• How to Eliminate Dysfunction and Achieve a Higher Collective Performance

    I was working recently with a team of leaders who were experiencing a great deal of tension due to a host of polarities impacting their collective performance. The polarities were exhibited through overt and covert (passive-aggressive) behaviours. And the team was constantly distracted by a continuous pattern of “story-making,” i.e., enrolling each other to take sides, and finding like-minded peers to reinforce their judgments about one another.

    This is not atypical in my experience, and has reaped more than a number of client engagements for me.  Nevertheless, it never ceases to amaze me that groups of high performing, quality-focused, passionate professionals choose to work at odds with each rather than with and for one other.

    A primary cause of this toxic behavior is that these teams are comprised of people working together as “individuals” rather than as a team or community.

    Additional reasons for team dysfunction include an unclear vision and goals, significant change without proper employee engagement, organizational restructuring without a clear rationale or context, highly political CEOs who put self over others (too much ego), poor communication, and so on.

    Here are two examples of how I helped teams move through mistrust and achieve higher collective performance, and thereby more effectively supporting the vision and executing strategy.


    Example 1:

    Consulting with this leadership team over an 18 month period, the group worked through their divisiveness in several off-sites and, as we built trust, got to a place where they are high functioning.  Much of this work involved building trust, encouraging difficult and honest conversations, helping this team to put themselves into each others’ shoes (i.e., building empathy), understanding their conflict styles and practicing clear communication.

    The team has evolved to being far more focused and having strategic conversations in an aligned manner. Many toxic behaviours have waned, including blaming, finger pointing, talking behind each other’s backs, and avoiding working with each other. Empathy has emerged: truly understanding the challenges and issues another team may be facing. Rather than aggressively making others wrong, people are asking what they can do to help others be successful and meet their targets. The best indicator of success for me was that, as we planned their last retreat, it became evident they no longer needed me to facilitate their meetings.  They were ready to lead their meetings like a high performing team would.

    Example 2:

    I was asked to create a leadership development program for a senior team. The team identified key areas they wanted to focus on. One particular area of interest for the CEO was their culture. The challenge, from her perspective, was that there were three distinct cultures in the organization, and that these differences were contributing to story-making, negative judgments about one another, and ultimately, causing a lack of full alignment in executing their mission.

    Through an exercise of “Same and Different” (Glenda Eoyong, HSD – http://www.hsdinstitute.org/), the leadership team explored both the similarities and differences amongst their three cultures. Through in-depth debriefing, what emerged was an increased awareness around the non-supportive beliefs and judgments each group held; an increase in empathy for each area’s culture, i.e., how each culture actually exists to support their service delivery focus; a recognition and appreciation for these differences; and an awareness of how the similarities acted as a bridge for the cultures.

    They came in thinking that a key barrier to alignment was resulting from poor communication. This shifted as they recognized each area’s cultural strengths and realized that they were not as far apart as they had believed. This, combined with learning about their individual communication styles and how to apply a strategic communication tool, helped address their perceived issues and brought an appreciative bent to recognizing what was working well due to these differences.


    Often when teams are struggling, and at the extreme are dysfunctional, there are misperceptions and stories that contribute to lack of trust and lack of performance. Working on empathy is crucial: helping each member ‘get into the other person’s shoes’ and experience their challenges and issues. Empathy work has helped many teams I’ve worked with find common ground, build understanding and improve their communication with one another. This all has to be anchored, of course, in a clear and compelling vision and strategy.

    Human dynamics are complex and within an organizational system can become even more complex due to competing priorities, lack of resources, unclear communications, personality differences, and ongoing change. As leader, it is important to take that role seriously and consider what part you can be playing to steward your team members towards a common purpose in a way that encourages collaboration, empathy, and dialogue.

    Labelled Tinkerbell and Mighty Mouse by colleagues and clients, Erica is a culture catalyst and leadership mentor. She engages teams, supports them through change and empowers them to be at their best.  Connect with Erica on Twitter, the Incrementa website, or her personal site


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