Dealing with dysfunctional teams

In my last post, I talked about how you identify a dysfunctional team you are part of. In this post, I want to discuss my experiences at dealing with one such team, and my efforts at changing the team being a member of the team. I had to resort to reading many books and my MBA class notes and case studies.

I am just sharing my experience here rather than offering the lessons from there, since it is hard for me to generalize this; different methods will work differently for different people, in different situations. Hopefully having a case study in front of you will help you pick and choose ideas.

In this team, I identified following broken pieces:

  1. Lack of Trust: The team suffered from severe lack of trust. Very few, if any, individuals felt confident that their peers were capable enough to deliver on what they own or were assigned to. At least with 1 person, any attempt by others to give feedback would be met with personal hostility and complaint to the lead, which aggravated the lack of trust and bitterness. Others soon started displaying the same behavior. This also meant that there was no candor in any meeting, all status reports were sugar-coated and only highlighted achievements. There was very little attempt to leverage expertise of others to solve one’s problems.
  2. Lack of accountability (self as well as mutual): Even though we had owners assigned for various projects, there was always a ‘good’ reason cited for any delay in a project completion, even though projects we were dealing were critical to company’s overall success. Since feedbacks from others were not promoted, this was never challenged even when it may not have been true. This made outsiders lose trust in this team in delivering anything significant or guide them through difficult times (remember, this was a leadership team).
  3. Leadership style: Leadership style aggravated some of these problems and created some of its own. The leader very rarely tried to curb the behaviors which hampered trust and accountability. His own style of working in silos with each individual in 1-1 conversations rather than team settings, and selective sharing of information and feedback meant information didn’t flow freely in the team. This harmed the decision-making process and further erosion in the credibility of this team.

As a team member, here are some things I tried, with mixed success:

  1. Disengage: I tried to be aloof in the meetings and avoid giving comments or feedback unless absolutely necessary. This actually worked better than I expected. This helped me actually study what is going on in the team and helped me formulate other strategies to tackle the problem. However, the downside of this was that there were so many issues which could have benefited from my insight where I didn’t provide my inputs. However, it reduced so many conflicting situations that I think it was a good method overall for me.
  2. 1-1 with the leader: I started having very detailed 1-1s with the leader (who was also my manager). Initial 1-1s were tough because we were so different in styles but after some time they became productive. One of the ways it helped was that I could get access to more information and hence could understand some of the things that happened in our team meetings in a better way. However, the most fundamental learning I got from this is the fact that people with good intentions can cause problems in a team too. After enough 1-1s with my manager, I sincerely felt that he believed in his style and that he too was trying hard to fix things, in his own way. Same went for me, where I was trying hard to get things fixed too. So there we were, two persons with same goals, but going about it in such different styles that probably both of us were causing more harm than good to the team! This has led me to this surprising observation (which you may disagree): Compatibility of members’ working styles play a bigger role in team’s performance than any other aspect of members’ talent!” Once I figured this out, my interactions within the team (esp. with the leader) went much better because I changed my approach to matching my style with others rather than sticking to my style, thinking it is a good one so I need not change it. However, as a team, this didn’t improve very many things because it just changed the equation between me and the leader, not others. Also, I was unable to change
  3. 1-1s with other team members: This did not prove very useful in improving the situation. In hindsight (and just looking at things I could control), this may have been because while I was more open to changing my style to be more compatible with my manager’s style, I wasn’t that open with my peers. So the trust level did not change, and hence nothing else changed either. This however led me to one of the root causes of the problem we were in: we were almost split in 50-50 in terms of styles: and hence it was hard for one type of style to really dominate for long to get some results!
  4. Bringing classroom lessons to meeting room: This did prove helpful. Since two of us were in the same MBA class, we brought some specific case studies and study materials on teaming, trust, and decision-making process to our team. Since all of us understood we needed to improve as a team (which was one big positive for our team!), everyone welcomed the suggestion. These gave rise to offsite and onsite meetings on these topics and they were very useful in resolving at least some of the trust issues and melting some ice between some pairs of peers. However, overall situation still did not improve.

This team does not exist in the same form now, so it is hard to say how this team would have successfully become a high-performance team, but I guess the clues lie in various examples I cite in my last 2-3 posts. Leadership of course plays a significant role, but there are many other factors which need to line up before you get a high-performance team. But once you get it, the results, and pleasure it gives to the team members, is well-worth the effort put in.

These 4 posts have been autobiographical and experiential. Hope they will be useful to some of you who find yourself in similar situations. For others, the flaws may seem obvious and very fixable, but I can assure you that it is not. If you get into such a team (I hope not!), you will realize that changing team behaviors is like pulling your own teeth out: awkward, painful and only for determined few!

In my next posts (which I promise will be much smaller), I will touch upon some other aspects of teaming (joining a new team, teams across the world, etc).

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