HR teams play a pivotal role in collaborating with leadership and management to ensure a comprehensive understanding and application of this knowledge. This collaborative effort aims to establish a healthy and content team environment. Implementing Simon Sinek's concept of creating a 'circle of safety,' leaders can provide a sense of protection for their staff within the team, allowing them to confront external challenges with greater confidence. A well-functioning team contributes to improved staff performance, efficiency, and decision-making, ultimately benefiting the organization as a whole. The investment in creating such a conducive environment is undoubtedly worthwhile.

Best Practices or Fixing Dysfunctional Team

If you have identified the specific dysfunction in your team that you want to address and are ready to take action, here's a brief guide to help you get started promptly.

Sign of a Dysfunctional Team: Absence of Trust

Best Practices to Overcome It:

  1. Build a cohesive culture.
  2. Invite new joiners to social events (online or in-person).
  3. Encourage leaders to model vulnerability and authenticity.
  4. Promote executives openly seeking help and advice.
  5. Emphasize connection to the overall mission.
  6. Highlight employees' impact on the company mission in feedback.
  7. Discourage gossip by providing a definition of negative gossip.
  8. Identify and discourage micromanagement using 360-degree feedback.

Example Actions for Fixing:

  • Implement team-building activities.
  • Foster a welcoming environment for new members.
  • Conduct leadership training on vulnerability.
  • Establish a culture of seeking help and advice.
  • Reinforce the organization's mission in all communications.
  • Integrate mission-related achievements into performance reviews.
  • Enforce policies against gossip and promote open communication.
  • Provide training to identify and address micromanagement tendencies.

Sign of a Dysfunctional Team: Fear of Conflict

Best Practices to Overcome It:

  1. Build psychological safety at work.
  2. Reduce bias in hiring through skills-based assessments.
  3. Promote healthy conflict resolution.
  4. Identify and celebrate areas of necessary conflict in each team.

Example Actions for Fixing:

  • Conduct workshops on conflict resolution.
  • Implement blind hiring practices.
  • Encourage open discussions and diverse opinions.
  • Recognize and commend constructive conflicts in team meetings.

Sign of a Dysfunctional Team: Lack of Commitment

Best Practices to Overcome It:

  1. Use talent assessments for hiring motivated employees.
  2. Create career development plans aligned with work.
  3. Showcase how teamwork contributes to overall career growth.
  4. Provide mentoring opportunities, including reverse mentoring for senior staff.

Example Actions for Fixing:

  • Utilize assessments to gauge motivation alignment.
  • Develop personalized career plans for employees.
  • Emphasize the connection between team efforts and individual growth.
  • Facilitate mentoring programs for skill and knowledge exchange.

Sign of a Dysfunctional Team: Avoidance of Accountability

Best Practices to Overcome It:

  1. Use a team charter.
  2. Clearly outline individual roles, especially at project initiation.
  3. Establish clear milestones and feedback processes.
  4. Conduct regular anonymous surveys for general feedback.

Example Actions for Fixing:

  • Create and distribute a team charter.
  • Reinforce individual responsibilities at project kick-offs.
  • Implement milestone tracking and feedback sessions.
  • Regularly gather anonymous input to address accountability concerns.

Sign of a Dysfunctional Team: Inattention to Team Results

Best Practices to Overcome It:

  1. Outline clear performance indicators, including teamwork metrics.
  2. Celebrate milestones, not just completed projects.
  3. Reward successful teams with team-based incentives and bonding events.

Example Actions for Fixing:

  • Establish transparent performance indicators.
  • Acknowledge and celebrate project milestones.
  • Implement team-based incentives for achieving shared goals.
  • Organize paid team bonding events for successful collaboration.
Final Thoughts

Successful teams thrive in a psychologically safe environment with shared values. Dysfunctional teams, identified by Lencioni's framework, face trust issues, conflict avoidance, commitment lapses, accountability challenges, and neglect of results. HR plays a key role, in fostering dialogue, addressing inappropriate behaviors, and aligning with Maslow's needs. Simon Sinek's 'circle of safety' enhances resilience. Tailored strategies for each dysfunction, from building trust to celebrating milestones, pave the way for a cohesive, efficient, and high-performing team, benefiting the entire organization.

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