Updated: Mar 16, 2022
Here’s a not uncommon scenario: You’ve just been brought in to lead an existing team, and within your first few days in the job it’s become apparent to you that the team is dysfunctional.
How do I define a dysfunctional team?
It's one in which there is continual conflict. Team members just can't seem to get along with each other. They gossip about and criticise each other. There might be a history of formal complaints against each other. At any given time, one of them is on stress leave, and it isn't always the same one. When you see them at work, they look like they don't want to be there. Productivity is at rock bottom. Their previous leader probably left the team, and possibly the organisation, under a cloud. Rumours abound but no one will talk openly about the issues.
If you're asked to take on a team like that, what do you do?
Taking on, and turning around, a dysfunctional team is a great challenge to you as a leader. Before you do anything you will need to take a good, hard look at yourself and be brutally honest with yourself as you decide whether or not this challenge is for you. Don’t accept the challenge unless you are 100% sure that you want it and that your leadership skills are up to it. If you don’t really want it, or if your skills aren’t up to solving the problems that you’re going to confront, then you will fail. That failure will put a deep dent in your self-confidence.
Speaking of self-confidence, of all the skills, experience and personal attributes that you bring to this challenge, that one is the most important. As you set about dealing with the team’s problems, you are going to find yourself outside your comfort zone much more than you’ll be within it. So, you’ll need to be comfortable with being in uncomfortable situations, and it takes self-knowledge and self-confidence to sustain that.
If you decide to take on the challenge, what do you do first? Well, first ask yourself some questions.
Can you build trust with each of these people? If you can’t trust them, and/or they can’t trust you, then you can’t lead them. Anyone you can't build trust with must go, or you must.
Quite apart from any behavioural problems that might be apparent in their interactions within the team and beyond, do these people have the necessary skills, experience and personal attributes to get the job done? If for any of them the answer is no, can the gaps be dealt with by training or other personal or professional development methods? If there are gaps that can’t be closed, consider whether the person or persons might need to be moved out of the team.
If there are problematic behaviours occurring in your team, who is the instigator or ringleader in causing that? Is it one person, or more than one? Is it always the same person who causes conflict? When you have identified them, do you feel that you will be able to get them to cease their conflict-causing behaviour? Consider whether there is a trouble-maker on the team whom you might have to get rid of before a more harmonious team dynamic can take effect.
Do you have the support of your boss and other influential people within your organisation? Do they really understand the situation and are they prepared to back you in the difficult decisions and actions that you will have to take?
Do you want this team to succeed? Are you in this for the long haul and are you prepared to commit yourself fully to make it so?
If the answer to any one of these questions is no then don't take on the challenge of turning around a dysfunctional team.
In my time I have observed what happens when an inexperienced and ill-prepared leader* is thrown headlong into a dysfunctional team and left to get on with it, without support but with plenty of criticism from senior management. The result is not pretty. The dysfunction is made worse, not better. The leader's confidence takes a sometimes career-ending blow.
If the answer to all of these questions is yes then prepare to confront a major challenge. When you tackle and overcome that challenge it will teach you lessons about leadership, and will boost your confidence as a leader, like nothing else you'll ever do.
Finally, a word of advice: do not accept such a challenge unless you have a mentor. Someone who's been through their own leadership challenge and lived to tell the tale. You can run your ideas past your mentor and get feedback as well as draw on your mentor's experience to help you to avoid making serious mistakes. And if you do make a mistake, your mentor can help you to learn valuable lessons from it, and can then encourage you to get back in the saddle and keep going.
So, are you up for the challenge?
* No, it wasn't me, and to this day I'm asking myself what more I could have done to support him. I tried, I honestly tried, to coach him but he just wasn't open to it. I did intervene once to prevent a complete disaster, but after that our boss told me to back off and mind my own business. Everything was against him: the team, the organisation, the boss, his own lack of experience and, most fundamentally, his attitude.