Signs and Symptoms of a Dysfunctional Team

“Dysfunctional” is defined as not operating normally or properly; having malfunctions. Following are signs of a healthy and functional team, as well as their dysfunctional counterparts. Consider which characteristic most resembles the team you spend most of your time in your organization.

Two Quick Openers on Dysfunctional Teams:

  1. Dysfunctional teams are often successful teams that in reality are missing their potential by immense margins. Ironically, the team’s successes mask serious dysfunctional aspects. Make no mistake though, the dysfunctional team is successful in spite of these dysfunctions, not because of them.
  2. There isn’t a universal inoculation against dysfunction on a team; just about the time you get one issue resolved, a separate issue is manifesting. Because of this, no team can ever be considered as having “arrived” or as having crossed a definitive finish line. Eliminating team dysfunctions and replacing them with healthy aspects is an ongoing leadership discipline and responsibility.

Which is it: Healthy or Dysfunctional?

Have your managers place a checkmark by either A or B to indicate which tendency is present more than its counterpart and bring the results to your next meeting to discuss. If you fear the outcome of such an exercise, that’s the first sign you’re dysfunctional!

  1. An absence of conflict or dissent.

A. ___Healthy teams have productive conflict, where teammates can speak up and give a contrary opinion, challenge ideas, and address underperforming issues within the organization without getting personal or in fear of reprisals.

B. ___Dysfunctional teams have an absence of conflict. People just go along, even when they disagree or believe something is wrong or could be done better. They’re either afraid or indifferent.

  1. Nothing can get done without the boss’ approval.

A.___Healthy teams have people at all levels who can make changes or decisions (including those that cost money within pre-set limits) to take care of customers or improve their operations.

B.___Dysfunctional teams have front-liners, and even middle managers, who can effectively do little or nothing concerning changes or decisions (especially if they cost money) to take care of customers or improve their operations without management sign- off. Even if they’ve been empowered to do so, they don’t feel comfortable using that power.

  1. Bosses don’t move fast enough to implement suggested change to improve an organization.

A.___Healthy teams have leaders who speed up change, encourage challenging the status quo and move quickly to act upon good ideas brought to them by others.

B.___Dysfunctional teams have boss’ desks where all progress seems to go to die. The unspoken mantra seems to be “this indecision is final;” the boss has become an obstacle to progress rather than a facilitator of progress.

  1. Meetings are marginalized as people are allowed to use computers or phones to get other work done while at the meeting. Meetings are for learning, sharing, brainstorming ideas, and discussing important topics. Engagement in these endeavors is weakened as others are at the meeting physically, but elsewhere mentally.

A.___Healthy teams fully engage in meetings and aren’t allowed to use technology unless it’s somehow related to the topics being discussed at the meeting.

B.___Dysfunctional teams have meetings where people are routinely present physically, but often checked-out mentally as they multi-task on technology.

  1. Too many pointless or lengthy meetings are being held. If a meeting has no set agenda, routinely rehashes old topics, fails to add value or improve the organization, or discusses in person what could have been accomplished through technology, it is part of the problem.

A.___Healthy teams have meetings that are focused and productive, and hold meetings for what can’t be discussed or solved without the meeting.

B.___Dysfunctional teams meet to meet, have no agenda, get off track easily, revisit the same issues repeatedly, and routinely leave attendees wondering what, if anything, was actually accomplished.

  1. Mediocrity is rewarded with too-generous pay, and excessive time and attention, while top performers are routinely ignored or taken for granted.

A.___Healthy teams are merit-based, and routinely give what’s best to the best and less to the rest.

B.___Dysfunctional teams are pseudo-welfare states, where the strong are weakened to strengthen the weak; many of whom shouldn’t be on the team in the first place.

  1. What matters is not what you’ve accomplished in a day, but how many hours you were at work that day.

A.___Healthy teams acclaim, reward and recognize what gets done during the time one is at work more than the length of time one is at work. Accomplishment trumps activity.

B.___Dysfunctional teams champion hours put in, and days not taken off, over what is actually achieved during those hours and days. Effort is acclaimed without enough regard to results.

  1. By the time a non-performer is fired, it’s so painfully past due it’s become an ongoing distraction and cultural embarrassment.

A.___Healthy teams remove perpetual poor performers quickly, professionally and humanely.

B.___Dysfunctional teams keep poor performers so long that the number one question to leaders following their departure is, “What took you so long?”

  1. Conspicuously posted vision, values, or mission statements serve mostly as décor, since many teammates have little or no idea of what they are, or why they’re important.

A.___Healthy teams know, live, and are held accountable for these aspects of organizational clarity.

B.___Dysfunctional teams either: don’t know them; know them, but don’t live them; know them, but don’t live them, and aren’t held accountable for it; or don’t know them at all, and don’t really care that they don’t know.

  1. “Invisible elephants” are very real but disguised by an “attitude is everything” value system.

Further explanation: “Attitude is everything” is an unspoken value, especially in organizations where facts are inconvenient. In a dysfunctional family, there’s an invisible elephant – sometimes an addict or abuser – in the parlor, but no one ever mentions him. To appear sane, you have to pretend that the elephant isn’t a total train wreck or loser, and that is very difficult. Dysfunctional teams have invisible elephants, too. Usually they do things that might cause difficulties for people with enough clout to prevent their discussion. The emperor may be naked, but if you have a good attitude, you won’t mention it.

A.___Healthy teams don’t have invisible elephants that create a sense of organizational denial.

B.___Dysfunctional teams may have an invisible elephant but pretend it doesn’t exist. Thus, they persist and worsen.

  1. History is prone to be revised to make management’s decisions look better than they really were.

A.___Healthy teams admit mistakes, learn from them, and don’t repeat them.

B.___Dysfunctional teams spin the truth, rationalize, and defend poor decisions all to save face and preserve ego.

  1. Consequences for non-performance are vague, so leaders don’t paint themselves into the uncomfortable corner of actually doing what they said they would.

A.___Healthy teams have clearly established consequences for non-performance that are applied throughout the organization as necessary, without partiality.

B.___Dysfunctional teams leave consequences gray. When they are applied, it’s often random and inconsistent.

  1. Rules are enforced based on who you are or who you know, rather than on what you do.

A.___Healthy teams don’t bend rules or make excuses for toxic achievers, or tenured non-performers.

B.___Dysfunctional teams pick and choose who the rules apply to based on tenure, nepotism, production, and other factors that shouldn’t matter.

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Dave Anderson
Dave Anderson, “Mr. Accountability,” is a leading international speaker on personal and corporate performance improvement. The author of 14 books and host of the wildly popular podcast, The Game Changer Life, Dave’s message has impacted leaders in nearly 70 nations. His “in-the-trenches” background of starting and running world-class businesses, coupled with his relatable non-academic approach, creates an unmatched connection that resonates with audiences and moves them to action. Follow Dave on Twitter @DaveAnderson100