Dysfunctional Teams Are Toxic

Robert-photo-w-icon-150-4-7-10-FINAL4-150x150Teams typically commence their activities with the best intentions in mind. But over time, dysfunction can creep into the group, destroying its productivity and wasting precious time. These teams are toxic to themselves and the organization.

What triggers this deterioration and how can the decline be stopped?

Dysfunction is always triggered by a team member’s behavior. Someone on the team behaves in a manner that is inconsistent with the other team members’ expectations about how something should occur. Perhaps someone is left out of the team’s decision-making process and the lack of their opinion causes the team to make a mistake. Or, perhaps voices are raised during a team meeting and the loudest voice wins the debate. Or, one of the team members is consistently late and is never called on it. Or, maybe one member is shamed in front of the team.  

Everyone on the team observes the negative behavior and they mutually verify that the behavior is unacceptable. This verification happens with a nod or a shake of the head; rarely is it spoken. Various team members then draw their own conclusions about the meaning behind the behavior, and left unchecked, these opinions evolve into assumptions about the nature of the team and the organization. Negative emotions are triggered, rooted in a sense of unfairness or injustice.  

Next, those in the team who are the targets of the negative behavior respond in kind, behaving in a manner consistent with their new negative assumptions. This prompts others on the team to reinforce their negative feelings and assumptions, and generate more. Bad experiences lead to negative assumptions, fueled by undesirable emotions, and the team spirals downward towards dysfunction. It’s the negative assumptions that drive the dysfunction.

Blaming the offending team member does not stop the cycle of dysfunction; that person must come to understand his or her accountability to the team. Once the negative behavior is acknowledged, then that team member must accept the responsibility for changing his or her behavior. Changing the behavior is best accomplished by first explaining what the person does well for the team, and then asking 3 questions to help that team member discover the impact caused by their negative behavior:

  1. How does your behavior impact our team operations?
  2. What emotional responses does the team exhibit in reaction to your behavior?
  3. What assumptions arise within the team as a result of your negative behavior that contradicts our core values?

How the team leader deals with the offending associate sends a message to the rest of the team. Consistency of response and reaction is the key. If the negative behavior does not cease, then the team leader must act to protect the team and its mission.

How is dysfunctional team behavior managed in your organization?

What could you do differently to improve the outcomes of these situations?


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