Solving Team Dysfunction and Building Leadership Capacity

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To support a Director and her management team in understanding the dynamics of their team’s dysfunction and begin the process of re-building trust and creating team cohesion while formulating a strategy for high team performance in an environment of rapid change and upheaval.  To add pressure to the situation, this team was part of a large and highly visible government agency that was at a very vulnerable point in its history and this team had direct impact on how the agency was being perceived by its customers.


We met with the Director of a management team who were struggling within a traditional hierarchical structure of leadership.  Not only had the team experienced the turnover of its Director several times over a short period, but several members felt that one of the leadership hiring decisions was a poor one and they harboured some resentment as a result.  Moreover, under one of the previous directors, the team had undergone change to its organizational structure and this had been carried out in a way that damaged trust.  As well, while there had been a history of minor team conflict within one of the departments, this conflict was now manifesting in bottlenecks and open conflict throughout the division.  

This situation was able to fester because the root of the problem was systemic and no one was really communicating the extent of the problem to the new Director, though the Director was beginning to see increasing evidence of the problem lurking under the surface. With critical change coming that would require a highly functional team with accountability and transparency, the director realized that this problem could not go unchecked and determined that some sort of team intervention was necessary. 


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To better define the problem and the experience of each team member, we first conducted a needs analysis. The needs analysis involved individually interviewing the Director and each of her team members using a Narrative 360 approach. We learned about the strengths within the unit, the current challenges managers were experiencing, and what the possibilities for improvement might be.  

Our intention was that the interviews give people the opportunity to release pent up emotions, if needed, by providing a confidential venue to share and vent. We also asked each team member for their input on possible solutions which helped set the tone for the next phase of our engagement and begin to cultivate a sense of shared and individual accountability, something we sensed had been eroded.  

Our findings confirmed the Director’s gut feelings, that there was systemic conflict and that this was beginning to manifest in unsatisfactory service delivery.  The Director was surprised by the extent of the frustration across the team and we were able to highlight some specific priorities that would need to be addressed.  There was a general feeling that leadership was not holding team members accountable for performance, nor addressing the causes of decreased productivity and team dysfunction.  People were frustrated and blaming each other as they felt personally disempowered.  They themselves were deeply concerned over the eroding quality of service delivery.

We concluded that a team retreat would be the best first step to help the team address their challenges and begin to co-create a new dynamic and set of shared strategies.


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Delaney Tosh and her co-facilitator designed the retreat in collaboration with the Director and had three goals in mind.  First, we realized that with the erosion of trust within the team, our first goal was to create a safe space for constructive dialogue.  Our second goal was to have the team members understand both the systemic nature of their challenges and their accountability for their own role in the system.  The third goal was to hold the team accountable for their shared capacity for building on their strengths and co-creating the working environment they all desired.

For the retreat, we drew upon three models and tools; specifically, Patrick Lencioni’s ‘Five Dysfunctions of a Team’ (which we reframed as ‘Five Factors of High-Functioning Teams’ so as to orient the management team towards positive possibility rather than seeing themselves as dysfunctional), the Organization and Relationship Systems Coaching (ORSC) model, and appreciative inquiry to encourage team members to acknowledge the team’s strengths and what the members wished to call forth in each other. 

We used a facilitative approach allowing the team to dialogue about what was really happening, to draw out understanding of the causes and shared accountabilities, and to acknowledge each other and their Director for the strengths that could be built upon to bring about changes in their capacity as a management team.  


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The team saw that the Director was, in fact, addressing the challenges.

The Director recognized the team’s need for her to be more open about how she was taking accountability for the skills she needed to develop to support trust and a high-functioning culture.

The team members accepted shared responsibility for their challenges and came to an understanding of their individual roles in supporting change.

The team suggested and decided that they needed a team charter and agreed to have their own retreat to co-create it. 

The team identified other key actions to support team productivity and cohesion, including gaining clarity on roles and responsibilities.

Finally, we believed there was the risk that trust would be further eroded if the agreed upon action plan wasn’t seen to be implemented.  Therefore, we provided individual leadership coaching to the Director and team members over the course of several months to help maintain momentum.  For the Director, we focused on trust-building, including how to enhance communication, how to call forth commitment and accountability in each team member, and how to show leadership accountability in action. Coaching for team members focused on supporting them in aligning with the organizational vision, prioritizing core goals, and enhancing team communication.  


Members of the management team and the Director reported increased collaboration across departments, and an increase in team members identifying challenges and taking responsibility for proposing solutions to their Director rather than holding the Director responsible for everything.  It was also reported that there was a decrease in conflict across departments.  While a certain amount of struggle continued between some members of the management team, this was eventually solved by identifying that the underlying organizational structure within their unit was in part supporting conflict and by taking steps to change the responsibilities of the affected team members.