Organizations often put a lot of thought into organizing teams and getting them up and running. But a team is an ongoing social environment that requires a lot of care and maintenance to ensure that it keeps performing effectively. While regular check-ins and team-building exercises are a good way of ensuring that team members have the skills and relationships necessary for productive collaboration, leaders should always be on the lookout for behaviors that serve as clear warning signs of a dysfunctional team, both in-person and in a virtual environment.
Trust is the most important element of any team, so it’s no surprise that many of these warning signs are related to low levels of trust in some way. When team members don’t trust one another, they typically respond defensively, exhibiting a number of detrimental behaviors that, in one way or another, are designed to protect themselves. Unfortunately, these strategies are often counterproductive not just to the team’s performance, but the individual member’s performance as well. It’s imperative that these behaviors are identified and resolved as quickly as possible.
Lack of Accountability
When no one is willing to admit mistakes or take responsibility for their actions, it can be difficult for a team to function effectively. There is often an element of blame involved here, with team members excusing their behavior by shifting responsibility elsewhere. To justify mistakes, they may claim they didn’t have the resources they needed in order to complete the work, or that another member of the team failed to deliver on their commitments. When team members don’t take responsibility for their actions, it’s difficult to have open and honest conversations about what is going wrong and how to fix it. This lack of accountability is a clear warning sign of a dysfunction.
There’s a number of “sinking ship” analogies that could be used here. But when team members are more concerned about protecting themselves rather than helping their peers succeed, it’s a warning sign of dysfunction in the team. Self-preservation could take a number of forms, from withholding information, not involving others in decisions, refusing to help others and avoiding responsibility to bashing other team members behind their backs and actively undermining them to make them look bad. When team members are more concerned about themselves, they don’t focus on shared goals and communicate less effectively. This creates an environment that quickly erodes relationships within the team and makes it difficult to work collaboratively towards accomplishing key goals.
Another obvious sign of dysfunction is micromanaging team members. Constantly checking in to make sure everyone is doing their job might seem like it comes from a desire to help and support the team, but it also indicates a lack of confidence in others. Fundamentally, the person who is micromanaging doesn’t believe people in the team will do their work properly. In any case, the outcome isn’t likely to be good. Either their lack of confidence is well-founded and the micromanager ends up supporting a team member who isn’t capable of performing at the appropriate level, or they wind up frustrating an otherwise capable employee who will likely decide to seek another position rather than deal with constant oversight.
Conflict often has a negative reputation, but it is a natural and healthy aspect of any team environment. Team members will not always agree with one another, nor should they. Diversity of opinion helps teams to identify new ways of looking at problems and alternative methods for solving them. Sometimes those differences can lead to tension, but when team members trust and respect one another, these conflicts are more likely to be resolved positively to produce mutually beneficial outcomes. When people avoid conflict by keeping their opinions and ideas to themselves or secretly disliking the decisions and actions of others, resentment builds up until it reaches a breaking point, which is far more difficult to manage and can be more timely to resolve.
Teams build relationships through personal interactions that help them to grow empathy and respect between members. It’s both natural and healthy for team members to care about one another as individuals. While they don’t have to be close friends, they should be able to engage in casual interactions that allow everyone to feel comfortable and accepted. When all communication is strictly impersonal and detached, it may indicate that team members don’t like each other or want to keep them at a safe distance. This will make them less likely to think about how their actions affect others or consider what challenges their teammates might be facing, all of which could significantly undermine the team’s ability to accomplish its goals. A clear warning sign of a dysfunction, impersonal communication is another ongoing problem that can lead to much bigger issues if left unresolved.
Lack of Engagement
When team members become less engaged in their work, they often focus on meeting just the minimum standard. While work is still being completed and the team is able to accomplish its goals, the results end up being far less impressive than they could or should be if all team members were dedicated and engaged in their respective tasks. Lowered standards typically result from a belief that performance doesn’t really matter. If team members believe that high performers aren’t being treated appropriately, they may begin to question why doing the best job possible is worth their time and effort. When people don’t feel like the rest of the team is working hard, they have little incentive to perform at a high level, making lowered standards one of the telltale signs of dysfunction.
Dysfunctional teams don’t become that way overnight. It takes time and a persistent inattention to problems for them to reach a level of dysfunction that prevents them from accomplishing their goals effectively. By keeping an eye out for potential signs of a dysfunctional team, leaders can address these problems at the source before they can cripple the team’s performance.