Davis Consulting Group

How Team Dysfunction Can Signal Tremendous Success

A business succeeds when its leadership works as a team. However, when office politics, varying agendas, unclear goals and bad behaviors go unaddressed, the business will inevitably stagnate or decline in the results it achieves because of the unproductive environment.  By recognizing and addressing five common conditions found in dysfunctional teams, identified by Patrick Lenconi in “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” you can attend to these issues and lead your organization to realize successful and formerly unattainable achievements.

So, what are signs to look for in your team’s dynamics?  How strongly held are the following beliefs in your team?  (3=Usually; 2=Sometimes; 1=Rarely)

  1. Uncertainty, not having the right answer or vulnerability equals weakness.
  2. Conflict is damaging and unnecessary.
  3. Consensus equals commitment.
  4. Accountability comes naturally with team members who are closely connected.
  5. Results are easy to achieve if everyone can recite what they are.
  • A score of 5 or 6 is a probable indication that the dysfunction is not a problem for your team.
  • A score 7-9 indicates that the dysfunction could be a problem.
  • A score of 10 or higher indicates that several of the 5 dysfunctions need to be addressed.

Here is what we learn from Lenconi’s fable about dysfunctional teams:

  1. Absence of Trust. In the context of building a team, trust is the confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good, and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group. Teammates must get comfortable being professionally vulnerable with one another around organizational weaknesses, skill deficiencies, interpersonal shortcomings, mistakes and requests for help.

As “soft” as this might sound, it’s only when team members are truly comfortable being exposed to one another that they begin to act without concern for protecting themselves.  As a result, they can focus their energy and attention completely on the job at hand, rather than on being strategically disingenuous or political with one another.

  1. Fear of Conflict. All great relationships, the ones that last over time, require productive conflict in order to grow and thrive. This is true in marriage, parenthood, friendship and certainly business.  Unfortunately, conflict is considered taboo in many work environments.  It is important to distinguish productive ideological conflict from destructive fighting and interpersonal politics.  Ideological conflict is limited to concepts and ideas and avoids personality-focused, mean-spirited attacks.  However, both kinds of conflict can have many of the same external qualities – passion, emotion, and frustration.  So much so, that an outside observer might easily mistake one for the other.

But teams that engage in productive conflict know that the underlying purpose of pushing differing points of view is to produce the best possible solution in the shortest period of time.  They discuss and resolve issues more quickly and completely than others, and they emerge from heated debates with no residual feelings or collateral damage, but with an eagerness and readiness to take on the next important issue.

  1. Lack of Commitment. The two greatest causes of a lack of commitment are the desire for consensus and the need for certainty. Great teams understand the danger of seeking consensus and find ways to achieve buy-in even when complete agreement is impossible. They understand that reasonable human beings do not need to get their way in order to support a decision, but do need to know that their opinions have been heard and considered.

Great teams also pride themselves on being able to unite behind decisions and commit to clear courses of action even when there is little assurance about whether the decision is correct.  They understand the old military axiom, that clear decisive action is infinitely better than no decision at all. They also realize that it is better to make a decision boldly and be wrong, and then change direction with equal boldness than it is to waffle or postpone indefinitely.  Contrast this with the behavior of dysfunctional teams that try to hedge their bets and delay important decisions until they have enough data to feel certain that they are making the right decision.  The paralysis and lack of confidence it breeds is counterproductive and inherently damaging to the culture of the team and larger organization.

  1. Avoidance of Accountability. In the context of teamwork, accountability refers specifically to the willingness of team members to point out harmful or counterproductive behaviors or performance to their peers on the team. The essence of this dysfunction is the unwillingness of team members to tolerate the interpersonal discomfort that accompanies calling a peer out on his or her behavior and the more general tendency to avoid difficult conversations.

As counter-intuitive as it sounds, the most effective and efficient means of maintaining high standards of performance on a team is peer pressure…not bullying.  More than any bureaucratic performance management system, there is nothing like the fear of letting down respected teammates that motivates people to improve their performance.

  1. Inattention to Results. The ultimate dysfunction of a team is the tendency of members to care about something other than the collective goals of the group. An unrelenting focus on specific objectives and clearly defined outcomes is a requirement for any team that judges itself on performance.  So, what are the common distractions?  Individual status, ego and self promotion.

For members of some teams, merely being part of the group is enough to keep them satisfied.  For them, the achievement of specific results might be desirable, but not necessarily worthy of great sacrifice or inconvenience.  For other people, their focus is on enhancing their own positions or career prospects even at the expense of their team.  While self-preservations is an innate tendency for most human beings, a functional team must make the collective results of the group more important to each individual than individual members’ goals.

Lenconi reminds us that “teams succeed because they are exceedingly human. By acknowledging the imperfections of their humanity, members of functional teams overcome the natural tendencies that make trust, conflict, commitment, accountability and a focus on results so elusive.”

By: Megan Davis Lightman, founder of Davis Consulting Group



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