The secret life of teams: Why your team may be dysfunctional and what you can do about it

By Tony Llewellyn

Do you enjoy your work? The answer to this question will be significantly influenced by your relationships with the other human beings at work around you. Organisations are typically structured into functional and operational groups, that are intended to be the most logical and efficient arrangement to achieve the organisation’s objectives. In practice however, the effectiveness of a team will fundamentally depend upon the particular personalities that make up the group. The ‘dynamics’ of a team are largely invisible, and so managing them is difficult. Over time, groups develop a particular set of behaviours based around a set of unwritten rules, which can lead to some peculiar working practices. The purpose of this article is to consider some of the forces that lead to dysfunctional working relationships and provide some suggestions as to how you might improve the team dynamics to improve team performance.

The secret life of teams.

When you first join a new team you subconsciously start working through the emotions of how you will fit into a new group. You become instinctively tuned into how others around you are behaving. You begin to work out the rules on what areas discussed openly and what should not be spoken about. You start to recognise that some individuals seem to be allowed to behave outside of the group norms whilst others are quickly reminded not to step too far outside of the behavioural boundaries. Every group effectively has its own ‘manual on how things work around here’. The problem is that these social rules are not written down. They are tacitly discussed, but cannot be explained because most groups are unaware as to how they have evolved. They are a secret!

Overtime the unspoken norms can lead to negative behaviours which detract from the teams ability to work effectively together. Relationships between some team members start to become strained and they cease to collaborate. The team leader finds herself being subtly undermined. A culture of blame starts to develop and many team members stop taking responsibility for their own actions. New members of the team struggle to work out what is going on and disengage.

Some types of teams are better at managing their behavioural dynamics than others. As a generalization the more technical and introverted the group membership, the less likely they are to address the issues that are reducing their effectiveness. Marketing teams are generally designed to be good communicators. They typically comprise the collection of specialists whose primary skill is to connect with other groups. They should theoretically be more attuned to their feelings, and be more open to discussing their internal dynamics. The flip side however, of having a diverse range of creative skills and personalities in a group is that the behavioural norms can vary wildly, making it very confusing to work out just what is normal on any given day.

Stress and dysfunction.

I should point out here that being part of a slightly dysfunctional team is normal. It is how humans have behaved in groups for thousands of years. We are highly adept at finding ways of getting on with each other rather than coming into conflict every time someone annoys us. We stumble through, and in most situations dysfunctional relationships are not in themselves catastrophic. The picture changes however when a group comes under pressure from changes in the external environment.

When a group senses a threat from outside it can react in two ways. If it can identify the specific source of threat, then the team can often pull together. In times of danger, minor grievances are subsumed by the need for survival and so a clear and distinct foe actually tends to restore team cohesion. The more difficult threat comes from the anxiety of the unknown. Rumours of restructuring, the threat of the takeover, or the loss of a popular team mate can induce a sense of uncertainty that cannot be clearly identified. Anxiety tends to bring out the dark side of human nature. We are rarely at our best when we stressed. Indeed, new data from the field of neuroscience shows that we are less likely to be creative when our genetic mechanisms for self-preservation become active. The performance of an anxious team subsequently tends to default to the minimum required level of output. As the team starts to focus on avoiding risk, creative thinking and the generation of innovative solutions simply stop.

How do you restore an effective team environment.

So what might you do to restore your team’s effectiveness? Standard management practices are unlikely to help repair a dysfunctional team. A directive, command and control style of leadership is useful in times of emergency. There is also a disturbing tendency in many organisations to assume people can behave like parts of a machine. In reality teams are more organic, reacting to a wide range of different stimuli and making complex adjustments according to their circumstances. I therefore advocate the adoption of team coaching as an alternative management philosophy. Coaching individuals on a one-to-one basis is a fairly well-established concept in many businesses. The next up is to look at the team as a single combined entity and focus on the management of the forces that influence positive interdependency.

Team coaching is an evolving area of coaching practice but the principles are largely similar to individual coaching. The team coach must first try and recognise the particular behaviours that are inhibiting performance and then take steps to try and minimise the impact of any dysfunctional elements. This may require an element of the one-to-one remedial coaching, but the major influence comes in enabling the group to communicate with, and understand each other. The studies on team performance consistently throw up the need for following five components to be in place:

 

Vision Every team needs to have a clear sense of its purpose, why it exists and what success looks like.
Stakeholder management The whole team must understand who the stakeholders really are, What they require and how to maintain active engagement.
The right people An effective team needs to comprise ‘the right people on the bus sitting in the right seats’
Accountability A clear sense of purpose should drive clear sense of collective accountability. If one person fails the team fails.
Rules of engagement A written document, generated by the team themselves as to how they intend to work together.

 

These five elements provide a useful starting point for a workshop agenda. The focus of discussion should be kept at team level, and not be allowed to drop down to individual preferences or agendas. The output from the session can then be used to enable a discussion on the extent to which the team’s norms support or detract the teams ability to achieve its collective objectives. The team coaching role does not have to be carried out by the leader. Any team member with good facilitation skills could manage such a session. The key is to encourage full participation so that everyone speaks without interruption, and everyone knows that their voice has been heard.

Summary

This article was written to offer an alternative perspective to the challenge of working with teams operating in stressful environments. It is however really just snapshot of the wide and fascinating field of managing group dynamics using coaching methodologies. Every team will have its own peculiar issues and tensions. Discharging them requires creating an environment where the rules are clear, everybody knows what is expected of them and what they can expect from everyone else. The role of the team coach is to establish and maintain an environment where people learn to talk about what works for them and what gets in the way. It is no longer a secret.

First published in Professional Marketing Magazine.

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