Taking Your Team from Dysfunctional to Functional

I have heard it said (maybe in jest, but maybe not) that there is a little bit of dysfunction in all of us. Whether or not that is true, we probably have all experienced dysfunction in some context, mostly likely in the environment of relationship.  In fact, typically when people are referring to “dysfunctional,” they are applying the idea in some way to people and relationships.  It follows, then, that because they are made up of people in relationship with each other, the same idea can apply to teams.

Peter Northouse defines a team as “a specific type of group composed of members who are interdependent, who share common goals, and who must coordinate their activities to accomplish these goals.” (2013, p. 287)  At times, these “groups,” or teams, seem to be wonderful, but sometimes they seem to be very dysfunctional.  People on the same team will attack and undermine each other, exhibit bizarre behaviors that interfere with the work, selfishly promote themselves at the expense of others, and reflect “disorders” in the dynamics of the team that compare to disorders and dysfunction in family dynamics.  I have personally experienced both extremes – from functional to dysfunctional – and found such great value in being able to work with a good team, but such great frustration and difficulty when working with a poor team.

So, then, what makes a team functional and effective?  Again according to Northouse, good teams fulfill two primary functions, one related to tasks, and the other related to people.  He succinctly says, “Two critical functions of team effectiveness are . . . performance (task accomplishment) and development (maintenance of team),” (p. 299) adding that “superior team leadership focuses constantly on both task and maintenance functions; both types of leadership behaviors (task-focused and person-focused) have been found to be related to perceived team effectiveness.” (p. 294)  Simply stated, a team that is functional accomplishes tasks well and works together well, while the people on these teams are being developed.

When it comes to performance, or task accomplishment, the benefit of a team (as opposed to an individual) is found in understanding that a team brings a more complete combination of strengths.  Recent leadership study affirms the “myth of the complete leader” (the idea that one individual is good at every leadership skill and trait) (Ancona, Malone, Orlikowski, & Senge, 2011, p. 179) and recognizes that “the most cohesive and successful teams possess broader groupings of strengths.” (Rath & Conchie, 2008, p. 22)  A good team has a variety of individuals with differing strengths that balance each other out and fill in gaps, and the result is a greater value and performance from the whole than in the individual parts (or, as the Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias says, “It is the assemblage of an object that gives it its purpose, not the reduction of it.” (2000, p. 34) Because no one person is best at everything, a combination of people with different strengths will do more, and do it better, than that one person.

However, a team cannot maintain good performance without investment in development; specifically, development in the relationships that exist between the members of the team.  When a group of people are assembled who have different strengths, they also necessarily have other differences (weaknesses, opinions, thought processes, etc.), which in turn lead to conflict, and ultimately can lead to dysfunction.   The single greatest antidote to this kind of dysfunction is trust.  Patrick Lencioni says it like this: “Trust lies at the heart of a functioning, cohesive team. Without it, teamwork is all but impossible.”  (2002, p. 195) People on a team must learn to trust one another, and in doing so, accept their own weaknesses and embrace the strengths of others.

So how does a team become and maintain “functional”?  That’s the job of the leader.  The leader’s role in this context is to help the team, individually and collectively, to do both “task” and “people” well.  It is an “oversight function in which the leader’s role is to do whatever is necessary to help the group achieve effectiveness.” (Northouse, 2013, p. 303)  Therefore, in any situation or circumstance in which tension or struggle is occuring, one of the primary decisions of a team leader “is to choose whether a task or a relational intervention is needed.” (Northouse, 2013, p. 291) The leader must learn the characteristics and attributes of the team members, as well as the dynamics of the team, in order to best delegate responsibilities, manage performance and process, develop potential, navigate conflict, and intervene when necessary. A team can be more successful than an individual leader, but the leader will determine and guide the success of the team.

For Christian leaders:  later this month, I will be sharing some thoughts on biblical principles related to team leadership from the book of Ezra. Stay tuned!

Ancona, D., Malone, T. W., Orlikowski, W. J., & Senge, P. M. (2011). In Praise of the Incomplete Leader HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership (pp. 179-196). Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Lencioni, P. (2002). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Northouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Rath, T., & Conchie, B. (2008). Strengths-Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow. New York, NY: Gallup Press.

Zacharias, R. (2000). Jesus Among Other Gods: The Absolute Claims of the Christian Message. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.


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