When teams turn toxic

Dysfunctional teams kill productivity – but they’re not always easy to spot

Yelling, screaming, backstabbing and passive-aggressive behaviour — these are just a few of the things that come to mind when thinking of dysfunctional teams.

Liane Davey has seen more than her share of these over-the-top behaviours. But devolving into a screaming match is not the only way for a team to become dysfunctional, she says — in fact, the most insidious teams are often the ones that don’t appear dysfunctional at all.

That was the core message of a Strategic Capability Network event in Toronto delivered by Davey, vice-president of team solutions at Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions.

The promise of a great team is that everything works better, faster and easier, says Davey. But, all too often, that is not the reality.

“Unfortunately for many of us, the sad reality of teams is that we spend way too much time in meetings because everyone has to speak and somehow we’ve decided that all people must agree before we move forward. There’s passive-aggressiveness — we nod our heads in the room and we then try and re-open decisions through back-channels. The reality of teams today is either unproductive, uncollaborative or, in many cases, truly toxic to individuals at the organization,” she says.

Just like environmental toxins, sometimes these issues can be immediately obvious, while other times they are difficult to spot.

“A lot of people react when I use the word ‘toxic’ — it’s a very strong word. But I chose it very deliberately because toxic teams are very much like toxins in our environment. There are toxins circling that you can come across that will cause you to keel over immediately. And some of the toxic teams are teams that have absolutely ground their organizations to a halt, and it’s a very, very obvious problem,” she says.

“But there are other toxins in teams that are actually not things that you can see. They’re not things you might even recognize but, slowly and surely over time, they begin to bog down the team, make it less effective — and those are the kinds of things we probably need to be even more aware of.”

Two of the more obvious types of toxic teams are the “crisis junkies” and the “royal rumble” teams, says Davey. A royal rumble type is a team that frequently boils over into loud, confrontational arguments — while a crisis junkie team is exactly what the name implies.

“Crisis junkie teams are teams that can only function in a crisis. And what happens is they start to manufacture crises. But as you start to manufacture crises, they have to be bigger and bigger and more critical crises to actually get people to lift their heads. And then in business as usual, things stagnate — they get nothing done,” she says.

Then, there are the less obvious types of toxic teams — which can often be the most insidious, says Davey.

The “bleeding back” team uses passive-aggressive behaviour, back-channels and backstabbing as its modus operandi. By all indications, this team seems to work really well together in meetings and face-to-face — but don’t turn your back.

“If you go to the water cooler or if you are in the washroom or behind a closed door, you wouldn’t recognize that as the same group of people or the same conversation that you saw in the (meeting) room. Passive-aggressive behaviour. Gossip. Sarcasm. Re-opening of decisions through back-channels. So this is a really scary kind of team. And it’s actually, in surveys that we’ve done, the number one most prevalent team in Canada,” says Davey.

“I’m pretty convinced that this is actually one of the great sources of the Canadian productivity gap.”

Other more subtle toxic teams include the “bobblehead” team — where everyone seems to always be in agreement and there’s no conflict or diversity of thought — and the “spectator” team.

“That’s where people show up, report out and then tune out. ‘I did my bit, this is my marketing report — that stuff, that’s not my stuff. I’m just gonna check my email,’” says Davey.

“Picture the Olympic hockey team. They’re in a really heated game, back and forth… and imagine that, all of a sudden, you’re a defender and you see the puck go down into the other half of the ice — so you pull out your phone and you check your email. It’s stupid when you say it like that… but I bet you’ve done it in a meeting.”

So how do we “teach people to team?” The solutions organizations turn to most often are “tissue issue” counsellors and consultants, or team-building activities, says Davey.

“We do fun, silly, superficial team-building, thinking that it’s going to address the toxins,” she says. “Ziplining, cooking, paintball — whatever else isn’t going to fix the problem.”

Instead, there are two areas teams need to work on to address their issues. One is aligning the team with its business purpose, says Davey.

“What is your organization counting on you to do? And only after you understand that can you build the dynamic that will allow you to execute on it,” she says.

“Once you have this north star, this clarity about ‘this is our unique value’… then you can totally realign meetings, agendas, what you’re spending time on, what you need to take off the agenda. And the most frequent outcome of this is actually to cut meeting times for the team.”

After the team’s purpose has been firmly established, then you can start to figure out where people fit in as individuals and how different personalities will mesh together.

“Create a mindset shift,” says Davey. “Show that difference is not ‘He’s annoying’ — it’s ‘Wow, that’s someone who thinks differently than me. There is my chance to think differently, to think more broadly and, very importantly, to cover my blind spots.’”



Humans are the limiting factor

By Dave Crisp (Organizational Effectiveness)

A Minnesota speech coach is credited with observing “The natural result of communication is misunderstanding.”

Nowhere is this more relevant than when teams gather. I suppose you might also conclude “The natural result of working together is one or two people dominating.”

This points to a fact that is increasingly clear: Human beings are the limiting factor in getting better results — not money, technology or ideas. To improve means overcoming ideas we take for granted as common sense that may not be sensible at all — old saws like “If you want something done right, do it yourself” and “The fastest team is one person.”

It takes work to learn how teams function best and it doesn’t feel natural at all when you first start out. For example, in the past, we promoted the best tech specialists to leadership roles only to find they might be excellent at the tasks but poor at getting others to produce results. That’s why building skills for effective team leadership is essential for organizational effectiveness.

How often have all of us been stuck in team meetings where most attendees weren’t sure there was much point to being there, where heads nodded consistently when the boss spoke but people worked on other things while fellow team members reported on their activities since the last meeting?

Total consensus of all members is rarely achievable except in the broadest terms — “We want better results.” The question of how to get them, whose plan will be followed, who will get what budget allocations and so forth may all cause dissention, with each person truly believing they see the best solution — which just so happens, in most cases, to favour their function.

Internal political power comes into play, the most common situation being the boss dictating, directly or indirectly, what the goal will be and, far worse, how to go after it. We know the boss is part of a larger team and may have to lay out what the goal needs to be. But, ideally, she will also provide a compelling rationale that team members can feel good about — a noble purpose.

Instead, our meetings tend to be filled with the boss giving orders, only to have executives huddling in the hallway afterward, discussing why they would never work. The presenter’s comment I liked best was about such gossip — that you can’t stop it but need to move toward getting it on the table during the team meetings. I’ve been there for sure — sometimes trying, rarely succeeding.

The problem was, and still is, no one wanted to seem negative or get a reputation as the person who always objects, points out inconvenient flaws or drags her feet. Those can be career-limiting moves, so most would nod agreement and let time prove their silent doubts right. There were always ways to shift the blame for a lack of results toward someone else on the team. The notion of “cover your ass” still thrives in many organizations.

We look to the leader to set the tone and we can be pretty sure from research that fewer than 20 per cent of leaders are skilled at drawing out the problems, not submerging them. Everyone who trains and promotes leaders needs to act on this problem, now — or teams will continue to flounder.

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.balance-and-results.com.

The counterculture of toxic teams

By Trish Maguire (Leadership in Action)

Leaders need to start “teaching people to team.” That was one of the messages Liane Davey, vice-president of Knightsbridge Leadership Solutions, brought to the table.

Why should leaders heed her advice? Because although teams are central to any organization’s continued success, she reveals that a counterculture of toxic teams is growing.

This is a thought-provoking observation for some leaders and likely distressing for others, especially those who have invested significantly in team-building workshops. Traditional thinking has always supported the notion that effective teams solve more complex problems, make better decisions, encourage greater creativity, increase skills and build commitment. However, even if you believe teams are a better way of doing business, the truth is old beliefs and structures are definitely not meeting the needs or demands of the workplace. Remember the “forming, storming, norming and performing” model? Well, it just isn’t that simple anymore.

The reality check from Davey is it’s time to change our thinking since the old team-building models are just not working. As she points out, whether we put a man on the moon or we pick up our morning Egg McMuffin, it took a team to make it happen. Why should the notion of toxic teams send out alarm bells for every leader? Because if toxic teams are increasingly the norm, what does that do for corporate Canada’s productivity and long-term prosperity?

Would it surprise you to know that in 2012, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development released a landmark study showing Toronto’s productivity between 2000 and 2010 declined by about five per cent? Toronto was the lowest for North America, which included Montreal, Calgary and Vancouver. Furthermore, in a recent Toronto Star article, Roger Martin, academic director at Rotman’s Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto, advocated that if Toronto wants to maintain growth and increase growth in living standards, Canadian companies must increase productivity.

Even more attention-grabbing is the critical link Martin draws between innovation and productivity. He argues that if Canadian companies do not promote innovation, Toronto’s productivity can only get worse — which means no growth, lower living standards and a decline in prosperity.

What do leaders need to do to build work environments where teams are encouraged to be creative, innovative and take risks? What do leaders need to start doing differently to turn the toxic team syndrome around? In listening to Davey’s eye-opening insights, I was reminded of Margaret Heffernan’s arguments in Willful Blindness: Why We
Ignore the Obvious at our Peril. After many years of examining this phenomenon, Heffernan revealed the biggest threats and dangers leaders face are the ones they don’t see — and it’s not because they’re top-secret or unnoticeable.

Knowing that meaningful team-building does not happen on its own, my question for all leaders is: What will you start doing differently to confront and resolve the issue of toxic teams in your organization?

Trish Maguire is a commentator for SCNetwork on leadership in action and founding principal of Synergyx Solutions in Nobleton, Ont., focused on high-potential leadership development coaching. She has held senior leadership roles in HR and OD in education, manufacturing and entrepreneurial firms. She can be reached at [email protected].

Assumptions about teams often wrong

By Karen Gorsline (Strategic Capability)

Modern, complex businesses routinely use teams to support innovation and productivity. So why does that reliance on teams often go wrong and lead to a lack of innovation and productivity, combined with an increase in frustration and time wasted?

Liane Davey outlined five traits of toxic teams — crisis junkies, egos, passive-aggressive, bobblehead agreement and spectator participants.

Interestingly, the first step she identified in the process of addressing toxic teams had nothing to do with behaviour. Her process begins with putting the team into its business context. This prompted me to reflect on our assumptions about teams and first principles.

Teams are a modern concept

Teams aren’t actually a modern idea — people have functioned as teams, informally or formally, since the beginning of time. Humans collaborated as hunter-gatherers, as farmers and in small communities where various individuals had different skills and expertise. Large organizations are diverse in terms of functions, expertise, products, consumers, geography and reporting structures. They rely on teams to cross these boundaries and deliver results that factor in a variety of perspectives.

Because of a large organization’s size, there is a lack of familiarity with its diverse parts and little ongoing communication or history between functions. With the scale issue, plus a haste to get to work or get going on a project, teams often flounder or do not realize their potential.

Purpose of a team is obvious

An Amish barn-raising is a classic example of a team with a clear purpose, plan and well-understood roles. Project teams usually have some type of charter that outlines the details of the project and addresses specific roles and relationships.

They often have detailed timelines, tracking documents and checkpoints, but rarely do they explore how the team will collaborate and co-create to get full value out of forming a team versus a controlled network of individual contributors.

Many teams are formed and given an ill-defined task with no real insights on why they are doing what they have been mandated to do. They know they need to deliver something by a certain date, within a specified budget and with defined resources. It’s for that reason many of the most exciting teams are those that self-form.

These “skunk works” deliver because they have a clear, shared purpose and a commitment to playing a role and contributing. Google has tapped into this open team concept with increased engagement and potential new products as a result.

Teams are a good thing

Anyone who has worked on a team where there was energy, learning, colleagues who collaborated to deliver their own contribution and insights to improve others’ contributions, and the team output exceeded the sum of the parts, knows how good a team can be.

More of us have experienced teams that are functional, with everyone doing his part, but people were never sure why they needed to spend time in meetings together when it really didn’t impact the outcome.

Then there are the teams that have the toxic behaviours Davey identified, which are often frustrating, dysfunctional and demoralizing. Her description and process for fixing these teams is practical but requires organizations to be more deliberate in terms of when and how teams are formed and to embed practices in their culture that support the establishment and operation of teams.

While there is the temptation to throw a group of people together for almost any activity, organizations need to be more mindful of situations where forming a team makes sense and where it does not. They also need to make sure team members understand why they are a team, not just individual contributors, and what they will co-create together. Finally, organizations that rely on teams should ensure their culture actively supports effective team practices.

Karen Gorsline is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on strategic capability and leads HR Initiatives, a consulting practice focused on facilitation and tailored HR initiatives. Toronto-based, she has taught HR planning, held senior roles in strategy and policy, managed a large decentralized HR function and directed a small business. She can be reached at [email protected].

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