How to Turn Around a Dysfunctional Team

— October 27, 2017

Rarely in the business world does anything exist in a vacuum. People and departments rely on each other to maintain certain functions, and oftentimes we’ll group individual employees together to work as a team — but what happens when these teams don’t come together? Do you try to pin the blame on one bad apple, spoiling the whole bunch? What if you have nothing but top-notch employees in your organization? The logic would follow that if we have excellent employees, we should have excellent teams, right?


Unfortunately, some teams just don’t function well, and it’s usually due to some combination of poor leadership and low individual self-awareness. When it’s all said and done, leaders are the primary actors that will have to turn around dysfunctional teams. According to Deidre Paknad, CEO and Co-Founder of performance management company Workboard, there are essentially five dynamics of low performing teams that leaders need to address before they can be successful:


1. Freeloaders


We all remember doing group projects in school, and how bad it was to get stuck with that one kid who didn’t do any of the work but still got the same grade as the rest of the group. The truth is that this bad habit of “freeloading” doesn’t always go away just because the kid grows up. In fact, Gallup has estimated that about 2 in 10 employees are actively disengaged in their work and undermine value created by their peers. Other freeloaders may be “less destructive”, in that they’re not necessarily “actively” disengaged, but still demotivate their team by contributing nothing to it. Those in management positions always need to be on the lookout for freeloaders and take steps to correct their behavior — avoiding it will definitely only make it worse.


2. Vague Goals and Unclear Objectives


When teams aren’t functioning well, it seems that all-too-often we’ll begin scrutinizing the team and its makeup first, looking for individuals such as “freeloaders” to figure out where the holes are. However, leaders need to realize that the buck ultimately starts and stops with them. If teams haven’t been given clear direction and goals from their leaders, there’s almost no way that they’re actually going to achieve anything meaningful. In rare instances, team members may come forward to identify what they are lacking, but by that point it’s usually too late. It’s the leader’s responsibility in the first place to make sure that there are clear, defined, meaningful goals for employees to follow from the get-go, so that team members don’t feel devalued and/or frustrated.


3. Lack of Honesty and Transparency


Teams need to be able to track their progress, or see lack of it, so that they can constantly tweak and coordinate efforts. This means that you need to be presenting them the right top down information to guide them in the right direction. It’s important, however, to understand that honesty and transparency are not the same thing. “For example, honesty could mean telling customers that a sponsor has done 50 successful deals in the past 2 years, while transparency means communicating that there are also 3 projects from that sponsor that are currently in trouble,” writes FinTech entrepreneur Ray Sturm. In the same respect, you might be honest with your team by letting them know that they’re doing great with part A of the project, but you wouldn’t be transparent if you didn’t let them know they weren’t doing well with part B to. Your goal might be boosting morale, but you’d be doing so at the cost of a team that learns from its mistakes, and threatens to commit the same ones in the future — all for lack of transparency.


4. Lack of Accountability


Not providing transparency, especially for the reasons mentioned above, is the equivalent of not driving accountability. It’s natural that nobody wants to “be the bad guy” — so natural, in fact, that HBR reports that half of all managers are terrible at accountability. In the best teams, managers set up systems that allow for team members to hold each other accountable (as well as themselves). Nevertheless, accountability begins with leadership and management, and defining the standards by which you’ll hold yourself and your team members accountable should precede virtually everything else. Think of it like reading everybody the rules before a game, or like reading the instructions and ingredients before cooking a complex meal; if everybody is on the same page, there’s much less of a chance of things going wrong.


5. Fear of Giving Feedback


Your team probably relies on you more than you realize. They want feedback from you, because they either want affirmation that they’re on the right track, or to know how they can do better. It’s said that young people today do somewhere around 70 percent of their learning on the job, so criticism is crucial for the growth of your team members as well as the evolution of your organization. However, positive feedback is just as necessary. According to Gallup, “the Fourth Element of Great Managing is measured by the statement ‘In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.’” As a manager, get used to giving feedback to your employees. It could very well make the difference between making and breaking your team.


By focusing on these five areas, leaders can begin to turn dysfunctional teams around. It’s not always as simple as finding and implementing one of the above fixes, but this is a good place to start. Once you’ve got a focus area, dial it in from there — and remember that these are all active and dynamic traits that you want to adopt, meaning that they become part of your ritual and part of your managing-style. Don’t expect to be able to press a button and go on autopilot; good solutions simply don’t work like that.

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Author: Andrew Heikkila


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