Shifting dysfunctional team dynamics
High Performing Teams – it’s more than strengths that shift team dynamics
It can feel comfortable and rewarding to focus on our strengths. And there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that building strengths will take us further in the long run than addressing weaknesses.
But the reality is that in some cases, we need to address what’s holding us back and making us fragile – weaknesses or problems – in order to fully leverage our strengths. And this is as true for teams as it is for us individually.
Team dynamics – how are yours holding up?
Whether we like it or not, all teams are potentially dysfunctional. Why? Because they are made up of fallible, perfectly-imperfect human beings – like you and me! And whilst each of us knows that working together and pulling in the same direction would help us achieve more, achieve it faster and with less effort and drama, making it happen can feel impossible.
Work by Patrick Lencioni identifies 5 five behavioural challenges, or dysfunctions, that teams must continuously work to avoid in order to function together well. They form a pyramid that needs to be developed from the bottom up in order to build trust, commitment and accountability.
The problem with dysfunction in a team
Once these 5 challenges are addressed, team strengths can be leveraged to levels not reached before.
But there is a challenge to doing this: our brains are wired to avoid things that feel uncomfortable, and from my experience with leadership teams across a variety of organisations, this work can certainly feel that way for them!
Addressing dysfunction feels scary
At a fundamental level, our most powerful motivator is fear.
To ensure our survival, subconscious systems have evolved to balance our choices in certain ways. When we are motivated by fear of a perceived danger or threat, we want to move away from it. (Note: the perceived danger or threat may once have been a sabre-toothed tiger, but in the boardroom this might be feeling that we are being ‘talked over’ or ignored, or being sidelined for an important project. Our brains process the real and the perceived threats in the same way and our reactions follow accordingly).
Psychologists call this desire to move away ‘avoidance motivation’. Avoidance reactions trigger the fight-or-flight response in our brain, which reduces our ability to think and process information, as well as our capacity for self-awareness and emotional regulation. As we become more defensive, the brain’s heightened need for safety can lead us to misjudge situations and people as threats.
As you can imagine, in a team where the 5 dysfunctions play out regularly, this fight-or-flight response is triggered often, and our avoidance motivation creates an unhelpful cycle of ignoring the issues which creates an ‘artificial harmony’.
Cracks in the artificial harmony
Typically, artificial harmony involves everyone ‘playing the game’ whilst in meetings – team members are reluctant to be vulnerable with one another, are unwilling to admit their mistakes, acknowledge their weaknesses or ask for help. I call this ‘plastic fantastic’ as it doesn’t reflect the mess and magic of real life and real people. And there is another, more dangerous side to artificial harmony – a lack of disagreement or debate, which has two critical consequences:
- Debate takes place outside of the room in the form of destructive commentary and sniping.
- Decisions made are not as robust, because they have not benefitted from the diverse ideas and perspectives of the team.
What can we learn from this? How can we address weaknesses to leverage team strengths?
Focussing on strengths feels good, takes less effort and moves us towards high performance more quickly. But it doesn’t mean you ignore weaknesses. If there are dysfunctional dynamics in your team, there will be a ceiling to how far focussing on individual strengths can take you.
And it’s important to be realistic. Addressing problems, dysfunctions and weakness is uncomfortable work and involves building ‘brain infrastructure’ in the form of new neural pathways, which takes time, effort, and commitment.
Research suggests that in most workplaces, we spend around 80% of our time talking about problems and just 20% discussing what’s working well. But I wonder if we are having those ‘weakness conversations’ in the right rooms with the right people?
If your team needs help to have the right conversation to create more functional dynamics, I can help. Let’s talk.
Dr Paige Williams
International Speaker, Author, Mentor
Determined to help leaders move beyond just the need for resilience, Paige provides practical, evidence-based strategies for leaders to become antifragile, lead themselves and their teams to thrive and succeed in the Decade of Disruption.