In the decades I’ve worked with corporations, consulting on how to make business relationships yield strategic results, I’ve encountered many dysfunctional teams. I’ve identified seven bad habits that make these teams incapable of productive group work —and two strategies to break those habits.

Habit #1. Building Barricades

Dysfunctional teams create barriers that make it difficult for outsiders to work effectively with them. They block external voices and fresh insights from getting through. They clearly believe “If it wasn’t invented here, it can’t possibly work.” They choke off any challenge to in-house norms. They speak an alphabet soup of jargon that requires any outsider to learn a new language before the team’s defenses can be breached.

I asked the head of one group recently to give me an example of how his division works with outsiders. He couldn’t come up with one example! Working with his team, every two minutes I had to ask, “what’s an XKD” or “J2L” or whatever. Barricades allow dysfunctional teams become so comfortable with what they do and how they do it that any outsider feels like a threat.

Habit #2. Sidestepping Clear Job Definitions

I have repeatedly seen that within dysfunctional teams, meaningful titles and realm of responsibility is nonexistent. This leads to a tremendous amount of redundancy in what people do. I have gone to members of a team asking, “What are you responsible for?” One individual’s answer was replicated by three others. Where there is no explicit description or focus to people’s work, there can be no leveraging of respective strengths. Plus, important positions will be left uncovered. This dysfunctional habit make me think of a soccer team where everyone is playing forward, leaving no one to be a defender. Sidestepping clear job definitions weakens a team, on the soccer field or in the enterprise.

Habit #3. Allowing “Power Centers” To Dominate

I’ve encountered teams in which one or two people are constantly the center of attention. In an hour-long conversation, they’re talking for fifty minutes of it. I call these dominant personalities “power centers.” When I’ve consulted with teams afflicted with this habit, I find myself—the outsider—trying to generate a more balanced interaction. I’ll be the one asking, “So Steve, what’s your opinion on this?” because Steve hasn’t said a word the entire time. When the power centers dominate the conversation, 80 percent of the team’s capacity is wasted. No one can break through the wall of noise.

Habit #4. Functioning as a Committee, Not a Team

Members of committee represent the interests of whoever appointed them, while members of a team partner with others to achieve a common goal. Dysfunctional teams often resemble committees on which every member has a different agenda. Individuals could care less whether the team makes any progress toward the group’s goal. A true team wins or loses based on collective effort.

If you witness individuals choosing a course of action without ever checking that the group is aligned on that course, you are seeing a team that doesn’t know how to do group work. The team lacks clear metrics. Everybody is doing his or her own thing without asking, “How does this contribute to the bigger picture?” A team that functions as a committee has little chance of success at teamwork.

Habit #5. “Go Along to Get Along” Mentality

On a dysfunctional team, where individuals have been isolated from fresh thinking, denied a clear sense of their realm of responsibility, and bullied by “power centers,” it’s not surprising that team members lose motivation to innovate or initiate action. Over time the team develops a kind of learned helplessness. No one wants to insult or threaten anybody, and so they say nothing. No one will take the risk of challenging the status quo.

Conversation is the medium in which group work takes place. If your team’s conversations are bland, you know little forward progress is being made. The problem may be a culture that generates fear of retribution, or a culture that discourages diverse viewpoints. Where this habit surfaces, there is no objectivity, no pushback. If no one will speak up when somebody is just outright wrong, a team is in trouble.

Habit #6. Two Many One-offs

Teams that get results discover best practices and make them regular habits. Templates, playbooks, and a knowledge base—these are the evidence of teams that use replicable, iterative processes to build success on success. Among dysfunctional teams I find there are few or no repeatable processes in place. They actually reinvent the wheel every single day. Such teams are tremendously inefficient.

Habit #7. Afraid of the “Corporate Police”

I’ve seen groups behave as if the “corporate police” would put them behind bars if they so much as change the procedure for requisitioning a paper clip. I sat with a group recently where every conversation went something like: “We can’t do that.” “Why not?” “We don’t know, we just can’t.” “What if we tried this?” “We can’t do that either.” I wondered if under their business suits they were wearing straitjackets. Something was forcing them to conform to practices so ingrained no one even remembered how they came to be. Now, that culture of conformity is blocking the team’s thinking.

To cure these seven habits of dysfunctional teams, don’t look for a 1:1 prescription for each habit. Rather, tackle the fundamental issues causing these horrible habits: the corporate culture that rewards the timid and punishes the bold. I would argue that two simple moves help leaders remove the “dys” from their dysfunctional teams. Let in some fresh air, through a job rotation program or anything that infuses fresh perspectives into the team’s atmosphere. And, make sure each individual understands and can clearly articulate why his or her work matters sand how that work contributes to the enterprise’s mission. With these two adjustments to the team’s culture, its ability to achieve desired outcomes will improve. Strategic results will follow.

Nour Takeaways:

  1. To encourage people to see a situation with a fresh lens, give them a chance to walk in someone else’s shoes.
  2. Reward initiative that leads to positive outcomes. Sometimes it really is easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission–especially if the goals are succinctly articulate and clearly understood. If your culture is punitive, you’ll never overcome your dysfunction.
  3. Make sure your team is not so busy doing their busy-work that they’ve lost sight of the outcome—how and why their work matters.
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