When I look back at times in my life when I’ve worked on unhealthy teams, the analogy which comes to mind is that dysfunction is like poison. Your team is sick, but you may not know it yet. Then something happens and you try to dismiss it. You justify it or explain it away. Eventually, though, there’s no escaping the reality you have a sickness and it’s going to take lots of medication and intervention to get rid of this thing that’s killing you.
As many of us know, you can’t change others, but you can change yourself. Often dysfunction breeds dysfunction. Before you know it, you’re part of the problem, rather than the solution.
Here are some ideas of ways that you can take charge of your actions and prevent dysfunction in your sphere of influence:
1. Stop the triangulation. This is difficult under the best of circumstances. I seemed to find myself triangulated between two power houses in my previous dysfunctional team and often found that I struggled to stop triangulating. It was so difficult to address the problem, because often the problem was the person I was speaking to! Looking back, I now see just how much of the problem I was creating myself by playing into the role I was put in. Hindsight is 20/20. Bring the two people in the same room to discuss issues. It prevents the opportunity for triangulating to arise.
2. It’s not about you. In nearly every dysfunctional situation I can think of, the conversations I would listen to or be a part of were about the people on the team, rather than on the results we were to focus on. Force conversations to be about results rather than about people. Dysfunctional teams often have a hard time delivering results, so this focus can be helpful for multiple reasons.
3. Leave work at work. I find the more dysfunctional the situation, the more likely I am to ruminate on the problem after work hours. This is a problem for multiple reasons, but perhaps most important is that our perception tends to turn negative. When we can’t let go of a work issue in a dysfunctional environment, we often start to lose our sense of reality and turn into Debbie Downers regarding our problems. Perception makes all the difference in changing a dysfunctional team into a functional team. Focus on the positives and strengths to get you through the tough times.
4. Ask for help! One of the best things I did to work within a previous dysfunctional team was ask a trusted team member to tell me if they saw me behaving in dysfunctional ways. I told this team member specifically what I was concerned about and met privately after the meeting we were both in to get feedback regarding my behavior. Having almost instant information about my actions I was previously blind to was incredibly beneficial for changing my interactions.
Working in a dysfunctional environment is not easy, but let’s be honest; a lot of us are doing it and doing the best we can. You may not be able to eliminate the dysfunction with one remedy. Leaders worth following work hard at looking in the mirror to identify their own behaviors which are contributing to the problem.
Written by: Lori Chalmers, Former Milestone Leadership Associate