When Team Dysfunction Isn’t Really Dysfunction

“If you could get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time.” — Patrick Lencioni

In 1964, United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said: “…I know it when I see it…” (regarding “hard-core” pornography).

The same can be said of most of us regarding team dysfunction. We might not be able to articulate the fine points, but we certainly know it when we see it (or feel it)!

Common symptoms of team dysfunction include:

  • Increased political behaviors like saying what others want to hear
  • A reluctance to name “elephants in the room” and talk about the right, hard things
  • Meetings after the team meeting
  • Team members have shorter fuses with one another and are less forgiving
  • Team members avoid ideological conflict with one another
  • A “me before we” vibe, at times, on the team

But what if the symptoms of dysfunction could also be caused by something other than dysfunction itself?

Although I’m a huge fan of Pat Lencioni’s “5 Dysfunctions of a Team” book and model, a prolific advocate for Right People, Right Seats (RPRS), and a relentless bar-raiser for leaders and leadership teams, I’ve realized that not all conditions that look like dysfunction are dysfunction. 

Rather, they are a failure of leadership.

Counterintuitively, this is good news. As it turns out, the leadership-related issues that cause the appearance of dysfunction are more readily solvable than actual team dysfunction. The answers and actions are 100% within the leader’s control.

This doesn’t mean it’s easy. Nor does it imply you don’t have actual dysfunction which, if you do, you need to remedy swiftly and decisively to ensure you have RPRS on your team!

All of that said, in addition to bona fide team dysfunction, there are three common causes of symptoms of dysfunction on your team:

  1. Unclear strategy, plans, priorities.
  2. Nagging organizational and/or structural issues.
  3. Tactical ambiguities.

Here’s how to address them and help your team perform to their potential.

Clarify Your Destination and the Roadmap to Get There

My client’s leadership team spent countless hours questioning, debating, challenging, and confronting one another as they advocated for the specifics each of them individually thought best to scale the firm. Their arguments were heated, emotional, and seemingly never ending. Although team wasn’t aligned and appeared dysfunctional, the CEO of this fast-growing technology firm was convinced he had the right people in the right seats. Yet he couldn’t find the root of the problem.

After some probing, the root cause became clear to me—and it wasn’t actual team dysfunction. 

Although the CEO thought his team had clarity regarding his vision for the firm’s next 3-5 years, in fact, they didn’t understand the details. To his credit, the CEO had, indeed, shared his vision with the team — but apparently not enough for the details to truly sink in and be fully understood. The CEO agreed to review his vision with the team at our upcoming quarterly meeting.

After some probing, the root cause became clear to me—and it wasn’t actual team dysfunction. 

Immediately following our opening rituals at the quarterly meeting, the CEO grabbed a marker, walked to the front of the room, and proceeded to narrate his vision for the firm as he drew on a flip chart. His talk generated visible relief from the team and sparked a highly productive and highly functional hour-long conversation. The team’s symptoms of dysfunction seemed to have magically disappeared! What’s more, at the conclusion of the conversation, the team agreed to present the vision to the next level of leadership in the organization to gain their understanding and alignment as well.

The perception of ambiguity regarding your intended destination (the objective) and the general roadmap to get there (the strategy) often leads to the appearance of dysfunction on a team. It’s on the team’s leader to ensure both clarity and understanding of:

  1. Why: The Firm’s (or Team’s) Purpose
  2. What & When: Your Vision, Objective, and Timeline
  3. How: The Strategy, Plans, and Priorities to Achieve the Vision & Objective

If you’re not crystal clear on these items, your team will never be! Yet this is often the obstacle to clarity and alignment. Engage the team, a coach, and any other resources necessary to define your destination and create a high-level roadmap to get there.

Finally, repetition will set you free.

As I write and speak about often, if you’re not repeating yourself, you’re not giving your team a chance to learn and internalize what you’re saying. If you’re not repeating yourself, you cannot be an effective leader and, just like my client, you invite the symptoms of dysfunction to join your team.

I teach leaders to use an “eye-roll metric” when assessing whether they’ve repeated their messages enough. You know you’re getting through when your team begins to roll their eyes as you repeat yourself and then completes your sentences for you.  Then—and only then—you’ll know for sure that you’ve communicated successfully.

How clear is your firm’s destination and the roadmap to get there?

Solve Nagging Organizational and/or Structural Issues

The Director of Operations (DOO) was promoted from within the firm. The CEO believed the DOO was right for the role and would solve a myriad of tactical issues plaguing the firm’s ability to deliver on its client commitments.

Six months later, the DOO wasn’t getting the job done and the same unsolved, annoying problems continued to undermine the firm’s performance. The CEO was tolerating the wrong person in a critical seat on his team and, as a result, invited the symptoms of dysfunction to join his team. They included short fuses, a reluctance to name elephants, and “me” before “we” among the executive team. 

I’ve watched CEOs and leaders avoid, delay, and even ignore RPRS problems on their team. There’s a steep price to pay for this.

Although it took the better part of a year, the CEO eventually removed the DOO and restructured to solve the problem. Concurrent with these moves, the team’s apparent dysfunction disappeared.

Nagging organizational and/or structural issues can produce the symptoms of dysfunction on otherwise fully functional teams. It’s the leader’s role to ensure:

  1. The right seats (roles) are defined on the leadership team.
  2. The right people are in the right seats (RPRS) on the leadership team.
  3. Clear role accountability (outcomes) for each seat on the leadership team.

I’ve watched CEOs and other leaders avoid, delay, and even ignore RPRS problems on their team. There’s a steep price to pay for this, which is often part of the learning process for leaders. In over 20-years of developing and coaching leaders, I’ve never once heard any client say, “I should have kept him [or her] longer.” Instead, they always say, “I should have done this 6-months [or a year] ago!”

Learn from their costly, dysfunction-inducing, morale-destroying mistakes.

What nagging organizational and/or structural issue is producing symptoms of dysfunction on your team?

Make Decisions to Remove Tactical Ambiguities

As we continue to emerge from the global pandemic, several of my coaching clients are struggling to decide whether to require employees to work from the office, to create a hybrid workforce, or to create a fully remote workforce. There are often as many opinions as there are people on the leadership team and, in the face of the very real “great resignation,” fear around hiring, retention, and employment abounds.

This ongoing debate recently produced full-blown symptoms of dysfunction on one client’s leadership team: increased political behaviors, meetings after the team’s meeting, shorter fuses, and even some passive-aggressive behavior. The CEO allowed his team’s debates to rage but hesitated to make any workforce decisions because of continuing ambiguity around the pandemic, hiring and employment trends, and the business’ own performance.

His view was that there were too many uncontrolled variables in the “let’s commit to a future workforce strategy” equation. I discovered his team, on the other hand, was looking for tactical clarity: “what’s our workforce stance now and for some period looking forward?”

The primary job of any leader is to point to what matters most, which implies you need to decide what matters most first.

I suggested the CEO could have it both ways: create immediate clarity for his team while also delaying the ultimate decision about their future workforce strategy. He agreed and gave his team crystal clear guidance on a workforce approach for the next 6-9 months, while reserving the right to make a potentially different decision for the long-term. Although not everyone on the leadership team agreed with his call, the decision provided tactical clarity and direction.

Guess what also happened? The team’s symptoms of dysfunction disappeared.

The primary job of any leader is to point to what matters most, which implies you need to decide what matters most first. It’s the team leader’s role to make decisions that remove tactical ambiguities, which often create symptoms of dysfunction.

Tactical ambiguities reveal themselves as follows:

  1. There are unending debates about the same issue(s).
  2. The team seems to have the same conversations repeatedly over time.
  3. There’s imperfect or incomplete information preventing the leader from making a decision.

While ambiguity and uncertainty make your role as a leader more challenging, they don’t absolve you from making decisions and pointing to what matters most. Reframe the symptoms of tactical ambiguities as markers of decisions that need to be made. You’ll reduce the dysfunctional behaviors on your team and, even if they disagree with your decision, they’ll appreciate the clarity to move forward.

Where is a tactical ambiguity creating the appearance of dysfunction on your team?


A leader makes decisions, leads by example, and points to what matters most.

Although we know team dysfunction when we see or feel it, quite often the symptoms are inadvertently caused by a failure of leadership. More specifically, it’s a failure to make and/or communicate decisions that are critical for the team to internalize and understand.

As John Maxwell once said: “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.” In other words, a leader makes decisions, leads by example, and points to what matters most.

Use symptoms of team dysfunction as a guide to the root cause, remembering that true dysfunction must be remedied first and is usually caused by a bad actor or culturally mismatched member of your team.

Beyond true dysfunction, look for and address the three most common causes of dysfunctional team behavior, each of which is 100% in your control:

  1. Unclear strategy, plans, priorities.
  2. Nagging organizational and/or structural issues.
  3. Tactical ambiguities.

Your firm’s performance will improve, and your team’s dysfunctional behaviors will disappear virtually overnight!


Take Action to Learn, Grow, and Improve…

Live Online Class – 5 Ways to Create Independent, Empowered Employees

Imagine how great it would be if your employees were more independent, better decision makers, and did the “right things” more often without needing much guidance. Although we intuitively know that these attributes eliminate countless leadership headaches and set the stage to create scale, it’s shockingly easy to elicit the exact opposite behaviors from your team.

Join Mark in Simon Sinek’s live classroom! In this class you will:

  • Identify the three research-based keys to creating highly engaged employees.
  • Learn how to overcome the #1 obstacle to clear communication and understanding.
  • Discover how to raise your expectations while creating more engagement and independence on your team
  • Improve your capabilities as a coach to accelerate your team’s growth and capacity.  

Upcoming Classes: March 28, 2022 and April 18, 2022. Learn more and register!


More Options to Accelerate Your Leadership Growth and Success…

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