5 tips for fixing dysfunctional teams

Dysfunction is a reality for most teams at some point. The good news is there are strategies to fix dysfunctional teams and sow harmony.

Frustrated millennial female worker felling tired of working quarreling.

Image: fizkes, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Team dysfunction comes at a high cost for most companies, and while it's possible to prevent some team dysfunction, not all of it can be stopped at the front gates. Once inside, it can threaten to tear apart entire teams, derail projects, and delay company-wide goals. There are some strategies that can fix the dysfunction in teams.

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Team dysfunction is usually the result of embedded thoughts and behaviors, including self-serving agendas, fear, distrust, lack of accountability, and commitment issues, among others. Each of these factors requires different strategies. 

Identifying and removing self-serving agendas

The adage "There's no I in team" has become a well-worn one for one reason. There are far too many individuals who put their own agendas ahead of their teammates' and company's needs. This can cause a significant amount of stress and frustration and lead to complicated conflicts. The only way to stop self-serving agendas is to tie all project activities back to the project and company-wide goals. Regular communication is needed to keep stakeholders focusing on the tasks that matter. It's equally important to isolate and remove any tasks that don't meet the project goals. If personal siloed team agendas continue to conflict with project goals, direct one-on-one communication will likely work best.

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Isolating reasons for fear  

Change, disruption, differences, and a host of other factors can create fear in team members. When fears go unaddressed, conflict is bound to arise. Project managers need to pay attention to their teams' behaviors and take action when fears arise—regardless of the reason. Taking a wait-and-see approach is likely to allow fears to turn into frustration, so it's best to address fears right away. When fears seem to be affecting the project and other stakeholders, it's best to talk with the team member involved first to get to the root cause. Only after doing so can fears be alleviated before they impact other team members.

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Increasing accountability

We all make mistakes. If a team is to succeed in meeting project objectives, all team members need to be accountable for their work and their actions. There have been many occasions where team members point the finger at others and refuse to take responsibility for their actions. Holding individuals accountable means directly tying their performance to a reward system. It also requires employees to talk about how their actions or decisions affected issues that arise. Before an employee can blame others, they should be asked to share at least one way they contributed to the problem. It's also important for team members to contribute to the fix. This starts to transform their mindsets from the fear of blame and consequences into being empowered as part of the solution.

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Gaining commitment 

Teams are like any other type of relationship—they take hard work and commitment. Teams cannot succeed if all members don't commit to its success. When even one team member refuses to commit to a project, it creates animosity and leads to conflict. After all, it's unfair for other team members to carry those who don't want to put in a fair effort. Without full buy-in, your projects will fall short in one place or another. Project managers should communicate their expectation that all team members give their best effort and commitment to the rest of the project team. Along with accountability, committed team members stand a greater chance of becoming stronger together and successful. 

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Building trust

Trust is the glue that binds strong teams together. When lack of accountability, lack of commitment, self-serving agendas, and fear take root, team members become distrustful. Project managers may find building trust among team members tricky. Sometimes as a new project manager, it can take the entire duration of a project to gain a team's trust. It requires an ongoing demonstration of support for your team. It also means addressing issues as they crop up, standing up for what's right, even when it's not popular. Being inclusive also makes a difference. Teams that trust each other and their project managers work well together and suffer less conflict and dysfunction. 

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Dysfunction is a part of project teamwork, but it can be minimized. Staying in tune with the issues that cause conflict and dysfunction and actively finding ways to address fears, remove personal agendas, and increase accountability and trust are essential to achieving project goals. 

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