How to create positive change when working in a dysfunctional team

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The novel Anna Karenina begins with a truth that we might adapt for workplace teams: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

“On dysfunctional teams, relationships get in the way of work getting done,” says Anne Comer, principal, team effectiveness and culture change coach, COMERXCHANGE. “This usually happens when people don’t feel safe so they don’t share information. A dysfunctional team might not look bad and there might not be open conflict but they aren’t working at their best.”

“Every team has the potential to move in and out of function and dysfunction under certain conditions,” says Marilyn Struthers, organizational consultant and principal M. Struthers & Co. “It isn’t a static condition.”

We wanted to take a look at the root causes of this kind of organizational dysfunction, as well as how anyone on the team, not just the leader, can create positive change.

Why dysfunction matters

Dysfunctional teams can prevent an organization from accomplishing its mission, and can add significantly to its costs in a variety of ways.

Christine M. Riordan, dean and professor of management at the Daniels College of Business, University of Denver, writes, “Team discord leads to stress, low job satisfaction, poor productivity, anger, despair, and physical ailments such as insomnia. For teams, it can impair productivity, learning, collaboration, and even survival. Discord increases organizational costs when firms have to invest in coaching, performance management, conflict resolution, and mediation. Finally, team toxicity affects others in an organization and consumers.”

We’d like to think the nonprofit sector might be exempt from this — as one director said, “We’re all committed to our mission so we shouldn’t be having these kinds of problems.” But, in fact, according to Dr. Douglas LaBier of the Center for Progressive Development, there are certain vulnerabilities that may make the nonprofit sector particularly prone to dysfunction — from intensely competitive and changing funding models to suspicion around the adoption of business-type practices that may seem to be at odds with an organization’s values.

But for those of us committed to the mission of our organizations, there is incentive to address the roots of team dysfunction.

It’s simple. The problem with our team is Jane.

“When teams become dysfunctional,” Struthers says, “they almost always say that a particular person is a problem, that they are toxic and creating problems for the team,” says Struthers. “However, that is almost never true.”

At times, an individual on a team can become dysfunctional, says Struthers, perhaps because they are going through something in another area of their life or because they are a poor fit for the team. In such cases, she says, “A good HR process used by a leader should support that person.”

However, this is not the root of team dysfunction. Comer says, “Barring the presence of a sociopath on a team, it’s never just one person. No one is difficult on their own. People are only difficult because they are in relationship with us.”

Dr. Rebecca Sutherns, founder and CEO of strategic facilitation firm Sage Solutions agrees. “Even if there is one person with unproductive behaviour on a team, others have created conditions that allow that behaviour to continue.”

In fact, a person identified as a “problem” may actually be a systems or creative thinker, says Struthers. This person may seem like a poor fit but actually may be the one person who challenges a group’s comfortable thinking to look at neglected issues or the big picture.

What might be going on...

“You don’t always know how to work toward more functionality until you know what the dysfunction is,” says Sutherns, “although unlike in a medical situation, even if you don’t get the diagnosis exactly right, any positive intervention will raise the functionality of the team.”

Roger Schwarz, author of Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams, suggests starting with results: talking with your team about the results it needs that it isn’t getting, figuring out what’s happening in the team that prevents these results, working backward to the behaviours that prevent the team from functioning well, and finally considering the mindset that is generating these behaviours.

For Struthers, change is a frequent cause of team dysfunction. “Usually a team is dealing with some shifts and changes and hasn’t yet figured out how to deal with them. This is especially relevant in the nonprofit sector where our work is social change change - and how we do it changes constantly.” She talks about working with an organization going through several major changes. “Once we identified this, people relaxed. It wasn’t someone’s fault anymore.” Struthers adds, “We used to build organizations and teams for stability but now, in order to be functional, we need to build resilient teams with a capacity for change.”

Is dysfunction the responsibility of the leader?

Leaders play a pivotal role in the culture of a team, and set the tone by how they respond (or don’t respond) to the behaviour of team members. But while leaders have significant power and influence in making change on teams, they don’t always exercise it. “The biggest problem,” says Comer, “is that leaders turn a blind eye or give people the benefit of the doubt. There are good intentions behind this, but it is possible to be both compassionate and clear in leading a team back toward functionality.”

At the same time, teams don’t simply have to wait for their leader to take action. In fact, according to Liane Davey, an organizational psychologist and consultant, anyone on a team can fix a dysfunctional team, even without the initial support of the team leader or peers.

“We co-create teams,” says Struthers. “There is a vertical, hierarchical picture of leadership, but every team also has a network of relationships. When we only use the hierarchical model, it’s the job of the person at the top to fix a team, but in a more networked approach, it’s about self-management as team – what can you do to create the conditions to support the team to be best it can be?”

While Sutherns notes that it is riskier for some team members to intervene and there can be a cost to making changes (or not making changes), she agrees that any team member can make changes to the team’s effectiveness.

To Comer, this is good news because, as she says, “I can’t control anyone else’s behaviour but I can own my part in the relationship and thus make change.”

10 Steps for improving the health of your team (even though you aren’t the leader)

1. Know yourself and the role you play best

“Every team you join is a chance to experiment and learn what you bring to the team,” says Struthers. “Figure out the role you play best, how you carry your own power and influence. Recognize your gifts, skills and capacities. Reflect on your role.” Comer adds, “Become aware of how your behaviour and actions impact other people.” Struthers suggests, “If your ideas aren’t being received well, it may be that you present them in different ways, being more of a team player than a star. It also may be that the organization is not growing in the direction you can see yourself going. “ Along with that self-awareness, Davey suggests learning when and how to say no to requests that would dilute your focus, stretch your resources and slow you down.

2. Know what good teams look like

“Characteristics of well-functioning teams are generally true for all teams,” says Sutherns. “Trying to create those strategies on your team can affect positive change.” Sutherns points to the recent two-year Google study of what makes an effective team as a good starting place. The Google study determined five key (and somewhat surprising) factors that characterized the best functioning teams: dependability; structure and clarity; meaning; impact; and, perhaps most important, psychological safety.

3. Step up

It can be all to easy to simply become resentful or passive-aggressive on a dysfunctional team. Instead, Davey counsels, “Show up, get off cruise control and bring the benefit of your experiences, your relationships, and your personality instead of just doing what is in your job description.” Sutherns adds that some teams seem dysfunctional because the leader may not have strong process skills — like chairing a meeting. She observes that while this is a vital skill to the health of a team, it does not have to be done by the formal leader. “A team member who has strong facilitation skills can step up to offer their skills to the team leader, thus strengthening the team.”

4. Build appreciation and rapport

Because psychological safety and trust are key to effective teams, Comer suggests cultivating appreciation for what teammates bring to the team, getting to know teammates and what makes them tick as a means of building trust and rapport.

5. Listen

While some people struggle with stepping up in the face of dysfunction, others have the opposite challenge, rushing in to speak and to fix a team. While this comes back to knowing yourself, it is always valuable, says Comer, to listen and observe team dynamics. Struthers talks about a time she felt her own leadership style wasn't working for her when she joined a new organization. She practiced simply observing how things operated. Davey adds that it is essential to amplify the voices of team members whose perspectives are usually shut out of discussion.

6. Ask good questions

The art of asking good questions is a skill that can defuse tension on a variety of levels within a dysfunctional team. Comer says, “Once you have rapport with your teammates, you can open up the conversation, using neutral language to describe what you have observed and its impact and then ask: how do you think we could do this differently the next time?” Sutherns points to the work of Michael Wilkinson, author of The Secrets of Facilitation, who suggests techniques he calls “guerilla facilitation” to manage a meeting when you are not the meeting leader. This includes asking clarifying questions for your own benefit, such asking the leader to explain the purpose of a meeting, or what the decision-making process will be.

7. Develop shared language

As part of Struthers’ observation during her break from formal leadership, she developed conceptual language for what she saw, language she was able to insert into conversation with colleagues to help them articulate what was going on. She says, “We don’t always have shared language to describe our work environment and what is going on, but this is something we can co-create that will help us to move forward.”

8. Embrace productive conflict

While nearly all of us prefer to agree, conflict can be productive if it promotes understanding and enhances the work being done. In the face of interpersonal conflict between you and another team member, Sutherns suggests beginning by going directly to the person.

9. Know how to involve the team leader in a conflict

“Whistle blowing is big right now,” says Struthers. “Some things you shouldn’t tolerate but we need to deal with dysfunction in a constructive way.” Bringing an issue to the team leader is counterproductive if it simply sounds like you are complaining about someone, says Comer. Sutherns adds, “If you have gone to the team member first (or if that is not possible or is inappropriate), you can go to the team leader and have a conversation where you describe what you have observed, and ask them whether they have noticed it too. Talk about the challenge in terms of how it is affecting team performance. Be sure to ask the team leader whether there is something you can do to improve the dynamic.”

10. Know when to walk

Knowing when to leave a team is a very personal and individual decision, says Comer. Sometimes this may come down to evaluating the alignment between your values and that of the organization, or the fit in terms of the type of working environment. Other times, it can be difficult to get past a history of conflicts and broken trust. “This can be a place where a consultant can set a new, more level playing field.” In the absence of this kind of outside voice, Sutherns suggests asking the following questions: “Have I done everything reasonably possible to contribute to this team, over what most people would say is a reasonable time frame? What would the consequences be to me leaving — for my reputation, for the team, for the organization?” Sutherns adds, “There are times when self care comes into play. If a team is going nowhere and it is affecting your personal health, this can be a warning sign.”

Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, likens great teams to rowers and writes, "If you could get all the people in the organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time.” For nonprofit organizations, learning to row well together not only makes the experience more enjoyable but also allows the mission to be achieved more effectively and efficiently.

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for more than two decades and loves a good story.

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