Leading through a crisis – tip five – dysfunctional team members

dysfunctional teamIn this article, Nicki Rowland discusses the importance of dealing with ‘dysfunctional’ team members and implementing methods to fully engage each team member.

‘Dysfunctional’ – what does this mean in terms of team members?

Well, the hard work of explaining this has been done by American team management guru, Patrick Lencioni, in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

Lencioni’s model is often shown as a pyramid of five layers, ascending from Absence of Trust, at the base, to Fear of Conflict, Lack of Commitment, Avoidance of Accountability to Inattention to Results at the top.

Much like when stacking a multi-tiered wedding cake, there are certain principles that need to be followed to avoid slippage and ensure a solid structure. Let us explore the layers in more detail.

Dysfunction one: absence of trust

Previously, as a practice owner, I learned that you build trust from finding courage within yourself.

As leaders, we sometimes feel that we need to be ‘The Oracle’, that is, be all knowing and appear totally resilient to challenges facing us in the workplace.

Of course, team members need a strong and resourceful leader. But they also need to see, hear and feel your vulnerability. Being open and transparent about your strengths and weaknesses takes resolve but also allows others to recognise your humanity too.

Unrestricted, honest conversations then happen more readily and trust builds as a result of shared experiences, following through on tasks and credibility. Maintaining trust depends on robust communication, concrete information and respect.

In practice, regular staff meetings, one-to-ones with team members and an ‘open door’ policy are essential elements for building trust. 

Trust is the foundation for a thriving, productive culture in your practice. It is the ‘dowl’ in your cake. Dowls are a must for supporting a tiered cake and are usually plastic rods that run through the tiers to secure them in place and prevent the sugar paste from cracking.

Likewise, trust is the steel ‘construction column’ running through your business that secures your ‘organisational structure’.

Dysfunction two: fear of conflict

I have observed for myself that teams who lack trust are incapable of having discussions about important issues in practice for fear of conflict and reprisals.

This can result in back-stabbing and gossip mongering behind the scenes. In a setting where team members do not openly air their opinions, poor decision-making is also a consequence.

Therefore, it is essential to recognise that once you establish trust, you may require ‘positive’ conflict in meetings and discussions to achieve a constructive outcome.

Part of handling conflict is to govern the uneasiness in the room. To encourage people to have their say in an orchestrated way. When individuals go off track, reel them in. When others become belligerent, take control. Encourage less assertive people to speak up. Ensure that this tier of your cake does not ‘sink in the middle’.

Establishing ground rules in practice meetings can guide the conversation. Turn the ‘oven heat’ up or down and be sure that the end result is ‘perfectly risen’. 

The concept of positive conflict does not necessarily mean the conflict itself is good. Rather, it means that gains can be made from the differences in two people’s opinions.

Formerly frustrated co-workers can become empowered and find strength in their own abilities when conflict in the workplace is managed properly. Here are some other benefits to positive conflict in the workplace:

Sparks innovation 

Positive conflict often requires us to step outside of our comfort zone and, in doing so, can unlock new or dormant ideas.

Disputes can challenge the status quo and inspires internal growth within individuals as well as in your business. Have you ever come across an ‘anti-gravity’ cake? If not, Google them. They are an amazing idea. I wonder how much positive conflict was involved in developing this revolutionary concept?

Builds stronger bonds 

Disagreeing at work does not have to be counter-productive and ruin a good relationship. In fact, with solid conflict resolution procedures, warring individuals can begin to empathise with each other and achieve a great outcome together.

Who would have thought that cream cheese and icing sugar could ever work together?

Improves job satisfaction 

When disagreements are handled effectively rather than punitively, employees can start to recognise that they have a voice in your practice.

When managers start to listen and implement employees’ ideas, resentments and frustrations evaporate and are replaced by empowerment and autonomy. Great results can ensue.

I wonder how many barriers had to be broken down by the product team when developing the concept of a ‘salted’ caramel cake? I’m sure that job satisfaction must have been at an all-time high when it finally went to the taste panel.

Dysfunction three: lack of commitment

Without some level of conflict, it is a challenge to get team members to commit to decisions and specific ways of working. This produces a working environment where uncertainty prevails.

Resentment can then kick in when employees, particularly your star players, see other co-workers dodging their responsibilities and not being hauled up for it. As leaders, we must give clear directions and be firm, fair and consistent in our approach.

It is also crucial to provide clarity and closure at the end of a meeting. Ensure all team members are in agreement with a course of action. Make sure that they are committed to their role in achieving outcomes. You may have to even write an action plan down.

Ask team members to sign off their agreement to achieving actions in a given time frame to gain absolute commitment. Just as when making a complex cake, we need to follow a recipe to make sure we are putting the correct ingredients into the mix and baking it at the right temperature for the right amount time. Otherwise, we might end up with a complete ‘cake fail’.

Dysfunction four: avoidance of accountability

When individual team members do not commit to an action plan, even the most focused and motivated employees can fail to achieve their objectives. They think: ‘Why should I always do all the work when others get away with it?’

This lack of commitment is counterproductive to the overall good of the team. So face accountability head on. Be accountable for accountability.

The main difference between responsibility and accountability is that you can share responsibility while with accountability, you cannot.

Being accountable not only means being responsible for something but also ultimately being answerable for your actions. For example, you may be responsible for stock control but become accountable (answerable) if supplies run out.

Set expectations for your team and communicate goals and standards of behaviour on a regular basis.

If you don’t meet standards and outcomes then be consistent in your management of under-performance. Therefore, everyone knows what to expect.

As with a filling in a cake, you would not keep using one that is too thin. One that lets ‘the side down’. You would keep reworking the mixture until you achieve a consistency that meets your expectations and does its job well. 

Dysfunction five: inattention to results

Individual team members naturally tend to put their own needs ahead of those of their colleagues.

For example, they may prioritise their career development and personal recognition before shared team achievements. This human default can be greatly emphasised during a crisis.

If individuals are not held accountable for their role within the bigger practice picture, then the team may become disjointed and the tiers of your cake drift apart.

Without unity, a team can lose direction and the practice ultimately suffers. SMART objectives within your business plan are ideal for ensuring that everyone is laser-focused. It ensures that they are clear about how to manoeuvre the final tier of your cake into place.   


This article was commissioned for Private Dentistry magazine. You can read the latest issue of Private Dentistry magazine here.

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