Are Your Teams at Work a Bit Dysfunctional?


Apparently, according to business writer Patrick Lencioni, most work teams are somewhat dysfunctional. I don’t think it’s any better in professional firms – whether it’s a team brought together to work on a case and whether it’s your practice group as a whole.

Associates tell me there’s often a lack of transparency as to who is selected to work on particular matters or to be on pitch teams. Team meetings or conference calls are typically time-consuming and boring. Associates in remote offices feel like outsiders. People aren’t given much useful feedback etc.

So what should leaders be doing more of, or less of, to create better performing teams?

According to Lencioni the most important area to work on is trust. But not just any old trust – not the sort where you trust someone is going to deliver. Lencioni means a deeper sort of trust – a sort of psychological trust – the sort of trust that’s needed when you’re feeling vulnerable. Indeed this deeper trust allows people to be vulnerable. It allows people to admit they’ve made a mistake and know they won’t be chastised.

This is so fundamental that it’s worth exploring how to develop this kind of trust amongst your team members. Fundamentally, it helps to encourage people to open up about themselves. Let’s look at an example…

At the start of a workshop, perhaps where not everybody knows each other, most people usually feel a bit anxious. Deep down we wonder what others will think of us? Will we fit in? Will we look foolish? To ease this discomfort I sometimes ask people to introduce themselves and say something about their name. Why did their parents choose it? Does the name have a meaning? The mood soon changes as people disclose something somewhat personal. There are usually a few funny stories which create some laughter and that also helps diffuse any tensions.

I also find the use of psychometric diagnostics helpful – for example, putting everybody through a MBTI questionnaire and sharing the outputs about their personality type.

Lencioni recommends something similar. He asks people to share something about where they grew up, how many siblings they had and the challenges they faced growing up.

Of course it’s important that the leaders lead by example in these exercises. Also some of these exercises are culturally sensitive. What might be appropriate in the USA might be different to what would work best in South Asia, etc.

Once trust is established, for teams to perform at their best, individuals need to be comfortable with conflict. To ensure getting the best output, ideas need to be challenged. If things aren’t working to everybody’s satisfaction something needs to be said and people need to be listened to.

This belief is consistent with the thinking by psychologist Bruce Tuckman who came up with the notion that all groups need to go through the stages of:

  • Forming
  • Storming
  • Norming
  • Performing

Many individuals are uncomfortable with conflict and they avoid it at all costs. This is a shame because it means that important thoughts and feelings aren’t being raised and dealt with. There is the risk that these feelings fester and get exaggerated.

Team leaders need to be good at encouraging people to say what they think. They need to be good at listening, acknowledging feelings and mediating.

Once trust is established and opinions can be freely aired and team members are comfortable with conflict, it becomes possible to generate much more commitment to work objectives. This generates in turn more motivation, more energy and better outcomes.

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