Returning the dysfunctional team to high performance

Kairen Harris
May 10, 2017

Tolstoy once said that happy families are all alike but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. When things are going well, being part of a functional and effective team is a joy – the sense of shared purpose, the improved outcomes when knowledge is shared and you have worked collaboratively. However, when you are trying to manage a dysfunctional team, sometimes it can feel like that unhappy family of Tolstoy’s – taking a long car journey with a bunch of fractious children.

In order to explore how you can improve team dynamics, you need to first understand what factors are contributing to the dysfunction:

Personality Traits

The question of whether team members personalities are fixed or changeable is a potential PHD subject. Personality is largely innate and, as such, there is probably not much you can do about the trickier personality traits of the team you have already got, but you can recruit well!

Ensuring your recruitment process explores style preferences and how the potential employee works as part of a team is important. Posing hypothetical team scenarios, interviewing in groups and personality testing are all ways that you might explore this.

Some of the attributes we see as thwarting good team working include:

  • An ungenerous/competitive/isolationist/non collaborative orientation
  • A negative, bored or cynical attitude
  • A lazy approach to their work
  • Emotionally over reactive/volatile/unpredictable
  • A defensive approach/resistance to feedback
  • An arrogant or impatient attitude towards others
  • Over focussed on the past and/or past ills

Understanding the profile of your team members, what their ‘buttons’ are and recognising their strengths and preferences will enable you as a manager to better engage with them and allocate work accordingly, as well as manage any potential risks ahead of time.

Interpersonal relationship – breakdown

By the time most of us join the workforce, we have hopefully been schooled in how to get along with others. However, some others are easier to love than others! The following symptoms can be early indicators that the team is at early stages of relationship breakdown and heading into conflict.

  • Cliques have formed within the team, with employees taking positions according to their alliances and withdrawing cooperation from those outside the clique.
  • Minorities within the team are singled out, overlooked, disregarded or actively excluded. This includes indirect behaviour that causes discomfort (such as sexualised material on walls) as well as direct targeting of individuals. This was well portrayed in the recent film Hidden Figures, where the failure to provide an accessible toilet for particular groups of staff daily emphasised the fact they were not seen to belong, without any specific comment being needed at all.
  • There are frequent occurrences of incivility – snide comments, put downs, discourtesy, eye rolling, being talked over. These are often precursors to more serious harassment and bullying.
  • Team members gossip about each other, or pass negative comment on the private lives or personal attributes of their colleagues.
  • Team members focus on delineating work boundaries rather than working collaboratively to achieve outputs or service customers.

The importance of effective supervision

“Build me a bridge to the future and show me you care.”
Addressing the issues above requires active and engaged supervision. To ensure the team remains high functioning, supervisors need to:

  • Pay attention to what is going on. This includes getting a good stream of informal and formal data (including such as 360 feedback, workplace reviews or engagement surveys).
  • Encourage a culture of two way feedback by asking lots of questions and being a good listener (in preference to providing lots of opinion and being a good advocate).
  • Create a positive team ‘vibe’ by creating confidence in the future and celebrating achievements.
  • Keep staff from getting bored or stale by refreshing jobs and skills. The devil makes work for idle hands!
  • Reward cooperative behaviour and team achievement. Notice the little (and often unglamorous) things that help to keep the team machinery well oiled.
  • Be scrupulously fair and transparent in decision making.

Organisational context

Situations of stress can create cracks in the best team and can create flight or fight responses in team members. Typically, organisational stress occurs when there is a combination of change, uncertainty and threat. In such situations, the supervisor’s best tactic is to:

  • Describe the future as best you are able, and in positive but realistic terms.
  • Minimise uncertainty by providing regular and repeated updates (the same to all).
  • Manage work overload actively. Often staff are expected to be managing ‘old world’ processes whilst learning and implementing ‘new world’ changes.
  • Pay attention to the new skills needed. Staff need to be confident that they will be able to do what they are now being asked to do.
  • Keep listening!

Understanding the hidden causes of conflict

Ensuring a cohesive and productive team is an ongoing commitment. Sometimes despite your best efforts, it can be difficult to understand the hidden causes of conflict.

A workplace review, which allows for the independent collection of de-identified data, can be a good tool to explore what lies behind difficulties in team dynamics. Done well this can look at a broad range of indicators of workplace ‘health’ and identify practical solutions to address the root causes of issues.

If you are interested in learning more about improving team dynamics at your workplace and workplace reviews, join us for a free webinar presented by Kairen Harris on May 25. Register now!


About Kairen Harris

Kairen HarrisKairen Harris is an Associate Director at Worklogic, She brings an impressive set of HR skills and experience to Worklogic, obtained from an extensive, international HR career.  Prior to joining Worklogic, Kairen was HR General Manager for Shell in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific islands, responsible for delivering the workplace policies, processes and culture that would best promote values of gender equity, inclusion and respect for people.

For a free, confidential discussion on creating a culture that doesn’t tolerate bad behaviour at your workplace, please contact Kairen via email or give her a call on (03) 9981 6500.

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