Taking Steps to Eliminate Team Dysfunction

This is a copy of the article appearing in the New Hampshire Business Review 11/16/2012 (see here):

© 2012 Brad Lebo — brad.lebo@vitalgrowthllc.com

Most business people know the meaning of the phrase, “two minds are better than one.” There is an implicit understanding among leaders in business that the idea sharing and challenging that occur in a well-run team beats anything that individuals working alone can achieve.

But most teams struggle to sustain the benefits of teamwork. They watch the few golden moments be overshadowed by complaining, back-stabbing, passive-aggressive behavior and other common ills of teams at work. Managers and organizational leaders put up with the dysfunction of their team because they think it is the price they have to pay for those intermittent golden moments.

What if team dysfunction could be eliminated or significantly reduced? Would that improve the productivity, creativity and success of your organization? At a medium-sized company we recently worked with, that’s exactly what happened.

At this company, the owner/CEO expected people to do their jobs and leave him alone to do his. He knew there was a great deal of resource sharing and problem solving that ideally would be take place among team members. For as long as possible, he would ignore the fact that key team members would stop talking to each other. Then he would explode emotionally and demand collaboration while watching every move. As is typical, the team was not working consistently as a team and needed a sledge hammer wielded by the boss to force cooperation—a tremendous waste of time and energy.

This was a dysfunctional and below-average team, judging by its performance. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say that there are three types of teams. Those that are dysfunctional and perform less work than they would if they never met as a team. These teams are below average and they have these characteristics: 1) team members spend a lot of time blaming others, usually outside the team meetings, for problems or failing to achieve goals. 2) There is little cooperation between team members and little, if any, joint problem solving. 3) Team meetings include reporting on progress but there is more empty talk about doing things than things actually happening. 4) And most team members accurately feel meetings are a waste of time and that they could get more done if they just were allowed to do their jobs alone.

Contrast this with a high-performing team characterized by: 1) Team members trust the efforts of everyone involved and “pick each other up” before there are missed deadlines and goals. 2) Problems are shared by the team and there is lots of collaboration, cooperation and joint problem solving. 3) Meetings involve reporting on progress. People are held accountable for their statements and given support by other team members to increase the probability of successfully reaching their goals. 4) And most team members look forward to meetings, appreciate the power of multiple minds in helping them meet challenges and appreciate the synergy of working together—producing outcomes that exceed their individual contributions.

An average team has most of the characteristics of a below-average team but sometimes functions as a high performing one. In other words, an average team muddles along and sometimes, every once in a while, flirts with functioning well. The trouble is, an average team cannot sustain itself at the high-performance level and does not know what actions it should take to keep itself functioning at a peak level.

Indeed, part of the problem with such a group is that there are no widely known and soundly researched remedies for team dysfunction. Like a chronic medical problem, it’s something organizations learn to live with.

The good news is: there is a soundly researched—albeit relatively little known—approach to remedying team dysfunction. Thanks to the work of Professor Vanessa Druskat, PhD and Steven Wolff, D.B.A., there is now a systematic way to assess the key attributes that make for peak team performance. This assessment identifies qualities that need improvement and provides a roadmap for improving team performance with specific steps.

Dr. Druskat, of the Whittemore School at the University of New Hampshire, and Dr. Wolff, a Principal of GEI Partners, have been studying team performance for over 20 years. They can be said to have extended the concepts of individual emotional intelligence to the team level. They also have conducted groundbreaking research into the emotional intelligence of teams and its meaning for team performance.

Their assessment tool, the Team Emotional Intelligence Survey, has been used to improve team performance around the world. Studies have consistently shown a relationship between improved team emotional intelligence and improved team performance: viewed both from the perspective of individual team members and from the perspective of individuals who are external to the team and benefit from that improved performance. Indeed, team emotional intelligence has been shown to account for 25 percent of the difference between average- and high-performing teams.

Back to our example company. Two of the key attributes measured by the Team Emotional Intelligence Survey are Interpersonal Understanding and Proactive Problem Solving. Through a series of interventions, we were able to improve both of these attributes and watch as the organization processed more orders (and the related work) than it ever had before or than the leaders thought possible. Admittedly, these were subjective reports of improved performance, but they were backed by new levels of both gross revenue and net income without an increase in the number of employees.

The other key attributes measured by the Team Emotional Intelligence Survey are: the ability to effectively address counterproductive (problematic) behavior; caring behavior toward members (one component of establishing trust among team members); the team being able to evaluate how it is doing, itself (“going to the balcony” to observe itself, as one of the co-authors describes it); developing the emotional resources to process difficult issues and the feelings attendant to them; the ability to create a sustained “can do” attitude; an understanding of the team’s role in the organization; and the ability to build relationships with external stakeholders that can aid or benefit from the team’s performance.

If you buy into the idea that two or more minds are better than one but you are frustrated by your team’s functioning level, there is a way forward. Use the Team Emotional Intelligence Survey to identify your team’s areas in need of improvement and take action to correct them. Like the example company, you will be glad you did.