Being a member of a dysfunctional team drives people crazy. To put it more mildly, it’s frustrating, irritating and time-wasting. We’ve all been there, in sporting and special project teams, community committees, body corporates, management teams and boards. The dynamics of teams can be a source of real distress and a genuine deterrent for people considering continued or future participation and contribution.
It’s hard to know how to fix dysfunctional teams, aside from eliminating people perceived to be ‘troublemakers’ and this rather extreme option is often beyond our control.
So what other options are there?
Patrick Lencioni’s well-known work on The Five Dysfunctions of Teams (and book of the same name) provides clear identifiers of what makes teams dysfunctional: absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results. He also offers suggestions of how to address each of these but it’s not quick or easy and takes concerted organisational commitment, resources and effort.
In a very interesting article ‘What Google Learned from its Quest to Build The Perfect Team’ recently published in The New York Times, former Harvard researcher Julia Rosovsky and her team at Google reportedly made some important discoveries. For one thing, understanding and influencing group norms or unwritten rules was a key to improving team performance. They found that in good teams, everyone spoke roughly the same amount so, for instance, this could be encouraged as an unwritten rule. Secondly, members of good teams all had high social sensitivity, or the ability to read the moods of other team members and share personal stories and emotions, important aspects of what’s known as ‘psychological safety’.
So, how do you encourage communication and empathy or psychological safety and group norms that support functional teams to actually achieve results, rather than create angst?
Team coaching is a very effective approach for both newly forming teams and existing teams that have lost their way or are spinning their wheels.
For the purposes of team coaching, a team is ideally between 5 – 8 people with different skills and different roles who work together on a common project or for a common purpose. Team coaching is an intervention designed to help the team improve performance and the processes by which the team achieves its outcomes.
A team coach is specifically trained to work with teams to build trust and capacity, develop its own cultural norms (this is where the Google research is very helpful) and mine the team’s potential. Often an external coach can expedite this more effectively than the team members who may have limited, fixed views of themselves and each other and their capacity to get things done.
By taking a helicopter view, the team coach also assists the team to identify and address barriers to its own performance, leaving the team free to focus on achieving its goals without interferences. The team coach transfers skills in the process, teaching the team to notice and diagnose its own strengths and weaknesses and withdraws when the team is functional and self-managing. The length of this process depends on the stage of development and the issues faced by the team.
With newly formed teams, team coaching helps to establish respectful, robust relationships, conversations and processes early. A team set up powerfully from the start can quickly adapt to working efficiently together to achieve its goals.
Existing teams can be refocussed to identify their strengths and their objectives as well as any dysfunctional processes and behaviours. Addressing these eliminates the frustration and time-wasting that can be so demotivating, leaving the team with renewed clarity, energy and commitment.
Either way, everyone benefits from purposeful, focused teams that actually achieve what they are established to do.
This blog first appeared on