How to prevent dysfunction in project teams before it begins

Team dysfunction is more common than you might think. Although it's a normal part of working relationships, there are ways to prevent it.

Two angry businesspeople disputing

Image: AntonioGuillem, Getty Images/iStockphoto

The word dysfunction sometimes implies abnormal. The truth is, team dysfunction is something most business and project leaders have encountered at some point in their careers. It's not a welcome issue to deal with, but it is necessary and quite normal. 

The trick to preventing dysfunction is recruiting the right team members right out of the gate and providing them with the necessary tools to do their jobs effectively. Sometimes, even the best hiring efforts can result in broken teams, but preventing issues is a lot easier than fixing them. 

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Why do strong teams matter?

The success of your projects is reliant on the strength of your team and how well members support each other. Successful project managers understand that they can't master their own roles without helping their teams work together effectively if they expect projects to go well. The importance of teamwork cannot be stressed enough. The tough part is in finding like-minded people that can work well together without conflict. 

Strong teams matter to a successful business because they increase unity and buy-in, offer different perspectives that advance problem-solving, are more efficient and productive, and learn more and improve the overall performance of the team. 

What problems can team dysfunction create?

Dysfunction sometimes shows up at the start of a new relationship when teams are formed. Other times, team interactions start out well then you notice that something isn't right. Dysfunction can impact all five phases of project execution: initiation, planning, execution, monitoring/controlling, and closing. 

What does team dysfunction look like?

Team dysfunction comes in many forms. Here are a few:

  • Team members that don't want to work together

  • Silence or nonparticipation

  • Constant arguments and disagreements

  • Lack of support between team members

  • Power struggles

  • Withholding information

  • Lack of trust

  • Passive-aggressive behavior or condescending comments

You may suddenly notice that decisions are being made independent of you or other team members, which is an indication that some team members are not working well together. Over time, any of these behaviors can damage the team and the chance for project success. It's vital to the success of your projects that you are able to build and help maintain strong, functioning teams.

What do successful teams look like?

A successful team has qualities that make it stand out in the organization because of its members' tendency to communicate well, even during turbulent times; seek to understand each other; stay focused on goals and results; support each other during a problem situation; and stay organized and help one another when workloads are heavy.

How do I prevent team dysfunction?

The first step is choosing good team members focused on being part of a strong team. This means finding candidates who believe the sum of the team is stronger than each individual's skills and abilities. Seek candidates who are:

  • Excellent communicators: Technical skills can be taught much easier than natural communication skills

  • Disciplined and well-organized people who can stay focused

  • Resourceful and willing to help their teammates without being competitive

  • Interested in winning as a team, not only as an individual

  • Capable of connecting their role to a higher purpose, not just their paychecks

  • Interested in seeing beyond their own job descriptions

The second step is to empower them with the tools they need to do their jobs effectively. Often, employers or project managers hire the right team members with stellar skills and training yet forget to give them the right tools. It's vital that project teams have these tools to get the work done within the scope of a project: software to collaborate, communicate and execute work; relevant metrics to measure success; tools to report progress; team norms and guidelines for interaction; and an open channel to discuss concerns and problems.

Of course, these aren't the only tools teams need. Much of this will depend on the size of the team, whether they are remote workers, and other factors. 

The real skill in effectively dealing with dysfunctional teams is finding the right candidates and determining which tools they need to work together with minimal conflict and dysfunction. 

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