Oftentimes, companies don’t even realize their teams’ behaviors have slipped into dysfunctional territory until they’re knee-deep in the damage.
A company’s culture is paramount to its success — in fact, 84 percent of all employees believe it’s essential to their team’s success, and 60 percent think it even outweighs the team’s strategy or business model.
Less than half, however, treat it as a daily priority.
When that happens, dysfunction emerges. In the absence of a healthy, functional work environment, bad behaviors crop up to fill the void: bullying, neglect, avoidance, absenteeism, reluctance. Despite the prevalence of silos, those negative behaviors aren’t isolated to their original departments: Harvard Business Review found that 75 percent of all cross-functional teams are, well, not functional. Unfortunately, most leaders struggle to identify dysfunction in the first place.
What’s Dysfunction — and What’s Not
Many people relate “dysfunction” to conflict, but conflict can be healthy, appropriate, and necessary. Conflict can resolve underlying problems, help a team make a decision to move forward in a singular direction, and even fuel stronger performance. Conflict handled well, is a way to prevent bigger problems from plaguing a team.
“Dysfunction” is better equated with the behaviors we’ve come to know as “toxic.” Some, however, might be better described as simply futile. In the dysfunction category fall things like information hoarding, yelling, backstabbing, and credit stealing. These are the actions that drive wedges between team members. Dysfunction at the top of the executive chain can be particularly damaging.
I spoke to Curt Cronin, the CEO of consulting firm Ridgeline Partners. He said that at an organization his company worked with, the then-COO was known to employ bullying tactics when extracting output from the team. While he was ostensibly able to point to tangible results, they were most assuredly at the expense of his team and peers. His behavior cost the company in ways it almost didn’t bounce back from — employee retention plummeted, the internal culture turned hostile, and the executive team grew ineffective due to constant infighting.
In the futility category fall things like avoiding procedures in favor of ad hoc solutions, needless reorganizing, failing to manage bad behavior, and giving teams or individuals opposing goals. The latter is so prevalent, in fact, that only 37 percent of employees in a Harris Interactive survey understood their employers’ goals; Stephen Covey likened this to having only four players on an 11-player soccer team aiming for the correct goal. Oftentimes, these types of futile situations crop up out of seemingly innocent actions such as avoiding restrictions or structures that might hamper creativity.
How Does Dysfunction Evade Notice?
Some of these behaviors seem so obvious that it’s hard to imagine a leadership team missing them. Who wouldn’t swiftly and decisively deal with a manager who was bullying his employees? Who wouldn’t create systems to eliminate bottlenecks?
Not all symptoms of dysfunction manifest themselves so clearly. Here are four less obvious signs that your team is grappling with dysfunction — whether or not you realize it.
Turnover is high, but nothing’s changed.
Turnover rates vary by industry, but if your company’s rate is high for your sector — or has recently gone through a steep increase — this is a sign that something’s going on to impact your staff’s satisfaction. If nothing has changed since this high rate of turnover began — and by “nothing,” I mean you haven’t replaced people or made any changes to your approach — you can be sure your leadership team is part of the problem.
- This may be a case for a strong HR team or outside counsel to survey and drive discussions within your leadership team and identify problems without finger-pointing.
There are well-known guidelines for dealing with certain people.
This is typically most common among executives, but if there are particular team members everyone else treats with kid gloves — or gives a wide berth — that’s a sign that dysfunction has taken root and become accepted. This is often communicated via phrases like “You know how Taylor is — don’t take the yelling personally” or “We just didn’t include Chris in the meeting so we could get stuff done.”
- Address the employee directly in the appropriate setting, such as a 1:1 or HR meeting. Provide constructive criticism to help these employees realize their impact, and foster an open dialogue to design a path to resolution.
The overarching goals change often.
While innovation is a big factor in remaining competitive, some companies take this too far and try on goals like they’re going out of style. If your company is simultaneously trying to add three new product lines, create career paths for employees, and restructure the leadership team, rest assured that very little is getting done as your managers and employees simply try to absorb each new goal that’s announced.
- Take a step back, determine what “success” ultimately means to your organization, and map out goals and initiatives to support those efforts. Determine who can help drive this initiative and influence others.
Meetings are considered a big waste of time.
A whopping two-thirds of meetings are considered unnecessary by executives, but does every meeting in your company seem to fall into this category? If people show up to meetings already looking annoyed, bored, or ready to fight, meetings have gone very, very wrong within your company — and the meetings are probably the public face of what else has gone wrong.
- Determine where there are redundancies in your current meeting structure: Do the department heads really require a separate weekly meeting if they’re already meeting as part of a weekly executive team roundtable? Look at consolidated meetings to cover more in an allotted time; determine whether touch-base meetings could actually be communicated via email or other platforms.
Dysfunction is a common, but not an inevitable aspect of company culture. Oftentimes, companies don’t even realize their teams’ behaviors have slipped into dysfunctional territory until they’re knee-deep in the damage. By keeping an eye out for these four less obvious signs, leaders can nip such behavior in the bud — and quickly get their team back to a healthy place.
Originally published in Inc.com on 09/24/18.