My team is dysfunctional: help!


I supervise several faculty in an institute of higher education, all in health care fields. Over the years, I have spent a great deal of time on non-productive tasks brought on by many of these employees. They spend too much time gossiping, backstabbing, and finding reasons to complain. They often complain about each other and at times about me. In fact, a few have been known to be downright dishonest and extremely self-serving.

This summer I've been working on addressing the five dysfunctions of a team, hoping it would make a difference. However, I have at least one who is not interested in this method and does not participate in discussions. Further, this person complains to my superior that I am the reason for her current frustrations.

Unfortunately, I have been out of the office on extended leave three times in the last five years due to family emergencies, which has not helped the situation at all. The person I have left in charge takes on additional stress, but with this last absence - my son had a life-threatening brain tumor removed - she was abusive to her peers.

I have been with this organization for nearly 17 years and am finding it difficult to keep a focus on the mission and goals of the institution when my attention is constantly being drawn away to deal with these types of situations.

Further, my superior is so overwhelmed with the constantly increasing workload and pressures and all the complaints, that she is becoming less supportive.

I could really use some advice on how to get this team back on track and stop the interpersonal problems within this group. I also need a way to develop the level of support I need from my superior to implement any changes that need made.

Without a strong foundation of trust, I believe it will be difficult for the group to ever move into healthy conflict and discussion. However, the program directors absolutely do not trust each other. I'm just not sure where to go from here.

Louisa, Texas

Myra White's Answer:

You are unlikely to make much headway with your team unless they understand their interdependencies and trust each other. Team members need to see that working together is in their self interest and will make their work easier. Without this awareness, they will view team meetings as a burden that cuts into their busy working day.

Your first step should be to make sure that there is a common agenda that everyone embraces and is in everyone's best interests. You also need to show the team that as their manager you are looking out for their interests within the organization and lobbying for resources that they need to function effectively.

The other factor that is critical to successful teams is trust. There are two types of trust that are important in teams. One is affective trust which is based on social bonds among team members and the other is task-related trust which is based on team members' assessments of the ability of other team members to deliver. Based on your comments there currently appears to be little trust among team members and the team also does not fully trust you.

One suggestion is that you work on strengthening your social bonds with team members. Start expecting the best from them. Even though you may not state your concerns and frustration with your team concerning their behaviors, they will sense it and as a result, tend to be reluctant to trust you.

Try to create an environment filled with positive energy and enthusiasm for the important work that all of you are doing. Try and rally them around a common agenda which everyone believes is important for their personal success and the success of your institute.

Another way to build trust is to provide the team with unexpected resources or opportunities to demonstrate their expertise to larger audiences in ways that will help their careers.

With regard to your supervisor, I would suggest that you read my column on managing your boss. Understanding your supervisor's needs is the best way to enlist your supervisor's support. Like everyone bosses feel that their needs come first and that their reports should be there to support them. If you need more support than your supervisor can provide, you should consider getting outside coaching in order not to jeopardize your relationship with your supervisor.

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About our Expert

Myra White
Myra White

Myra White teaches managing workplace performance and organizational behavior at Harvard University and is a clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School. She is the author of "Follow the Yellow Brick Road: A Harvard Psychologist's Guide to Becoming a Superstar", a book based on her research into how over 60 well-known people became superstars.

Older Comments

Whenever the organisation members are distinct from each other, or do not have common functionalities the members have only time to think about themselves and how others are better positioned than they are.

Let me share a small story. My cousin sister is a teacher for the 2nd standard. She was sharing with me some of the cases she had handled regarding her students. One such case was of a child who lived with a mother who had just recently divorced. The child used to get time to spend with her dad over the weekend. Apparently she had developed an attitude problem in the school and she would constantly complain or hit the other childern. She even threatened the teachers that her dad would come and beat them up as he was very strong. My cousin gathered from her behavior that she behaved irrationally to seek attention. In response, my cousin made her the monitor of the class. This considerable reduced her beating up of other children. She was definitely spoken to sternly in order to stop the threats given to the teachers.

Now though in comparison you talk about an organisation here, it is very similar in many ways. There is a hidden problem with your team members. They are finding time to complain which could mean either they dont have a lot of work or they dont have work with responsibility. You could start by taking into confidence the team members individually and asking them what their expectations are. Since they have lost the touch with you as their leader, a formal survey can be conducted to reflect the type of behavior they hold and the reasons for the same.

Do not get disheartened by the results if they are not upto your expectations. You are trying to make a team. Give them tasks with responsibilities and see how they go about execution. Avoid formal get togethers. Try creating a family atmosphere by celebrating events, festivals, birthdays.

You need to negotiate with the supervisor incentives that will motivate your staff. No room should be allowed for staff to surpass your authority unless its a necessity. Your supervisor needs to act in accordance with this.