How to Solve the 7 Chronic Problems of Dysfunctional Teams

7 chronic team problems
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Dysfunctional Teams: Seven reasons why teams fail (and what you can do to help)

Have you ever been a member of any dysfunctional teams? 

If you have then you know how frustrating, depressing, and stressful it can be. I certainly have been, both as an employee and as a manager, and leading an underperforming team has given me plenty of sleepless nights as I have sought to turn things around. 

My experience has taught me the truth of Stephen R. Covey’s list of team problems. Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, went on to write Principle-Centred Leadership, which builds on the first book and highlights the vital importance of personal values in effective leadership models. The book includes lots of practical advice for leaders and managers, including an explanation of the seven persistent issues that undermine organisations. The 7 chronic problems he identifies are:

1. No shared vision or values

2. No strategic path

3. Poor alignment

4. Wrong style

5. Poor skills

6. Low trust

7. No self-integrity

They are called chronic because, as with chronic diseases, dysfunctional team problems are persistent and cause continual pain. If these chronic issues are not treated then the organisation will continue to deteriorate and could even die.

So here is a further explanation of each and some tips on how to avoid these pitfalls, or treat the problems if they already exist. 

YouTube video: How to spot the 7 chronic problems of dysfunctional teams

1. No shared vision or values

Every organisation needs a purpose. On the meta scale, a business needs a clear reason to exist, something that attracts customers and employees alike. On the micro-scale, all teams need to know the vision they are working towards. 

The problem is that many leaders fail to communicate a vision. Occasionally that is because they don’t know what the vision is, they are unsure of exactly where they are going. But all too often they just forget to tell people their dream or outline exactly the part the team has to play in delivering the larger organisational vision.

One key element of transformational leadership is communicating a team’s vision. If you are a leader and have not outlined your vision then take some time to think about it and put it into words. You need to be able to explain it in simple terms. Paint a picture of the better future that you are working towards. If you are an employee who does not understand the vision then ask; get your boss to share what it is that drives them, the change they want to make. 

2. No strategic path

The next problem is related to the first. You cannot have a strategic path without knowing what the vision is. But, even if you have a vision, a leader still needs to lay out the path to get there. 

The team needs to know the overarching plan of how they will get to a better future. This is what strategy is. Richard Rumelt, author of Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, gives the following definition:

“A strategy coordinates action to address a specific challenge.”

People need a plan to coordinate their actions. It does not need every detail sorted out, but it does require enough specific direction so that people can keep moving in the right direction. And that too leads us on neatly to our next chronic problem.

3. Poor alignment

Having a vision and strategy are essential, but they won’t guarantee success on their own. Individuals need to be aligned to that direction and that comes down to knowing their role within the team and the values that drive the organisation.

Roles are vital, but here I am not talking about mere titles. If you want an idea of the deluge of lengthy, cool-sounding but confusing job titles, then just take a look on LinkedIn, but I can guarantee that even their owners can struggle to explain their actual role. Here I mean the exact role we have to play in our team and our part in the overall plan.

Within a team we need to know how we fit alongside, to complement their strengths and weaknesses. Using a model such as Belbin’s team role finder can help this process. Individuals also need to understand how their tasks support the overall success of the organisation. 

For example, Field Marshall ‘Monty’ Montgomery, when he took over the British 8th Army in 1942, was in retreat across the African desert. To turn things around, he made sure that everyone, right down to the typists in Battalion headquarters, knew the importance of their contribution. In this way, he aligned everyone to the task of winning and led the Allies to victory in Tunisia in 1943. 

4. Wrong style

The next problem is that of leadership style. A manager must employ an effective leadership approach to align their team to the strategy and vision. Situations change and employees differ so a good leader can flex their style accordingly.

If you are unsure how to adapt your management approach then I recommend Hersey and Blanchard’s situational leadership model along with Max Landsberg’s Skill-Will matrix. Both of these tools help leaders to assess the best approach for the circumstances and team members. 

Equally important as finding a good leadership style is avoiding a bad one. Toxic leadership is a sure-fire way to team dysfunctionality so avoid the seven traits of bad leaders, including incompetence, rigidity, intemperance, or being callous, corrupt, insular or evil. 

5. Poor skills

Incompetence can be a cause of toxic leadership but competency can be a problem across a whole team. Sometimes people are just not experienced enough to do the job. Fortunately, this is one of the easiest things to fix. If people have the right character and a growth mindset, then they can learn the right skills.

In this instance, the responsibility of the manager is to identify the skills gaps and create personal development plans for individuals. These might be technical skills but don’t forget to consider people’s soft skills. These are often overlooked but are critical. If you don’t know where to start then the United Nations list of the 10 most important life skills can help. For managers who want to improve themselves, using Robert Katz’s framework of leadership skills is a good place to start to identify areas of growth. 

6. Low trust

Nothing undermines a team’s performance as quickly as a lack of trust. Trust is the fundamental building block of all relationships, so when this breaks down teams are truly dysfunctional as the lack of trust is a blocker to working together.

We all know that trust is important but sometimes it is hard to quantify and that is why the Trust Equation is so helpful. Research by Green, Maister and Galford (2001) showed that:

 Trust (or Trustworthiness) = (Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy)/Self-Orientation

Here, credibility and reliability are self-explanatory but intimacy is worth explaining. In this instance, it relates to how safe you feel around a specific person. For this model, self-orientation equates to how self-centred a person is. 

Where trust is lacking, there are proven behaviours that can help build trust in teams. Paul Zak identified eight behaviours that help foster trust in teams. These are:

  1. Recognise excellence
  2. Induce “challenge stress” (difficult but achievable tasks)
  3. Give people discretion in how they do their work
  4. Enable job crafting (let employees choose projects to work on)
  5. Share information broadly
  6. Intentionally build relationships
  7. Facilitate whole-person growth
  8. Show vulnerability

7. No self-integrity

Finally, a lack of self-integrity is symptomatic of poor team health. Integrity is best described as walking the talk, so if a leader or team’s actions do not match their words then there is a problem. At the fundamental level, this is about values. Are people aligned with their principles and are they making decisions that are aligned with the values of their organisation?

My favourite tool for exploring the relationship between behaviours and values is The Iceberg Model. It is a very simple theory. As with a physical iceberg, the visible bit (in this case people’s behaviours and words) is the small element that exists above the surface. Below the surface is the greater mass. In terms of organisational culture, this hidden space includes people’s thoughts and feelings, values and beliefs, fears and needs. To understand the behaviour you have to use questions to dig below the surface and discover the cause. Only once this diagnosis has taken place can a plan be put in place to change the behaviour.

Is your team dysfunctional? Does your team display any of the seven chronic problems?

It is worth taking a few seconds to reflect on your team. How is it performing? If there is a problem, can you identify which of the seven chronic problems are to blame? Ask yourself:

  • Is there a shared vision and common values?
  • Does the team have a strategic path?
  • How well are the team aligned with the strategy?
  • Does the management have the right leadership style?
  • Are there any skill gaps?
  • Is there a lack of trust in the team?
  • How is the team’s integrity – do people walk the talk?

If you are a manager, why not get team members to give you some answers as well? It might feel like a painful process, but every team has challenges, so it would be a surprise to not find an area of weakness. 

Take heart. What you have done is take the first positive step, that of diagnosis. As Dr Dean Ornish says,

“Awareness is the first step of healing.”

The good news is that you have now taken the first step. Next, you can plan and work out a way to solve the problems, because that is what high-performing teams do; they always seek to be better. 


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