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Signs of a dysfunctional team

Last week, in one of our leadership courses, we focused on the topic of team effectiveness and the differences between highly effective, successful teams, and teams that are failing or under-performing.

After separating the class into small groups, we tasked each with listing the characteristics of a high-performing, functional team and a poorly performing, dysfunctional team. In just a few minutes each group had produced their list of attributes for each type of team. The lists were all very similar.

This is not surprising. We all know what it takes to make a team work well.

What is surprising, or at least curious, is that if we all know what characteristics contribute to a highly effective, functional team why aren’t all teams functional? How is it that dysfunctional teams exist?

The simple answer is that functional teams do not just happen. Teams need to be fed and nurtured and cared for. They need regular health checks. Sometimes they even need treatment.

A team is, in effect, a living organism that is constantly evolving. The work of a team changes. People move in and out. Teams are broken up and they are merged. New leaders are assigned and bring with them their own style.

In the year of COVID-19, attending to your team’s health takes on greater urgency.


Working with teams is a vast and complex leadership challenge. Whilst functional teams are the result of strong leadership however, to focus solely on the role of the leader diminishes the responsibility that every team member must take for the team’s success.

If you think your team may be heading towards dysfunction (or perhaps you are already there), then seize the opportunity to step up and address the issues. Outlined below are five of the most common signs of dysfunction and what you can do to address them. (Note that while we have listed these five attributes separately, there is a lot of overlap and real-life scenarios are rarely as clear cut as this).

1. Diagnosis – The absence of trust

If there is a single building block upon which a successful team is built, then trust is it. In the absence of trust, members will be reluctant to show their weaknesses or to ask for help. Wary of each other, members are unlikely to speak out or take any action that will draw attention to themselves. They are certainly not going to stick their hand up and admit when they have made a mistake!

Remedy – Model the behaviour you want to encourage. Show your team your vulnerability by acknowledging your weaknesses, asking for help, and owning your mistakes. This is not a quick fix. If a team has been dysfunctional for some time, members may be sceptical of your motives, so be consistent with your behaviour and acknowledge those ‘first followers’.

2. Diagnosis – Communication breakdown

In the advent of no communication, members will make their own assumptions and develop their own, possibly erroneous, assumptions as to what is expected of them. Lack of communication and lack of clarity can also manifest as gossiping, whispered conversations, or the forming of cliques. Other members may withdraw from the group, internalise their issues and become less invested in team process or outcomes.

Remedy – As we have talked about previously, communication underpins everything you do as a successful leader. Good communication is authentic, simple, and direct. It is also two-way, so listen, listen, listen!

3. Diagnosis – Lack of (or fear of) ‘robust’ discussion

Robust, constructive discussion is what allows teams to openly debate ideas, which in turn increases the likelihood of reaching the best possible decision. The absence of robust discussion can create a decision-making vacuum which is filled by personal agendas working with incomplete or incorrect information. On the flip side it can lead to ‘group think’ as members choose to go with the path of least resistance rather than bucking the trend. Neither outcome is conducive to a functional team.

Remedy – Be clear with members that robust discussion is not only welcome but that it is also useful. To develop a shared understanding of the ‘’rules of engagement’, acknowledge examples of healthy discussion (if this approach doesn’t work don’t be afraid to set actual rules). A good test to see how the group currently operates (and to open discussion on the above) is to table an obviously bad idea at a team meeting to see if everyone will agree with you just to avoid conflict.

4. Diagnosis – Lack of accountability

In the absence of accountability, dysfunctional teams may continually push back deadlines or spend endless hours in meetings that never deliver any outcomes.  At the extreme, members may blame others for lack of progress whilst vigorously defending their behaviour and lack of achievement.

Remedy – Members won’t want to be accountable for achieving an outcome that isn’t clear or where they don’t understand its value or connection to the bigger picture, so clarity around team goals (both the what and the why) is key. Continual avoidance of accountability can also result from a lack of trust and fear that failure will not be looked upon favourably. Address this by modelling accountability and ownership of mistakes, and treating failures as learning opportunities.

5. Diagnosis – No team commitment or focus

Dysfunctional teams often have members more interested in individual glory and less interested in the team’s objective. This is especially true when members are not being held accountable.

Remedy – As noted earlier, clarity around team goals is critical. Ensure each member understands how their work contributes to the broader team goals. Also make sure there is equitable distribution of the work. If a member feels that they are constantly tasked with more than their share, they may feel less inclined to work alongside members that they do not feel are pulling their weight.


If you’ve read through this list and you aren’t sure if you are on a downward slide or if you’ve just had a bad week, then consider your level of staff turnover. It is often said that people don’t leave a job, they leave a manager. It is equally true that people leave a dysfunctional team. Whilst some turnover is normal and indeed healthy for a team, if you are having farewell drinks every other week then it is probably a good indicator that your team dynamics need some attention.


*If you’re not the leader of your team, start modelling these behaviours yourself whilst you find a way to get your leader committed to addressing the issue or be prepared to take risks calling people on unproductive behaviours.

ASC Training & Development delivers a range of management and leadership courses focused on developing and strengthening the skills needed to thrive in a leadership role.  The programs are suitable for range of skill levels, from experienced leaders to those aspiring to leadership and management roles. Many of our programs are offered as live virtual classrooms.

Further information can be found on our website or feel free to give us a call to discuss your specific needs.