3 Steps to Eliminate Team Dysfunction

blog Dec 13, 2022

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

Patrick Lencioni

You cannot grow a small business with a dysfunctional team.

So what does a dysfunctional team look like?

It tends to be a hard thing to articulate, but I bet you know it when you see it (or feel it)!

Common symptoms of team dysfunction include:

  • Political behaviours - saying what others want to hear (I hate this bullshit)
  • A reluctance to name “elephants in the room” and talk about the right, hard things
  • Meetings after the team meeting (what the hell!?)
  • A fear of being vulnerable
  • Team members don’t ask for help, or don’t provide constructive feedback
  • A “me before we” mindset on the team
  • No accountability
  • A fear of failure environment

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

I’m a huge fan of Pat Lencioni’s “Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team” book and model.

He is also an advocate for the “right people, right seats” approach of Jim Collins from his book “Good To Great”, and a relentless bar-raiser for leaders and leadership teams.

But I’ve recently realised that not all conditions that look like dysfunction, are dysfunction. 

Rather, they are a failure of leadership.

This is arguably a positive, as leadership-related issues that cause the appearance of dysfunction are more readily solvable than actual team dysfunction. 

The answers and actions are within the leader’s control.

Easier said than done, as you would appreciate being a small business owner.

Our “Business Transformation Program” is a great way to improve your leadership skills in your business, as well as becoming a better manager (then get the other managers in your business to do the “Kick-Ass Manager” course included in the Program, at no cost).

If you have a dysfunctional team, you need to fix this quickly and decisively to ensure you have the “right people, right seats” on your team!

Everyday you don't is costing your business time and money, not to mention the energy that this consumes.

All of that said, there are three common causes of symptoms of dysfunction on your team:

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

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

1. Clarify Your Destination and the Roadmap to Get There

Many small business owners are clear on their vision and their roadmap to get there, but unfortunately it is in their head only.

Your people are not mind readers and they must be crystal clear on the vision, roadmap and what they can do to help get there.

Your people must understand the details. 

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 you, the owner and leader of the business, to ensure both clarity and understanding of:

  1. Why: The firm’s (or team’s) purpose
  2. What and When: Your vision, objective and timeline, and
  3. How: The strategy, plans, and priorities to achieve the vision and 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.

If you’re not repeating yourself, you’re not giving your team a chance to learn and internalise what you’re saying. 

If you’re not repeating yourself, you cannot be an effective leader, and you invite the symptoms of dysfunction to join your team.

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?

2. Solve Nagging Business and / or Structural Issues

A big trap for small business owners is to promote a good technical team member to a manager role, on the basis that they believe they are right for the role and will solve many of the tactical issues plaguing the businesses ability to deliver on its client commitments.

The most common is the promotion of a salesperson to sales manager.

This can work OK, but you must have systems in place and provide appropriate training - which is often overlooked.

Typically within six months, the new manager is not getting the job done and the same unsolved, annoying problems continue to undermine business performance. 

Small business owners must not tolerate the wrong person in a critical seat on their team and, as a result, invite the symptoms of dysfunction. 

I’ve watched small business owners and their managers avoid, delay, and even ignore “right people, right seats” problems on their team. 

There’s a steep price to pay for this.

Nagging business and / or structural issues can produce the symptoms of dysfunction on otherwise fully functional teams. 

It’s the small business owner and the other manager’s roles to ensure:

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

In over 30 years of working with small business owners, I’ve never once heard anyone say, “I should have kept him or her, longer.” 

Instead, they always say, “I should have done this 6 months ago!”

Please don't make these costly, dysfunction-inducing, morale-destroying mistakes.

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

3. Make Decisions to Remove Tactical Ambiguities

As we continue to emerge from the global pandemic, many businesses 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 management team and, in the face of the very real “great resignation,” fear around hiring, retention and employment abounds.

This ongoing debate recently produced symptoms of dysfunction on one of my client’s management team: 

  1. Increased political behaviours
  2. Meetings after the team’s meeting
  3. Shorter fuses, and
  4. Some passive-aggressive behaviour. 

The small business owner allowed her team’s debates to continue, and hesitated to make any workforce decisions because of continuing ambiguity around the pandemic, hiring and low unemployment and the business’ own performance.

Her view was that there were too many uncontrolled variables in the “let’s commit to a future workforce strategy” equation. 

I discovered her team, on the other hand, was looking for tactical clarity: “what’s our workforce stance now, and for some period looking forward?”

I advised the small business owner that she could have it both ways: create immediate clarity for her team, while also delaying the ultimate decision about their future workforce strategy. 

She agreed and gave her team crystal clear guidance on a workforce approach for the next 6 months, while reserving the right to make a potentially different decision for the long-term.

Although not everyone on the management team agreed with this call, the decision provided tactical clarity and direction.

Guess what also happened? 

The team’s symptoms of dysfunction disappeared.

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

It’s the small business owner’s role to make decisions that remove tactical ambiguities, which often create symptoms of dysfunction.

Tactical ambiguities reveal themselves as follows:

  1. There are continued debates about the same issue(s)
  2. The team seems to have the same conversations repeatedly over time, and
  3. There’s imperfect or incomplete information preventing the small business owner 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 behaviours 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 small business owner must make decisions, lead by example, and point to what matters most.

Although you may know team dysfunction when you 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 understand.

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 behaviour, each of which is 100% in your control:

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

Your business performance will improve, and your team’s dysfunctional behaviours will disappear virtually overnight!

At its core, our “Business Transformation Program” helps you improve what we believe is the hardest thing in small business - people. That starts with developing yourself as the leader in your business, and one of the managers. Then develop the other managers.