Are you part of a dysfunctional team?

In the last post, I discussed the characteristics of a dysfunctional team, based on what the book talks about as well as based on my own experiences. In this post, I will present some of the lessons learned for me about how to identify the fact that you are part of a dysfunctional team. These points describe what can be done to identify the type of your team and how do you know it is a dysfunctional team. They are presented in no particular order so use them as you see fit.

How to find out if you are part of a dysfunctional team?

  • Getting disengaged: Try to get yourself out of the equation once in a while. My way of doing this was assuming that I do not care about the outcome and so I stopped participating in some of the discussions even though I had strong opinions. This was my style, you may use your own, but getting disengaged is important if you want to.
  • Communication patterns: A dysfunctional team typically will have one person monopolizing the discussion on a given topic, with little or no counter-arguments. If one of the person is specially strong because of position (mostly the leader) or expertise (product expert, external ‘expert’ hire), it may even be one person doing all the talking and making decisions.
  • Decision-making process: Keep an eye on how decisions are made. In a dysfunctional team, very few decisions actually gets made (time takes many decisions away anyway!), and when they do get made, it is either the leader/expert’s decision all the time or that of the proposers. Others in the team will rarely make contributions to a proposal (fear of conflict, inattention to results). Contrast this with high-performance teams, where every decision gets debated, discussed, alternative points of view heard, and final decision almost always is acceptable to everyone in the team.
  • Information Flow: In a high-performance team, there is free flow of information within the team; individuals share information (good or bad) freely with each other and are open to inputs from others. In a dysfunctional team, there will be asymmetry of information availability. Some individuals (mostly the leader or those who work on high profile projects) will have more information than others, and information is sometimes used as power during discussions (“I forgot to let you know, but CEO has decided we are not doing it, so your argument is moot now”). Watch the flow and you may learn more about the team.

A caveat: Of course, please keep in mind that above description of behavior of a dysfunctional team is one extreme of the spectrum, and very few dysfunctional teams will actually display all the characteristics (hopefully!). Good news is that most dysfunctional teams can be fixed with consistent effort from the leader and the team members.

Any discussion of dysfunctional (or high-performance) team is incomplete without discussing the role of the leader and his/her style, as well as the role that you (the team member) play.

Role of the leader

Obviously, leader has a significant role to play, be it a high-performance team or a dysfunctional team. A lot can be understood about the team by studying the leader and his/her actions (not words!) in the meetings and outside. A leader can facilitate a trust-free environment by showing trust, he/she can foster accountability by being accountable and calling out those who are not and he/she can show the focus on results with right and visible reward-punishment model. So when you see a leader not intervening when team members push back on feedback, when you see a leader himself/herself avoiding tough discussions, when you see a leader fostering leader-driven decision-making process instead of team-driven, you know the team is not in the right health.

A comment on leadership style is in order here, because it plays an important role in making or marring a team. There are as many styles as individuals in this world, however one of the styles that fundamentally conflict with high-performance team culture is the command-and-control style. When a leader assumes such a style, and/or his reports expect such a style, it causes breakdown of decision-making process (since leader is supposed to take all decisions and he/she is supposed to know everything) and fosters a culture where all communications become 1-1 (leader and the person involved) rather than N-N (participative discussions), which in turn causes information gap and lack of transparency (since only leader knows everything, everyone else only knows their part of the world because of 1-1 nature of communication). So beware of this style, whether you are a leader or a team member.

Role of the team member (you)

By nature, most people want to avoid confrontation, very few people start off by trusting a stranger, it is always easier to not be accountable or commit to anything. So overall it is hard to be a good team member who can help create a high-performance team. All of us, given enough slack, will degenerate and make the team dysfunctional! Scary, but true. Hence it is important to look at yourself once in a while and evaluate against some of the above characteristics and see if it applies to you. A good team member should be trustworthy and trust others in the team, he/she should share information and solicit feedback from others, is accountable and accepts conflict as an aspect of being in a good team. However, at the same time, a smart team member should also figure out when it is futile to try to be a good team member in a dysfunctional team.


I will talk about what can be done when you are a team member stuck in a dysfunctional team in my next post, again based on my experience about what worked and what didn’t for me. Stay tuned.

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