Toxins – Key Indicators of Team Dysfunction


Teams continue to be the backbone of organizations and organizations count on teams for their productivity and efficiency. Yet, Patrick Lencioni’s “5 Dysfunctions of a Team” remains a top business best seller for a reason. While getting along with members of your functional team is vitally important, increasingly getting along with those your team is interdependent upon to get work done is becoming even more important.

A recent Corporate Executive Board Survey found that 60%-70% of employees work in teams with cross-functional or external participants. The survey of 23,000 employees found that employees need to collaborate with at least ten people a day to get their jobs done! This is easier said than done in today’s high-pressure, siloed organizations with ever changing agendas and politics at play.

What destroys teams and their abilities to connect with one another? We have found there are at least 6 key “toxic” behaviors that can and do undermine and prevent team(s) from the collaborative mindset needed to get the job done:

  • Blaming Others – finger pointing is pervasive on a majority of teams we work with, leading to dysfunction and lack of responsibility. CYA becomes the rule of the day, so taking accountability and moving decisions and action forward get stymied.
  • Defensiveness– deflecting responsibility or shifting blame runs rampant on the teams with the poorest results. Defensiveness and blame tend to go hand in hand leading to a desire to be “right” versus identifying the true problems and the solutions necessary to correct the issue together.
  • Gossip – leading to triangulation. Talking about each other behind team member’s backs often leads to a political atmosphere akin to high school. Who is getting special treatment, who does the boss like best, who blew this weeks meeting or sales results, or who is getting the next big role becomes more important than working together as a team. Power struggles prevail and the desire to be “in the know” becomes a way to keep ahead of the curve.
  • Ignoring Others – cutting others off or leaving team members out of the loop for increased power, or withholding information can lead to lower productivity, confusion and frustration. Sometimes this is a result of an unsettled conflict, rivalry or a scheme to undermine a fellow team member.
  • Bullying – intimidating others with words, actions or demeanor.  We worked with a leader once who was known to have a “death stare”. Her people knew when she was disappointed with something they said in a meeting and they also knew she was going to let them have it afterwards. 
  • Under-delivering – a purposeful lack of effort beyond the minimum. This “we did our part” mindset creates an environment where cross-functional teams do the least amount to get by or sit by passively when they see others need help. This can also include pawning work off on others and taking the credit!

Take the example of a team we recently worked with who wrestled with gossip and triangulation. The leader of this team ran a large division struggling to turn the business around. The leader tended to work best by developing one-on-one relationships versus building alignment and agreements with the entire team of cross-functional leaders. This propensity led team members to send him emails telling him what others on the team were doing right or wrong to hurt or help the team. Because he had condoned this gossiping and tattling for so long, he felt powerless to address it head on without his team members feeling betrayed. Once he realized he was creating the environment for toxic behavior in his organization, we worked with him to build a new agreement with all his cross-functional partners to counteract this unproductive behavior. He was able to set a new direction and accountability among team members that focused on going directly to others to solve problems before involving him.

We have come to realize that all teams have some form of toxic behaviors that creep into their interactions with others. In team development workshops, we ask teams to share with us how these toxins show up on their teams. Ironically, it ends up being one of their favorite exercises of the day because they realize to name and acknowledge the role you play with toxic interactions is really what is most needed in order to change it.

Which of these toxins show up on your team and stops you and your cross-functional teams from high-functioning performance? How productive might your team be without these behaviors? And, what will you do to stop these toxins from living on your team, manage team dysfunction and create a high-functioning team?