Can Dysfunctional Teams Become Functional?

Many leaders I work with discover that, when they promoted to a new leadership opportunity, they have inherited a troubled team. And they are now expected to fix it – making the team functional. Frequently, their new team is not interested in being fixed or functioning any differently than do currently. To further complicate leadership challenges, many organizations and non-profits have small teams and rely heavily on volunteers to support their programs.

The question often arises: who constitutes the team? The answer may seem obvious at first – the people who are on the payroll. Yet, the volunteers often outnumber the internal staff on the payroll, and in reality, have more direct contact with the customer.

These situations recently transpired with a few of my coaching clients. They wonder, where do I even begin? Over the next few weeks we’ll discuss dealing with dysfunctional teams, creating functional teams and building a culture of trust.

This is part 1 in the 5-part series on Dysfunctional Teams by Diana Gabriel, Certified Strengths Strategy Coach.

Team, Dysfunctional, Functional, Trust, Conflict, Commitment, Accountability, Results, Vulnerability, Feedback, Authenticity, Integrity, Strengths, Strengths Based Leadership, StrengthsFinder, Leadership Coach

Trust is the foundation for all human interactions and the key to a functional team. Click To Tweet

Organizations can waste vast amounts of time, effort and money each year by failing to recognize or correct dysfunctional teams. A PricewaterhouseCoopers study of 200 global companies across various sectors, involving more than 10,000 projects, found less than 3% successfully completed their plans. Similar research reveals 60% to 70% project failure rates. In the United States alone, IT project failures cause estimated losses of up to $150 billion per year.

Dysfunctional teams cannot be blamed for all business failures, but they play a major role in unsuccessful projects and missed goals. In his acclaimed bestseller, organizational consultant Patrick Lencioni identifies The Five Dysfunctions of a Team:

Absence of trust
Fear of conflict
Lack of commitment
No accountability
Lack of attention to results

Leaders must address these dysfunctions if their teams are to have any chance of success.

“The true measure of a team is that it accomplishes the results that it sets out to achieve. …It requires levels of courage and discipline―and emotional energy―that even the most driven executives don’t always possess.”
— Patrick Lencioni, (Jossey-Bass, 2002)

Absence of Trust
Trust is the foundation for all human interactions and the key to a functional team. Lack of trust is the core dysfunction, leading to many other problems.

Several group behaviors demonstrate distrust. Team members may have low confidence in others. They may fear that any sign of personal weakness could be used against them. Consequently, people are unwilling to be vulnerable, transparent or open when exchanging ideas or expressing their feelings. Those who avoid exposure to criticism resist asking for help and hesitate before offering it to others.

A lack of trust creates defensiveness in team members, notes leadership consultant Roger M. Schwarz in Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams (Jossey-Bass, 2013). Defensive team members feel the need to protect themselves, he explains in “Get a Dysfunctional Team Back On Track” (Harvard Business Review).

An absence of trust directly undermines the relationships team members need to work together successfully. Without trust, there’s insufficient communication, cooperation and participation. Leaders who want to rebuild trust can try the following strategies:

Create an environment in which team members can safely feel vulnerable. Draw out people’s personal experiences by sharing your own stories, thereby setting the proper tone and lowering barriers. Recognize that it takes determination and resolve to restore trust.

Team members must be willing to and learn how to provide feedback. Acknowledging and affirming others with constructive feedback for the greater good sets the stage for positive reinforcement and encouragement. Consistent, authentic feedback hopefully becomes habitual, which fortifies trust.

To tear down walls, practice humility. If you and your team can admit that you don’t know everything – that you each have blind spots – the experience will be freeing. Remind the team that everyone is in the same boat, everyone is working towards the greater good, and no one has all the answers. Each member contributes to the group’s problems and solutions.

You must model integrity in group dynamics. Everything you do is magnified and often copied. When you walk the talk, others will follow your example. Integrity and trust become contagious. Noble character (doing what’s right for each other) reduces defensiveness and distrust.

What is your experience in dealing with teams that have been labeled as dysfunctional? Do these suggestions sound practical for your organization? I would love to hear from you. You can reach me here and on LinkedIn.


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