How to transform dysfunctional teams

Team members need a psychologically-safe environment and an agreed shared set of values

“A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.” This is an apt description of a ‘happy’ productive team, provided by Katzenbach and Smith in The Wisdom of Teams (2015).

It also gives us a useful steer as to what is going wrong when teams cease to function effectively.

While every team is unique, when problems arise they often relate to one or more of five key factors identified by Patrick Lencioni in his 2002 work The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

These are the absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results.

The triggers that cause such breakdown are linked to our natural emotional response to threat.

Decades of research have found that for humans to fulfil their potential they need to first ensure their more basic needs are met. According to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs these start with rudimentary survival needs, such as food and water, followed by safety and belonging, and self-esteem. When all these needs are met we can focus on self-actualisation and flourish.

It makes sense. If we are busy trying to survive we cannot focus on the challenges higher up the hierarchy, let alone anything less immediate such as threats to the wider organisation. So team environments in which staff do not feel safe, secure and valued will trigger defensive emotional responses and cease to function well.

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HR's role is to provide guidance and advice

We must start with the understanding that ‘all behaviour makes sense’. This moves us away from a culture of blame to a process of seeking to understand the causes of certain behaviours. Once behaviours are understood they can be addressed.

A first step towards tackling the key causes of dysfunction is to encourage everyone in the team to agree on a common purpose and shared values, creating the ‘why’ of the team.

This is something that HR teams can facilitate by creating a discursive and safe space where everyone feels able to open up and share their views. A trained mediator or coach from within the HR team or resourced externally can guide these discussions to ensure that everyone is given the chance to be heard.

To begin the process the coach should ascertain: 'what would you each and all like to achieve together by the end of this first meeting?' It is important to reach a consensus to enable the team to move on.

Team members might be encouraged to think about great teams they have known. This should help them define desirable team characteristics and behaviours. It is also important to consider negative experiences to pinpoint what should be avoided. Here points of tension or conflict often come to light.

From this the team can filter out key concerns and stressors and make sure that everyone understands them. Such a session is simply the first step in a longer healing process but, crucially, it opens the door to productive dialogue.

Where shared values are agreed for the organisation in senior teams, HR can support the process by communicating these further to enable everyone to understand and follow.

Sometimes, people are promoted for their technical expertise, but they may not have the skills needed to successfully lead a team. In this case, they may be the unwitting cause of tensions themselves. HR should provide management and communication training to equip senior staff with the skills they need to make the organisation productive and safe for all.

The impact of inappropriate behaviour

Sometimes team dysfunction is due to inappropriate behaviours. It is essential for HR departments to have designated inclusion and ‘dignity at work’ officers. These officers must be appropriately trained in relevant respectful workplace legislation and the organisation’s policies and procedures, so they are able to give guidance and support.

Whatever the causes, tackling discontent will require a holistic approach. It cannot be compartmentalised. It will also require recognition of diversity within the team – an understanding of the staff’s diverse cultures, needs and expectations. Here, cross-cultural communication training can provide further support.

Meeting basic needs

Returning to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, are basic needs being met or are people competing for their ‘survival’ in the workplace?

This is where HR teams must work with leadership and management to ensure they have the understanding and requisite skills to translate their learning into action. This helps create a healthy and happy team environment.

By creating a ‘circle of safety’, as described by Simon Sinek, leaders enable their staff to feel protected from threats within their team. This frees them up to face external challenges.

A fully-functioning team will result in far better staff performance, efficiency and decision-making, benefitting the organisation as a whole. This must be worth the investment.

Sylvia Sage is programme director at Corporate Learning Solutions