Taking steps to eliminate team dysfunction

Most teams struggle to sustain the benefits of teamwork


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Most businesspeople know that the sharing and challenging of ideas 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 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? That’s what happened at a medium-sized company we recently worked with.

The owner/CEO expected people to do their jobs and leave him alone to do his. 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 a sledgehammer wielded by the boss was needed to force cooperation — a tremendous waste of time and energy.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s say that there are three types of teams:

 • Those that are dysfunctional and perform less than they would if they never met as a team. These teams are below average, and the members spend a lot of time blaming others, usually outside the team meetings, for problems or failing to achieve goals. There is little cooperation between team members and little, if any, joint problem-solving. Team meetings include reporting on progress, but there is more empty talk about doing things than things actually happening. 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.

 • A high-performing team is characterized by team members who trust the efforts of everyone involved and “pick each other up” before there are missed deadlines and goals. There is lots of collaboration, cooperation and joint problem-solving. People are held accountable for their statements and given support by other team members to increase the probability of successfully reaching their goals. 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.

Emotion intelligence

There is good news in the work of Vanessa Druskat and Steven Wolff, who have developed a systematic way to assess the key attributes that make for peak team performance.

Druskat of the Whittemore School at the University of New Hampshire and Wolff, a principal of GEI Partners, have been studying team performance for over 20 years. They 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.

Two of the key attributes measured by the Team Emotional Intelligence Survey are interpersonal understanding and proactive problem-solving. Through a series of interventions at our example company, 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 problematic behavior; caring behavior toward members; the team being able to evaluate by itself how it is doing; 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.

In other words, 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.

Brad Lebo, a principal at Vital Growth Consulting Group, Portsmouth, can be reached at 603-502-9955 or brad.lebo@vitalgrowthllc.com .

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