Purpose Hacks

10 ways to deal with a dysfunctional team when you’re not the boss

How to deal with a dysfunctional team when you’re not the boss. 

Dysfunctional teams hinder an organizations growth and are frankly really frustrating to be a part of. Dysfunction often leads to increased personal stress, disengagement, and is a breeding ground for a toxic company culture. While it may be ultimately the responsibility of the boss to deal with the root causes of team dysfunction, there are countless bosses who don’t do anything (sound familiar?). If you are in a situation where leadership isn’t dealing with the dysfunction head on, here are 10 things you can do to try and improve the health of your team.

1. Know yourself and the role you play best

“Every team you join is a chance to experiment and learn what you bring to the team,” says Marilyn Struthers, organizational consultant and principal M. Struthers & Co. “Figure out the role you play best, how you carry your own power and influence. Recognize your gifts, skills and capacities. Reflect on your role.” Comer adds, “Become aware of how your behaviour and actions impact other people.” Struthers suggests, “If your ideas aren’t being received well, it may be that you present them in different ways, being more of a team player than a star. It also may be that the organization is not growing in the direction you can see yourself going. “ Along with that self-awareness, Liane Davey, an organizational psychologist and consultant, suggests learning when and how to say no to requests that would dilute your focus, stretch your resources and slow you down.

2. Know what good teams look like

“Characteristics of well-functioning teams are generally true for all teams,” says Dr. Rebecca Sutherns, founder and CEO of strategic facilitation firm Sage Solutions. “Trying to create those strategies on your team can affect positive change.” Sutherns points to the recent two-year Google study of what makes an effective team as a good starting place. The Google study determined five key (and somewhat surprising) factors that characterized the best functioning teams: dependability; structure and clarity; meaning; impact; and, perhaps most important, psychological safety.

3. Step up

It can be all to easy to simply become resentful or passive-aggressive on a dysfunctional team. Instead, Davey counsels, “Show up, get off cruise control and bring the benefit of your experiences, your relationships, and your personality instead of just doing what is in your job description.” Sutherns adds that some teams seem dysfunctional because the leader may not have strong process skills — like chairing a meeting. She observes that while this is a vital skill to the health of a team, it does not have to be done by the formal leader. “A team member who has strong facilitation skills can step up to offer their skills to the team leader, thus strengthening the team.”

4. Build appreciation and rapport

Because psychological safety and trust are key to effective teams, Anne Comer, principal, team effectiveness and culture change coach, COMERXCHANGE, suggests cultivating appreciation for what teammates bring to the team, getting to know teammates and what makes them tick as a means of building trust and rapport.

5. Listen

While some people struggle with stepping up in the face of dysfunction, others have the opposite challenge, rushing in to speak and to fix a team. While this comes back to knowing yourself, it is always valuable, says Comer, to listen and observe team dynamics. Struthers talks about a time she felt her own leadership style wasn’t working for her when she joined a new organization. She practiced simply observing how things operated. Davey adds that it is essential to amplify the voices of team members whose perspectives are usually shut out of discussion.

6. Ask good questions

The art of asking good questions is a skill that can defuse tension on a variety of levels within a dysfunctional team. Comer says, “Once you have rapport with your teammates, you can open up the conversation, using neutral language to describe what you have observed and its impact and then ask: how do you think we could do this differently the next time?” Sutherns points to the work of Michael Wilkinson, author of The Secrets of Facilitation, who suggests techniques he calls “guerilla facilitation” to manage a meeting when you are not the meeting leader. This includes asking clarifying questions for your own benefit, such asking the leader to explain the purpose of a meeting, or what the decision-making process will be.

7. Develop shared language

As part of Struthers’ observation during her break from formal leadership, she developed conceptual language for what she saw, language she was able to insert into conversation with colleagues to help them articulate what was going on. She says, “We don’t always have shared language to describe our work environment and what is going on, but this is something we can co-create that will help us to move forward.”

8. Embrace productive conflict

While nearly all of us prefer to agree, conflict can be productive if it promotes understanding and enhances the work being done. In the face of interpersonal conflict between you and another team member, Sutherns suggests beginning by going directly to the person.

9. Know how to involve the team leader in a conflict

“Whistle blowing is big right now,” says Struthers. “Some things you shouldn’t tolerate but we need to deal with dysfunction in a constructive way.” Bringing an issue to the team leader is counterproductive if it simply sounds like you are complaining about someone, says Comer. Sutherns adds, “If you have gone to the team member first (or if that is not possible or is inappropriate), you can go to the team leader and have a conversation where you describe what you have observed, and ask them whether they have noticed it too. Talk about the challenge in terms of how it is affecting team performance. Be sure to ask the team leader whether there is something you can do to improve the dynamic.”

10. Know when to walk

Knowing when to leave a team is a very personal and individual decision, says Comer. Sometimes this may come down to evaluating the alignment between your values and that of the organization, or the fit in terms of the type of working environment. Other times, it can be difficult to get past a history of conflicts and broken trust. “This can be a place where a consultant can set a new, more level playing field.” In the absence of this kind of outside voice, Sutherns suggests asking the following questions: “Have I done everything reasonably possible to contribute to this team, over what most people would say is a reasonable time frame? What would the consequences be to me leaving — for my reputation, for the team, for the organization?” Sutherns adds, “There are times when self care comes into play. If a team is going nowhere and it is affecting your personal health, this can be a warning sign.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for more than two decades and loves a good story. 

View the original article in full on CharityVillage  where it was first published.



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Susan Fish

Susan Fish

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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