We’re all familiar with what Tolstoy’s posited in Anna Karenina, that “happy families are all alike and every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” And while the particulars of what makes each family unhappy are different, the source of the dysfunction always stems from the behaviors and attitudes of the parents/adults in the home. It is the moods, habits and behaviors of one (or more) adult(s) which catalyze and inform how the others in the family behave, act and react with the catalyst and with each other. It is the combination of the adult’s catalyst behaviors and the resulting reactive behaviors which create each unique unhappy family situation.
The origin of team dysfunction is always the leader
This analogy also applies to teams at work. Namely, that happy, productive teams are all alike and every unhappy team is unhappy in its own way; with Forbes’ Coaches Council identifying 14 different ways a leader might diagnose dysfunction on her own team. And, like the adult in the home being the catalyst in the unhappy family analogy, dysfunctional team behaviors are in reaction to the habits, attitudes and behaviors of the leader.
Of course, unlike children, every adult in the workplace is responsible for his own behavior, but Shawn Casemore, author of Operational Empowerment may have said it best on his blog on this topic: “The origin of dysfunction in an organization is always the same. It’s the leader of the team.”
If you’re leading what you fear is a dysfunctional team, use these tips to course correct your own thinking and behaviors to get your team back on track.
Team dysfunction is never one person’s “fault”
A less seasoned leader will focus his attention on one person who appears to be “the problem” because that looks like the easiest way forward. Skilled leaders, on the other hand, resist the urge to ambush any one member because they understand no one is coming to work with the intent to upset the boss and foil her plans. Rather, every person’s behavior on the team is influenced both positively and negatively by the leader’s own attitudes, moods and behaviors.
Withdrawal is one of the behaviors which may be called out as a problem, but is, in fact, a reaction to the wider dysfunction. Blaming or scapegoating an individual on the team won’t “cure” the team’s dysfunction, because the behavior is a symptom, not the cause of it. In fact, it’s the whole team which needs a tune-up, including the leader.
Your behavior creates fear
As a leader, if your team members generally defer to you, I’m sorry to say that it’s not because you’re ever so wise, charismatic and smart. On the contrary, if this is happening, you are surrounded with yes-men because your behaviors create fear.
Google’s Project Aristotle research demonstrated that trust and safety are necessary for high performing teams. Team members need to feel “psychologically safe” both with you as their leader and with their team mates.
At work, people’s fears fall into 3 main categories: being misunderstood (their motives or credibility questioned), being excluded (ostracized for not conforming) and being invisible (not heard). All of these fears are inextricably tied to our core feelings of value and sense of worth and if your team is spending the majority of their days outside their psychologically safe zone, then it is draining their creative energy and productivity -- and likely leading to dysfunctional behaviors.
Strong leaders learn how to manage conflict in ways that maintain psychological safety of the people on the team, in order to have the needed conversations necessary to productive growth. Unfortunately, too many conflict-avoidant leaders fall into the next trap...the sidebar conversation.
Sidebar conversations are a sign of dysfunction
Sidebar conversations are those hush-hush tete-a-tete’s among sub groups of team members (with or without the leader) which purposefully exclude other relevant members and are akin to gossip and just as dysfunctional. And when these sidebars are driven by the leader, you’re normalizing scapegoating and instilling fear - because if you’re comfortable with sidebar conversations with one team member about another team member, you might be doing the same to them.
This is also evidence of a dysfunctional hub and spoke management style. This approach of being the primary means of keeping activities synchronized, it actively discourages the team from engaging with their team members on topics outside their direct responsibilities. They forgo sharing their insights and thoughts of strategic relevance because of a politeness ritual inherent in the hub and spoke setup.
You don’t communicate as well as you think you do
You think you’re communicating effectively, but the evidence clear shows that everyone overestimates their ability to communicate. As a team leader, you need to take this insight to heart and endeavor to understand how each of your team members thinks and feels so you can best tailor your communication style to what suits them. This small effort to adapt on your part will help build strong relationships and enhance trust. Maya Angelou said it best: “People will forget what you said and did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
Next time you find yourself wondering what to do about the dysfunctional behavior on your team, take a step back and explore how your attitudes and behaviors are contributing to what you’re seeing. Your team will not begin to work better together until you also look at your role in it.