Effective teams don’t happen randomly. They are the result of strong leaders who lead by example and build healthy habits into the team’s dynamic. But sometimes things happen outside of the leader’s control, and some problems are harder to spot than others — a lack of diverse perspectives on a team, for example, means a team may be too comfortable to innovate.

So what are some signs your team could be nearing dysfunction?


A Communication Breakdown

A breakdown can manifest itself in sidebar conversations, low morale, decreased engagement, and even workplace bullying. The first step a leader must take to correct the course is to gain a clear understanding of the challenges — and the players. Once any underlying issues are addressed, team-building strategies can help restore cohesion.


Absence Of Trust

Trust is the foundation of all successful teams and the absence of trust is a billboard on the road to dysfunction. Teams that don’t trust each other assume negative intentions, dread spending time together, and don’t ask for help from each other. Leaders can start cultivating trust by creating a culture of vulnerability, rewarding honesty, and most importantly, leading by example.


Unresolved Conflict

People working together on teams will have conflict. However, if they don’t seem to be working it through and are holding on to resentments, it will lead to a failure to perform. Some signs to watch for: missing deadlines, gossiping, forming of cliques, complaining, and sub-par work products. Leaders need to be watching for early warning signs and intervening as necessary.


A Mass Exodus Of Talent

If your turnover is very high, something is dysfunctional within the team. It could mean there is a lack of trust, the culture is oppressive, or the pay is not competitive. Create a formalized exit interview process to capture the sentiments of exiting employees and use this data to create change within the organization. Schedule regular employee meetings to assess needs and build engagement



As teams turn dysfunctional, members start to withdraw — often before they’re even aware they’re doing it. They’re just not as invested in the process or the outcome. A leader who sees less creativity, enthusiasm and communication needs to re-engage the team. Share project ownership. Help team members see how they each strengthen the team. Be generous with positive feedback.


Becoming Too Comfortable

Teams become comfortable. Instead of diverse ideas, they “Groupthink.” This is ineffective. Productive teams need multiple perspectives. Team members must understand distinct roles, and respectfully challenge others. When teams “Groupthink” they avoid debate to the detriment of the team. Leaders can remind the team of their roles, review why the team is in place, and explain how it can best operate.


Lack Of Decision-Making

The inability to make decisions reflects the lack of cohesion and trust within a team. Conflict over decisions builds cohesion and transparency. When teams are stuck, they fail to move forward. Decisions are delayed, accountability is reduced due to lack of buy-in, which leads to delays, low productivity, and low morale. Lack of decision-making is a symptom of dysfunction and impedes all team progress.



Telling is tattling. At first glance, it may seem great to have eyes and ears in the building when you are not present, but don’t be fooled. When you have team members telling you everything that happens behind the scenes, that is “tattling” and it is a surefire warning your team is rapidly approaching dysfunction. As helpful as the information may be, close your ears and open your eyes before it’s too late.


Blame And Lack Of Responsibility

When team members begin to assign blame to others, over-defend their behaviors, and fail to assume responsibility,  you are encountering blame disorder. This organizational ailment usually manifests as a fear of failure and lack of trust and safety. The leader can help eradicate this behavior by modeling accountability and ownership of mistakes and treating failures as learning opportunities.



Monitor collaboration and brainstorming. Do you hear more use of “I” than “we” when people are talking about projects and results? Have individual conversations to get different perspectives and encourage people to have their own honest talks before bringing the entire team together for a group discussion. Set rules of engagement and hold everyone accountable for following them.


Avoidance Of Vulnerability

When team members hold back from saying what they really think and feel, dysfunction can set in. The leader must create safety and space for people to talk, and they must do this by modeling vulnerability. Asking for candid feedback and giving real, honest feedback can be one entry point to increased vulnerability. This builds trust, which increases team functioning.


Workload Imbalance

High performing teams consist of individuals who are equally committed to a common purpose. In dysfunctional teams, one or two members often carry the bulk of the workload. To improve this, a leader can ensure team members are aware of, buy into, and understand the goals that are set for the team, and have complete clarity on the roles and responsibilities of each individual to achieve those goals.


Scapegoating And Subgroups

Early warning signs include constant scapegoating among team members, development of subgroups within the team, and breakdowns in communication, resulting in team performance issues (e.g., missed deadlines). A leader can confront the issue by addressing it with each team member individually and as a group to identify the core issues, discuss solutions, and reset expectations about team norms and goals.


Fixating On Past And Current Problems

A team on the brink of dysfunction fixates on past and current problems. A leader can transform the situation by facilitating a “future back” exercise. Invite everyone to envision a time when their problems are solved and each person is energized and performing optimally. Looking back, what are the key commitments, resources, requests and actions required to reach the desired end state?


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