[This article was originally published at ThinDifference.com]
For almost 2 years, I was on a team so dysfunctional I sometimes wondered if everyone else secretly met up before work to schedule the day’s fights.
Coworkers were openly verbally fighting with each other in the middle of meetings. Everyone had a “side” they were on, constantly in battle with other sides through subtle passive-aggression and overt condescending insults. Crying wasn’t uncommon.
The reason for this dysfunction?
Well, there were many, but the primary reason was our boss.
The leader of the team, the only person in the entire department with the authority to confront people on their actions and protect the team…wouldn’t.
Keen to avoid confrontation and risk being “unpopular,” she mostly crept through the background as the office stagnated in toxic passive-aggression.
Leadership Lessons Learned on a Dysfunctional Team
Some 75% of cross-functional teams can fit in the “dysfunctional” category.
Odds are, you’ve probably experienced some dysfunction in your career by now. Now that I’ve quit and had time to process my tenure there, here are four major leadership lessons I learned from my dysfunctional team.
1. A leader needs to be OK being very unpopular
In the science fiction classic Ender’s Game, young Ender is tasked with training a team eventually to save humanity from murderous space aliens. Despite being one of the youngest on his team, Ender proves to be an excellent leader, gaining the admiration and respect from his peers.
Often, his team would invite him to eat lunch and play games with them. But Ender refused. Although he was lonely and homesick, he chose to eat alone, away from his team.
Ender did this because he knew he would need to make unpopular decisions that might make his team angry, frustrated, and resentful. Ender knew the relationship he had to cultivate with his team — he could be friendly with them — but not friends.
Unlike Ender, our boss wanted to be friends with everyone.
She had a long history of leading teams that loved her, and she wanted the same with us. But when the fighting and bickering didn’t cease, our boss clammed up instead of stepping in. She allowed the toxic arguing to continue because she didn’t want to be the unpopular figure that made decisions others might not like.
A great leader needs to be able to make unpopular decisions without reservations, for the greater good of the team.
If a leader wants their team to remain dysfunctional, they need only to refuse to make decisions that might make them “unpopular.”
2. Avoiding confrontation only makes things worse
I was in a meeting where the two “leaders” of opposing camps began to fight verbally with each other in front of everyone. In a room of 15 people, 13 of us watched in silence as the other two threw personal attacks at each other.
Our boss chose to “wait it out.”
A functional leader would have stepped in immediately. If not, they would at least firmly address the issue and ensure that, hey, open fighting in meetings can’t happen again.
Our boss wanted to avoid confrontation, and so didn’t address the conflict. It made things worse because now we all knew the truth — if fighting broke out again, it was certain not to be stopped.
Confrontation is difficult, even for the most skilled and empathic leaders. It often involves hurt feelings and uncomfortable situations.
But avoiding confrontation is even worse. It reinforces the message to the rest of the team: dysfunctional behavior will not be addressed.
How can a team possibly thrive everyone knows bullies won’t be stopped?
3. A leader’s attitude creates the culture
In the critically acclaimed movie Remember the Titans, a 1970’s high school football coach brings together black and white players for the first time. Training camp is brutal — the captain of the defense is condescending and shifts the blame on everyone but himself.
When the captain criticized a player for complaining and being lazy, the player told the captain the real truth:
Attitude reflects leadership.
A team’s culture is created by the captain.
If the captain is hardworking and accepts nothing less than success, the team is forced to deliver outstanding results.
But if the captain is lazy, the rest of the team will follow suit.
A few of us on our team sought to join together to change the company culture. I even invited a few members to pray for the team once a week. We committed to staying out of the gossip and bickering around the office. We vowed to stick up for each other and be solutions-oriented while other people complained about the problem.
Unfortunately, the culture still didn’t change.
That’s because our leadership didn’t change.
No matter what our little group did, the leader dictated the culture.
Our boss was simply not around during the week, always sick or “at meetings.” She wasn’t available when we needed her. We learned we couldn’t rely on her, and the culture devolved into, “If you want something, you’ll need to do it yourself. No one will help you, and if they do, you’ll owe them a favor.”
Good and bad cultures have one thing in common:
They are both created by the leader.
4. Absence of trust nullifies any efforts to make positive changes
In Patrick Lencioni’s book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, he outlines the cycle of how a team becomes dysfunctional.
First, an absence of trust arises. This creates fear of conflict among teammates, so everyone begins to bottle their emotions.
This lack of communication prevents team members from committing to the team. Since individuals need to avoid interpersonal discomfort, they don’t hold each other accountable.
This erodes any meaningful results the team could ever produce.
Our team went on several “team-builders” a year, where we would spend 8+ hours “vision planning” and creating values for the department, like Trust, Honesty, and Respect (kind of sounds like the rules for your old 6th-grade class, right?).
The problem was, these values were never enforced once we got back to the office.
Since leadership reflects attitude, and our leader didn’t hold anyone accountable to the values, no one else respected those values.
All the team-builders and vision meetings in the world won’t change a team who has an intrinsic absence of trust with their leadership.
Do you know the best way to develop your taste buds to recognize and enjoy great coffee? Drink a lot of awful coffee. Just terrible stuff.
Why? Because once you begin to know what bad coffee tastes like, you can appreciate great coffee like you would never have before.
The same applies for teams. If you’re on a dysfunctional team, you’ll begin to learn what these teams do so that you know what functional, positive teams should never do.
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